A Guide to Sites, Museums, and Memory

Antera Duke 1735 — circa 1809

<i>The Abolition of the Slave Trade</i>
Punishment aboard a slave ship, 1792. British abolitionists used this and other images to highlight the inhumanity of the slave trade in Calabar, where Antera Duke operated his enterprise.

Antera Duke was born around 1735 in Old Calabar in what is today southeastern Nigeria. Duke and his family were prominent Efik members in an African-British slave-trading network based in Duke Town. It was through this network that Duke learned to speak and write pidgin English.

Duke kept a diary, written in trade English (a mix of African and English language used to conduct business), of his day-to-day activities in which he described trade operations and disputes with British slave ship captains. Antera Duke and his fellow traders received goods such as “cottons, household goods, beads, gunpowder, firearms, and liquor” in exchange for slaves. In addition to keeping some of the goods for capital, Duke and his fellow traders would canoe down the Cross River and trade them for more slaves to trade with British captains. In many cases, if there were outstanding debts—either on the African side for not providing enough slaves or the British side for not providing enough goods—both parties engaged in a practice called “pawning” in which free African men and women and/or sailors were used as collateral “pawns” until the debt was repaid.

Duke and the other traders within his network occasionally had trade disputes with British captains concerning the “comey” or duty taxes they required of the British captains before they traded in Old Calabar. In March 1785, Duke recorded one such dispute when the captain of a British ship tried to coerce Duke Ephraim, Antera’s trading partner, to lower the comey. The captain failed to convince Duke Ephraim to lower his comey and departed for Cameroon.

Antera Duke likely died around 1809. Some years later, a Scottish missionary carried Duke’s diary to Edinburgh. While some of the content has been lost, what remains of Antera Duke’s journal shows some of the sophisticated relationships that existed between African elites and English merchants. Traders and local leaders, like the Dukes, could mobilize powerful political, economic, and military resources in their dealings with Europeans in the Atlantic economy.

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