In 1767, there occurred an event that was to have major repercussions for British participation in the Atlantic slave trade. It was the massacre at Old Calabar, a port on the Cross River in modern southeast Nigeria and a major venue of British slave trading.
The massacre took place against a background of commercial rivalry among leading families and harsh treatment of British traders by one of those Old Calabar families, the Robin Johns. This treatment induced several masters of British ships to conspire with rivals of the Robin Johns to entrap them by offering to mediate in a local dispute.
The ruse succeeded. Some 300 of the Robin Johns and their allies were murdered, and many others were deported as slaves to America. The latter included Ancona and Little Ephraim Robin John. Their history is the subject of Randy Sparkes' book. This deserves to be read by specialists and by general students of Atlantic history, not only because it underlines the brutality of slavery but also because it offers fascinating glimpses into the fluidity of identities in Atlantic history and into how, consciously or otherwise, Africans helped to promote British abolitionism.
Ancona and Little Ephraim spent five years in captivity in America before escaping in 1772 to England on a Bristol-owned ship that, by chance, had just brought slaves from Old Calabar to North America. In Bristol they were befriended by various groups, including Methodists and slave traders, the last anxious perhaps to repair relations with Old Calabar. These friends helped them to gain freedom a year after the Somerset case and ensured their repatriation in 1774.
The two exiles were victims of a deception that their own slave-trading family doubtless practised on others, but they had the good fortune and skill to draw on the philanthropy, self-interest and knowledge of others to ensure that, of the millions of Africans deported to America, they were among the few to return home alive.
For a decade or more after 1773, the Robin Johns' story remained largely unknown, but it assumed national importance when their enslavement became a subject of Parliament's investigation of the slave trade in 1788-92. The evidence collected by Parliament has been one of the principal sources of information about the 1767 massacre itself.
On this issue, Sparkes' book adds little to our knowledge. Where it is important is in revealing how knowledge, language skills and networks could be used by enslaved Africans to reshape their lives and those with whom they came into contact.
Central to this theme in Sparkes' study is new evidence about the exiles'
journey to England, their attainment of freedom, their relations with Bristol Methodists and their conversion to Methodism. Association with Ancona and Little Ephraim encouraged Wesleyan Methodists to join the Quakers in condemning slavery. According to Sparkes, it prompted John Wesley himself to publish on the subject and in his last years to join William Wilberforce in seeking to end the slave trade.
The enslavement, redemption and conversion of the erstwhile slave traders from Old Calabar became intertwined with British anti-slavery. Their repatriation had little immediate impact. The two returned to a community where the influence of the Robin John family was much diminished. Moreover, two Methodist missionaries sent to Old Calabar in 1778 died soon after arrival and were not replaced. It was to be another 60 years before other missionaries reached Old Calabar, by which time the port's export slave trade had been ended by external intervention.
The displacement of one slave trading clan by another in the massacre of 1767 helped to sustain Old Calabar's slave trade for several generations, but publicity about the massacre and its victims contributed to the process that eventually ended its use as a slave port.
David Richardson is professor of economic history, Hull University.
The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey
Author - Randy J. Sparkes
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 189
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 0 674 01312 3