Antera Duke’s Diary & James Irving’s Letters and Journal

Letter 3 from James Irving to his wife

Duke’s diary, consisting of 10,510 words written over the three year period from January 18, 1785 to January 31, 1788, is an important source documenting the history of Old Calabar.  It was handwritten in Pidgin English without punctuation; it is estimated that Duke had a working vocabulary of 400 English words.8  The Duke diary was found in the records of an Edinburgh church by a clerk in 1907 who turned over the manuscript to Reverend Arthur W. Wilkie.  Reverend Wilkie transcribed by hand extensive extracts from the original diary, and returned it to the church.  Sometime during World War II that original manuscript was lost.  Subsequently, two other versions of the diary, based on the Reverend"s transcription, were translated into modern English and then published.  The most recent version was used in the preparation of these materials. 

Duke and the other residents of the town engaged primarily in commercial transactions selling slaves and other commodities (both animal and agricultural products).  In return, they receive a wide range of goods, but generally not money or precious metal.  Examples of goods include textiles, firearms, metals, beads, gunpowder, salt and barrels of alcohol.9  

There are also many references in his diary to local political, legal and religious practices in the time when it was written.  A typical entry recites him going to Aqua (“Big”) Landing to meet particular folks, both African and European, an area where community business was ordinarily transacted.  Here’s an example in the original Pidgen English text from March 12, 1785: 

“about 6 a m in aqua Landing with great rain morning so I go down for see Duke I & Ewien in his plaver house soon wee have Willy Honesty to meet for Duk with all genllmen for new ship Captin plaver so wee writ to his for com ashor so his say will not com ashor & wee 3 go on bord his for ask him and his answer be & say he will not stay for us River soon that wee com ashor and till all genllmen so the say verry well may go way his plase to go.” 

Irving left a collection of 40 letters over the period from May 19, 1786 and June 14, 1791 and a journal covering the period from May 1789 to October 1790 when he was captured and held for ransome after his ship was wreaked on the Coast of the Barbary.  Half of these letters were personal sent by him to his wife (Mary Irving), 11 were sent to various government officials about his detainment, three were sent to his parents, and the rest were letters authored by others.  His letters to his wife are generally about his personal situation.  Below is an example of one of his letters: 

Letter 3: 22 November 1786. James Irving in Barbados to Mary Irving in Liverpool.  

“My Dearest Mary: With extatic pleasure am I again enabled to address you from a Christian Country. I arrived off this place this morning after a passage of 46 Days. A Boat hath just come off with the letters, so that we proceed directly for Tobago where we expect to sell our Cargo. God Almighty bless you my Dear Girl for your kind letter. I also received George’s. I am hurried[?] beyond Measure. Pardon my brevity as I shall write on my Arrival. God protect you, my Compliments to everyone. Adieu Jas. Irving Captain Fargerer and fellow Officers are all well.  Again adieu.  Carlisle Bay, Barbados 22 November 1786. “We have been all healthy and buried 48 slaves.” 

There is, however, an interest observation about the slave trade in a letter dated  

December 2, 1786 to his wife while he is in Tobago: 

“I’m nearly Wearied of this Unnatural Accursed trade, and think (if no change of Station takes place) when convenience suits of adopting some other mode of Life, Altho ugh I’m fully sensible and aware of the difficultys Attending any new undertaking, yet I will at least look around me.” 

Further misgivings about participating in slaving trading are not found in the other Irving writings.  And none are found in the Duke diary extracts. 

Irving’s editor argues that the Irving writing are informative for a number of reasons. The surgeon was the second most important person on the ship (after the captain) because of the need to minimize mortality of the crew and the transported slaves.  Disease on board of ships would have accounted for high levels of death in some cases.  His journal references when he was shipwrecked off the coast of Morocco, captured and sold into slavery, and reveals his emotional and psychological response to the period spent in captivity in Morocco.  While thousands of others experienced enslavement by Muslim captors in North Africa, Irving’s account is one of only fifteen substantial narratives by Britons who were held captive there.  Irving’s writings enables an exploration of how a slave trader reacted to his own enslavement and whether it altered his perspectives on the transatlantic slave trade.  But, other than the passing noted above, there is no evidence of him regretting to be in the slave trade business.  In fact, within a month of returning home from captivity, he went on his final slave trade voyage where he died at sea.

These writings do establish that Duke and Irving had at least one thing in common.  During the periods covered in these writings, the primary occupation of both Duke and Irving was as an intermediary in the purchase of slaves in West Africa for sale in the Caribbean Islands in the New World.  Unfortunately, their individual writings don’t add much to the historiography of slave trade; being mostly a candid exposition of their daily lives—a record of what the authors were doing at the time of each writing without any meaningful recollection of context or motivation.  

The editor for the Irving texts make this observation: “Irving’s letters add little to what is already known about the organization and business practices of the slave trade. The strength of Irving’s material lies rather in what it reveals of the contemporary attitudes and values that sustained this ‘most devastatingly evil system’ in the eighteenth century.”   The editors of the Duke diary conclude that “The diary, the most extensive Efik-authored writing, anchors local political, legal, and religious traditions in time,”12  but cautions that “Wilkie’s transcription is a partial record, thus bring into question the representativeness of his selected passages”.13

As for the broader questions about the African slave trade, the editors of the Duke and Irving materials each provide extensive annotation materials relating to African slave trade practices and the historiography about West Africa, some of which will be discussed in the next section.


8 Schwarz, Slave Captain : The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade, Page 3

9 Behrendt, et al, The Diary of Andera Duke, Pages 44-45

10 Schwarz, Slave Captain : The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade, Page 30-31

11 Schwarz, Slave Captain : The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade, Page 4

12 Behrendt, et al, The Diary of Andera Duke, Page 44

13 Behrendt, et al, The Diary of Andera Duke, Page 120