Did the transatlantic slave trade create commonalities amongst British and African slave traders? 

Beyond the obvious, that both Africans and Britons participated in the West African slave trade, there are other commonalities between them in the 1780s: 

  1. Participation in the African slave trade was lucrative and voluntary for both African and British slave traders; but not for African slaves. 

  2. Their transatlantic slave trade dealt with African slaves sourced primarily from West Africa outside the coastal areas. 

  3. African slaves were sold almost exclusively in the New World. 

  4. English was a common language in which many trade-related activities were conducted amongst the two groups (more about that below).   

  5. As between the British and Africans slave traders, British slave traders and Colonial slave purchasers, and also among African sellers and purchasers, payment for the purchase of slaves was rarely in currency; goods and other items of value were mostly exchanged for slave purchases and sales.  Transactions in currency were mainly conducted only in Britain. 

If so, were the factors creating such commonalities mainly economic, cultural or something else? 

The African Slave trade in the Atlantic World was shaped by a combination of economic, cultural, political, scientific and geographical factors, and not dominated by any one factor.  While a major motivation was monetary, there were also cultural influences at work here.  Farming practices for sugar and tobacco (primary New World crops at the subject time) were compatible with African slave labor who were accustomed to both farming and hot climates.  There is also an argument that free labor particpants would not work in sugar refining process because of the oppressive hot and dangerous work environment.30  Bernard Bailyn argues that, in the long run, slave labor is cheaper than free labor only because the acquisition costs to acquire slaves require amortization over a long time in order to breakeven and make a profit.31 

In further support of this proposition, one of leading commentators in this field of study, David Eltis, argues that if economic forces alone prevailed, then white slavery would have been revived because it would have been cheaper to transport vagabonds, criminal and prisoners of war from England, rather than to sail to Africa to purchase slaves and then transport them to Americas; another prominent scholar, David Brion Davis, agrees with this assessment.32  Both Eltis and Davis also agree that racism played a part in the African slave trade acceptance.  After all, there is no example of a European ever subjecting other Europeans to slavery subsequent to the Middle Ages.33 

Certainly from cultural perspective, Africans demonstrated no qualms about slave trading; there was a long history of slavery in Africa before the transatlantic slave trade commenced.34  There are also examples of Africans owning white European slaves.35  And there were also examples of women African slave traders.36  Moreover, African participation in the slave trade was not coerced.  Based on his examination of military and political relations between Africans and Europeans, John Thornton concludes that Africans controlled the nature of their interactions with Europeans because the Europeans did not have sufficient military power to force Africans to participate in any trading, let alone slave trading.37  Similarly, few African states were strong enough to prevent opportunistic African kings, warlords and merchants from profiting from low cost of capture of potential slaves.  An interesting question beyond the scope of this project: why didn’t the British impressed domestic laborers to work in the Americas; particularly since they were certainly willing to do so to provide crews for their navy.  Two other areas of investigation that could supplement this material would be to compare East and West African slave trading practices and to examine the treatment of Africans by their native captors before being sold to Europeans. 

Two other non-economic factors contributed to the development of the transatlantic slave trade; one geographical and the other biological.  First, favorable trade winds and current circulation patterns in Atlantic Ocean were especially conductive to sailing over the three legs of the traditional slave trade process; thus lowering the costs of these endeavors.38   And second, the decimation of indigenous slave labor by European diseases reduced the supply of laborers in Americas, which in turn, increased the demand for African slave labor.39 

Did such factors change over time? 

Within the time frame of this analysis (1780s), being relatively short, the African slave trade business did not change much.  But there were foreshadows of impending major changes because of the rise of the burgeoning abolition movement, which was in its infancy in the 1780s.  Certainly, neither of the writings of Duke nor Irving showed any concern that their occupation was in peril or about to substantially change.   

The decade of the 1780s represented the peak of the African slave trade.  Thereafter, over the next 60 years, there was a continuous slow decline in the volume of the African slave trade until about 1850 when it dropped off precipitously.  Although Britain and the United States outlawed the slave trade in 1807, other countries (primarily Spain, Portugal and Brazil) continued transporting slaves from Africa to the New World until the middle of the 19th century when it finally universally outlawed and thus ended.40   But, even at this end, one factor had not changed: the transatlantic slave trade was still profitable.41 

Are there unique circumstances that led to Antera Duke becoming the only known African slave trader diarist?   

There is no hint in the Duke diary of what motivated him to keep a journal of his life or why he wrote in Pidgin English instead of his native language.   But there are a couple of factors that may have contributed to its existence.  His diary is not the only native writing in Pidgin English that survived from this time and place.  There is other extant correspondence that, while not numerous, reveals a lot about Old Calabar society in the period from the 1750 to 1790.  These letters deal principally with matters of trade, including the assessment and collection of taxes ("coomey"), the ordering of goods, the issuing of credit, the provision for human pawns who were being held as collateral, and the local politics that affected trade.42  

Also, a Creole version of English developed in Old Calabar; many of its residents could speak and write in that dialect.  So it stands to reason that some of these writing  would survive.   Another contributing factor is that, as a leading trading center, its residents were sent to obtain education in other parts of Africa and in Europe where they learned to speak and write in English.43  The question of how much business was conducted in English or what was the literacy rate is beyond the scope of this paper project and would need more research. 


30 Davis. Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery, Page 16

31 Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: The Conflict of Civilizations 1600-1675, pages 524-525

32 Davis. Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery, Page 27

33 Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, Page xxi

34 Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, Page 150

35 Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, Page 59 

36 Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, Page 10

37 Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, page 7

38 Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, Page 86

39 Davis. Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery, Page 26

40 Slave Voyages Database —

41 Colly, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, Page 358

42 Lovejoy. Et al, “Letters of the Old Calabar Slave Trade, 1760-1789”, Page 92

43 Lovejoy. Et al, “Letters of the Old Calabar Slave Trade, 1760-1789”, Page 89