African Slave Trade c.1780s: Selected Perspectives from an African & a Briton

Map of Cross River Region -- West Africa

From July to October in 1786, two men, one African and the other British, were both physically present in Old Calabar, a cluster of Efik speaking communities in the Cross River region of West Africa (now part of present day Nigeria). What they had in common was that both were involved in the African slave trade with the New World. Each left a paper trail of some of their activities during this period.  The African, Antera Duke, left a diary of his activities over the period from January 18, 1785 to January 31, 1788.  Correspondence consisting of 40 letters written between May 19, 1786 and June 14, 1791 and a journal covering the period from May 1789–October 1790 were written by the Briton, James Irving. Coincidentally, these periods represent the peak of the slave trade centered at Old Calabar.1  While none of these writings mentions the other person, each of them was very likely to have been aware of the other person.  Both were in position of prominence in the Old Calabar slave trade during that period from July to October in 1786.  Irving was surgeon of his ship, the June, described as the second most position after that of the ship’s captain because of the need to minimize the mortality of the crew and enslaved cargo.  A ship’s surgeon was also often delegated to the role of the intermediary to purchase slaves from the African slave traders who arranged for purchase and transfer of slaves from the interior to the port areas.2  Antera Duke was one of the three power brokers in Old Calabar, and his family was among the most prominent African slave traders in Old Calabar.3  For example, in the period July 1769 to January 1770, his family sold 85 slaves to the Liverpool ship Dobson, representing 15% of the ship’s slave cargo (2nd highest percentage).4  So it's not hard to accept that they may have actually transacted business together.  Besides comparing the experiences of these two slave traders and providing an overview of the transatlantic slave trade, this research project will address the following questions:

  • Did the transatlantic slave trade create commonalities amongst British and African slave traders?
  • If so, were the factors creating such commonalities mainly economic, cultural or something else?
  • Did such factors change over time?
  • Are there unique circumstances that led to Antera Duke becoming the only known African slave trader diarist?


1 Behrendt, et al, The Diary of Andera Duke, Page 51, Figure 2.1

2 Schwarz, Slave Captain : The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade, Page 6

3 Behrendt, et al, The Diary of Andera Duke, Page 21

4 Behrendt, et al, The Diary of Andera Duke, Page 25, Table 1.2