African Merchants, Notables and the Slave Trade at Old Calabar, 1720: Evidence from the National Archives of Scotland

By Behrendt, Stephen D.; Graham, Eric J. | History In Africa, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

African Merchants, Notables and the Slave Trade at Old Calabar, 1720: Evidence from the National Archives of Scotland


Behrendt, Stephen D., Graham, Eric J., History In Africa


In late 1719 the brigantine Hannover sailed from Port Glasgow on a slaving voyage to the Guinea coast. Shipowner Robert Bogle jr. and partners hired surgeon Alexander Horsburgh as supercargo to supervise their trade for provisions and slaves along the Windward Coast, Gold Coast, and at Old Calabar. The Hannover arrived off the Windward Coast in early March 1720, and during three weeks Horsburgh purchased two tons of rice and 21 enslaved Africans on Bogle's behalf. From 5 April to 2 May he traded on the Gold Coast, loading 75 chests of corn and an additional 22 slaves. The Hannover then proceeded to Old Calabar, and from late May to early July Horsburgh purchased 75 more slaves and 11,400 yams-stowing 6,000 tubers in the week before departure to the Amcricas. Horsburgh also purchased sixteen slaves on his own account-eight along the Windward and Gold Coasts and eight at Calabar. Illness and death followed the Hannover on its "unaccountable long passage" to the Portuguese island Anno Bom (31 August-4 September) and British colonies Barbados (arriving 31 October) and St. Kitts (November-December). Eighty-seven of 134 Africans survived the voyage, only to be sold as slaves in the West Indies.1

The journey of the Hannover, noteworthy as one of the few Scottish-based voyages in the British slave trade, is important for Africanists because the surviving ship's accounts contain the first detailed list of African traders and notables in Old Calabar history.2 To gain the privilege to trade, Horsburgh paid varying port dues ("comey") to 22 local businessmen. As ransom for three sailors seized on shore, he paid further coiney to ten male notables-"they being men of no trade in Callabar"-and to at least five wives of two "kings." The foolhardy actions of a few crew members may have helped ruin the voyage financially, but their ransom arrangements left historians with an unique document that differentiates between traders and non-traders. In all, Horsburgh's comey payments from 21 May to 5 June 1720 record names of 26 Cross River personages. The next extant written source revealing the name of a prominent Calabar figure is dated 1761; the next one that includes a detailed list of Cross River merchants is the Liverpool ship Dobson's "trust book," dated July 1769-January 1770.' Varying levels of comey paid by Horsburgh illustrate levels of economic and political importance of the individually named Cross River traders and notables.

In this paper we examine supercargo Horsburgli's commercial transactions in the context of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Old Calabar history. We focus on one group of Cross River traders, the Efik, who emerged as "monopolistic middlemen" in the trade for European imports. Greater opportunities to profit from overseas trade increased rivalries not only among Cross River peoples, but also among members of six principal Efik lineage groups. The lineage groups resided in village compounds clustered within a twenty-square-mile region of the lower Calabar River. This "enlarged village" of Old Calabar, located 40 to 50 miles north of the Cross River estuary, became a regional market center and nexus of overseas trade.'1 As we will show, analysis of Horsburgli's list of coincy recipients in 1720 helps document the rise of the Efik as middlemen traders and documents as well the rise and fall of Efik merchant families who resided at Old Calabar.

II

To understand the significance of Alexander Horsburgli's records, we must first investigate how Cross River peoples developed trade in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. During the hundred years before Horsburgh arrived at Old Calabar, African merchants based in the Cross River region created market infrastructures to profit from the European demand for slaves, produce, and provisions. These merchants mostly came from five ethnic groups that had settled the estuarial lands in the sixteenth century. Thereafter they developed interregional water- and land-based trades, with transport provided by fleets of canoes and retinues of slaves.

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