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Beads tell Mozambican island's history

Fabled Ilha de Mozambique was an Indian Ocean trading hub. The currency was beads.

ILHA DE MOZAMBIQUE, Mozambique — The sun arcs down on to the white beach and Jackson Minitu squints through the glare with a practiced eye. He walks hunched over, stopping now and again to reach down into the soft sand.

“Now I found another one, a blue one,” he says with satisfaction, digging lightly near the broken coral heads that pop up through the white sand. “This place is a very fun place because I find different beads.” He says with a smile lighting up his face.

Minitu is digging for ancient trade beads found in the sand in this remote island (see map below) and he is finding a lot of them.

The Island of Mozambique, called in Portuguese, Ilha De Mozambique, or simply, Ilha, has been at the center of trade, politics and nation building in southern Africa for at least a thousand years. Glass and ceramic beads were the legal tender of this trading system, and they were exchanged for gold, ivory and slaves.

When Vasco Da Gama arrived at the island in 1498 he started a long period of Portuguese influence and occupation. Soon after his arrival and the Portuguese settlement that followed, the oldest European-made building in southern Africa, the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, was built in 1522. The country of Mozambique gets its name from the island which in turn got its name from Moussa Al Bigi, an Arab trader who lived there, and dealt in beads and many other trade goods.