Oxford University Press has just re-published Antera Duke’s diary. Antera Duke was an African slave-trading chief; the diary is said to be the only surviving eyewitness account of slave trading by an African merchant. And pretty callous the trade was too, one entry in the diary reads: ‘So we got ready to cut heads off and at 5 o’clock in the morning we began to cut slaves’ heads off, fifty heads off in that one day.’
Not much is known about Antera Duke. He is thought to have been born around 1735 and to have died around 1809. He was an Efik chief from Duke Town, Calabar in eastern Nigeria (now in Cross River State) about 40 miles from the Atlantic Ocean - see Wikipedia for more on the Efik people. But, thanks to a diary he kept, we also know he was a slave trader.
Written in Nigerian Pidgin English, the diary was discovered in Scotland over half a century ago, and published in 1956 for the International African Institute by Oxford University Press (OUP): Efik Traders of Old Calabar: Containing the Diary of Antera Duke, an Efik Slave-Trading Chief of the Eighteenth Century together with an Ethnographic Sketch and Notes by Donald Simmons & an Essay on the Political Organization of Old Calabar by G. I. Jones. This diary is said to be the only surviving eyewitness account of the slave trade by an African merchant, thus providing valuable information on Old Calabar’s economic activity both with other African businessmen and with European ship captains who arrived to trade for slaves, produce, and provisions.
OUP has now (February in the US, May in the UK - see Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk) brought out a new edition of Antera’s diary with the original (and difficult to understand) trade-English along side a translation into standard English on facing pages. The Diary of Antera Duke, an Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader is edited by Stephen D Behrendt, A J H Latham and David Northrup. The publisher says the new edition draws on the latest scholarship: ‘Introductory essays set the stage for the Old Calabar of Antera Duke’s lifetime, explore the range of trades, from slaves to produce, in which he rose to prominence, and follow Antera on trading missions across an extensive commercial hinterland. The essays trace the settlement and development of the towns that comprised Old Calabar and survey the community’s social and political structure, rivalries among families, sacrifices of slaves, and witchcraft ordeals.’
Jon Silkin, writing a review of the 1956 edition for African Affairs, found the diary itself fascinating but was not very impressed by the scholarship attached to it. He wrote: ‘The most enlightening two sections in the book, enlightening in the sense that they tell you more about the Efiks than any of the stuff elsewhere, are the two versions of the fascinating diary kept by Antera Duke. These two versions: the original one and its more Anglicised equivalent, re-inforce what after all one might suspect the people to have been: avaricious, anxiety-ridden, superstitious, cheerful, propitiatory and extremely cruel, capable of extreme savagery and violence not only on other tribes (whom they enslaved), but on their criminals (whom they also enslaved) as well as each other.’
He provides an example of the diary in the two versions (1787, but otherwise undated):
Original: ‘. . . wee tak grandy Egbo and cany to Henshaw and Willy Tom for brow for not Captain for send and Callabar poun was putt for tak my slave goods to not send them poun way in Tender so wee have Tatam Tender go away with 330 slaves . . .’
Transcription: ‘We carried Grand Ekpe to Henshaw and Willy Tom to blow forbidding and Captain to send Calabar pawn, which was given for my slave goods, away in his tender. Tatam’s tender went away with 330 slaves. . .’
And here is a final diary entry, Silkin says, which treats cruelty with all the assumption of naturalness.
‘About 4 a.m. I got up; there was great rain, so I walked to the town palaver house and I found all the gentlemen here. So we got ready to cut heads off and at 5 o’clock in the morning we began to cut slaves’ heads off, fifty heads off in that one day . . .’