Carnelian Beads on Transkei Beaches

Agate Terrace is part of  Port St Johns’ northern beach, Long Beach, on the eastern side of the Umzimvubu River, Wild Coast, Transkei, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Why the name? What is hidden under the sands of this beach?

Agate Terrace Beach, Port St Johns

Agate is pronounced in the common English manner, as in the pretty striped stone which sometimes gets used for jewelry. It is not pronounced with an African inflection: A-gar- ti, as many visitors do, much to the amusement of locals. Naturally, the locals have no clue where Agarti is, which frustrates the visitors.

For the best part of the 1900s, carnelian beads would occasionally be found on this beach. These pretty red and russet beads were mis-named agate beads. Agate is a similar banded pretty stone, but it is more common than carnelian. Note: cornelian is an alternative spelling, used more commonly in Britain.

Left: an ancient necklace of carnelian and agate beads. Centre: Carnelian beads. Right: Red agate.

Carnelian beads date back 5000 years and have been used by Indians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Bulgars and others. They were carried back from India by Portuguese ships, both for sale at home, and to be used to trade with in West Africa.

Potuguese trade routes

How did they  get on to a remote Wild Coast Beach? There are other beaches where carnelian beads have been found; Bead Beach at Morgan Bay probably being the most well known. Those beads are known to have come from the San Espirito which was wrecked there in 1608. The beads found near Plettenberg Bay come from the Sao Goncalo wrecked there in 1630. Likewise, the beads found at Msikaba north of Port St Johns came from the Sao Bento wrecked there 1554. All the above areas also produced shards of Ming china.

Plettenberg Bay, Western Cape, South Africa.

There is no record of a wreck at Agate Terrace. The closest mishap was at the Umzimvubu River Mouth, where the Nossa Senhorita de Belem ran into trouble in 1635. She couldn’t be repaired and the crew and passengers camped out in what is now Port St Johns, and built themselves new ships. Just about everything was salvaged from the floundered ship.

Left: A Portuguese Caravel. Right: The Umzimvubu River at Port St Johns

Agate Terrace is about 4km away from the river mouth, how did carnelian beads get there? No Ming pottery fragments have been found in this area either. Did they fall from a survivor’s pocket? Or is there an unaccounted for wreck under the dunes?


British Museum of History

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By Kathryn Costello

I travel. I read. I get up to mischief. I write about what I have been up to. I also have fun writing down the stories that I told my daughter when she was little about a dolphin named Michaela. I am a tourism consultant. Owning and managing a successful guesthouse, working for tourism organizations and travelling has given me a lot of insight about what makes a tourism orientated business successful.

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