Accepted Paper:

Routes of Red Coral. Intercontinental Trade and the Staging of Royal Power in the Kingdom of Benin since the late 15th century  


Roberto Zaugg (Université de Lausanne)

Paper short abstract:

By focusing on the trade of Mediterranean coral beads to Atlantic Africa and the symbolic meanings associated to these objects in the Kingdom of Benin, this paper explores royal courts as laboratories of cosmopolite entanglements and cultural appropriations.

Paper long abstract:

Starting in the 15th century, the emergence of intercontinental economic exchanges between European companies and African elites as well as the consolidation of the continent's coastal regions as contact zones impacted on the material cultures and the patterns of elite consumption of Atlantic Africa. As in other parts of the world, royal courts were laboratories of the entangled process of aesthetic change brought about by the intensification of global trade: as physically circumscribed spaces where political power is staged through formalised ceremonial codes and is associated with the display of artefacts embodying wealth and distinction, they constitute significant objects to study cross-cultural exchanges.

My paper will explore this field by focussing on the trade of red coral beads to Atlantic Africa and on the transformative appropriation of these objects at the court of Benin. In the Euro-Mediterranean space, coral had been used for centuries to make protective amulets, devotional objects (Christian rosaries, Jewish Torah pointers, Islamic misbaha), artistic artefacts and even medicines. And - since antiquity - it had been exported to various Asian regions. In many aspects, coral was already a multi-layered thing when Portuguese vessels started trading it to Atlantic Africa, where (other kinds of) beads often already held important symbolic functions and where the imported red beads were charged with new meanings. Mediterranean coral acquired a particularly prominent position in the Kingdom of Benin, where it was associated with the monarch (Oba) and his dignitaries and where it became an object of sumptuary norms, mythological traditions, ritual practices and art.

Panel P134
Urban scenographies of political power in Africa before 1900 (double panel)