The Slave Trade Revisited - Trust, Pawnship, and Atlantic History

The Slave Trade Revisited

Trust, Pawnship, and Atlantic History


Emmanuel Usanga Amah Jones 

"Although the evidence is more patchy, the pattern of local merchant participation in the slave trade at Old Calabar appears to have mirrored that at British ports. A few Old Calabar merchant families, descended from the original Ibibio-speaking settlers but ADOPTING a new ethnic name, Efik, dominated the African side of the trade."

AT OLD CALABAR, as Latham has shown, credit, and the mechanisms for guaranteeing that credit arrangements were honored, depended on "trust," as credit between European firms and African suppliers was known in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries.22 Goods were advanced to "trusted" merchants in the river towns of the Niger Delta and Cross River estuary. These goods in turn were sent to interior markets controlled by slave traders from Aro Chukwu, whose dispersed settlements in the interior gained control of the slave trade in much of Igbo and Ibibio country in the course of the eighteenth century.

Aro merchants in effect "bulked" slaves at their monthly fairs at Bende and Uburu for re-export to the coast, almost always through Bonny, Elem Kalabari, or Old Calabar, depending on the line of credit.
For Old Calabar, slaves were often sent to Itu on the Cross River, from where they were transferred downriver. Unlike Bonny and Elem Kalabari, however, merchants at Old Calabar traded directly with Ibibio country
and with Cameroons.
Whether through commercial arrangements with the Aro network or with other merchants, the delivery of slaves liquidated debts that stretched into the interior.

Liverpool and Bristol merchants had no direct access to Aro traders and other inland sources of slaves, but they could, and indeed actively sought to, establish good relations with coastal merchants, protecting their investments through institutional arrangements that could be enforced in these towns and apparently through similar means into the interior. It is probably not a coincidence that the great expansion in slave exports from the Bight of Biafra occurred at the same time as the consolidation of the Aro commercial "diaspora."

At any time in the second half of the eighteenth century, a limited number of Liverpool and Bristol firms dominated particular ports in the Bight of Biafra. Probably no more than fifteen or so commercial houses were operating at any one
time, with usually twice as many from Liverpool as Bristol. At Old Calabar, partnerships headed by William Whaley and Edward Forbes of Liverpool and James Laroche of Bristol controlled much of the early trade in the 1740s and 1750s.
William Davenport, who has left some of the most detailed accounts for the eighteenth-century trade, was a major Liverpool trader from 1757 to 1784 and perhaps the largest single British trader at Old Calabar in the period 1768-1774.25

Davenport had been apprenticed to Whaley in the 1740s, and the Whaley Davenport connection with Old Calabar was to continue into the 1770s and beyond through other Liverpool merchants. By 1785-1795, Liverpool merchants John,
James, and William Gregson and Thomas and William Earle and Bristol merchant James Rogers were the leading traders to the port. Members of the Earle family had earlier been partners with Davenport, and the Earles continued to trade into the early nineteenth century. Moreover, another continuity in the concentration of commercial knowledge of trade at the port is evident in the close association of Sir James Laroche, member of Parliament and nephew of the Bristol merchant of the 1750s, with James Rogers, at least before Rogers went bankrupt in 1793.

Although the evidence is more patchy, the pattern of local merchant participation in the slave trade at Old Calabar appears to have mirrored that at British ports. A few Old Calabar merchant families, descended from the original Ibibio-speaking settlers but adopting a new ethnic name, Efik, dominated the African side of the trade. For most of the seventeenth century, when the scale of the slave trade was
not very large, the principal settlement was at Creek Town (Obio Oko), but other wards or "towns" were founded, the most important of which were Old Town (Obutong), Duke Town (Atakpa or New Town), and Henshaw Town. By the end of the seventeenth century, Old Town, where the Robin family was dominant, appears to have emerged as the leading commercial ward, and it remained so until the middle of the eighteenth century.

Old Town was located on the Calabar River downstream from Creek Town and was therefore in a better location to serve slave ships. Another trader active in the 1690s, Ephraim Duke, may have been the founder of the Duke family, which was initially resident at Creek Town but which established its ward, New Town or Duke Town, a few kilometers downstream from Old Town, apparently in 1748, and became a serious rival to Old Town as the slave trade expanded.26

By the last third of the century, there were at least thirty local traders at Old Calabar who were active in the slave trade; they are mentioned in a diary kept by Antera Duke (Ntiero Edem Efiom), fragments of which have survived for 1785-1788. As many as half of these merchants were supplying slaves to British ships in the late 1760s, and each was associated with one of the Old Calabar wards. Prominent among them were Eyo Nsa of Creek Town, Tommy Henshaw of Henshaw Town, and Egbo Young, Antera Duke, and Edem Ekpo and his son,
Edem Efiam (both known as Duke Ephraim) of Duke Town.29 Moreover, several of those active in 1785-1788 remained involved in slaving beyond 1800. 

When Edem Ekpo died in 1786, his son not only took his commercial name, Duke Ephraim, but also continued the business. Indeed, the continuity in names is one indication that merchants were succeeded by their descendants.
It appears, then, that a few trading houses controlled slave exports from Old Calabar between 1750 and 1807, just as a relatively small number of Bristol and Liverpool merchants and their agents or ship captains tended to dominate European trade with the port.
In this respect, at least, slave trading activities and credit relations at Old Calabar may have become embedded in social relations.

More specifically, they may have come to resemble a situation described by Mark Granovetter in which agents had recurrent dealings with each other and might be assumed to rely on their past record of dealings to determine whether "a particular
other may be expected to deal honestly." It is important, therefore, to try to assess the degree to which trust permeated commercial relations at Old Calabar after 1740.


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