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In 1767, two "princes" of a ruling family in the port of Old Calabar, on the slave coast of Africa, were ambushed and captured by English slavers. The princes, Little Ephraim Robin John and Ancona Robin Robin John, were themselves slave traders who were betrayed by African competitors--and so began their own extraordinary odyssey of enslavement. Their story, written in their own hand, survives as a rare firsthand account of the Atlantic slave experience.
Randy Sparks made the remarkable discovery of the princes' correspondence and has managed to reconstruct their adventures from it. They were transported from the coast of Africa to Dominica, where they were sold to a French physician. By employing their considerable language and interpersonal skills, they cleverly negotiated several escapes that took them from the Caribbean to Virginia, and to England, but always ended in their being enslaved again. Finally, in England, they sued for, and remarkably won, their freedom. Eventually, they found their way back to Old Calabar and, evidence suggests, resumed their business of slave trading.
The Two Princes of Calabar offers a rare glimpse into the eighteenth-century Atlantic World and slave trade from an African perspective. It brings us into the trading communities along the coast of Africa and follows the regular movement of goods, people, and ideas across and around the Atlantic. It is an extraordinary tale of slaves' relentless quest for freedom and their important role in the creation of the modern Atlantic World.
While researching a topic in early Methodism, Sparks discovered letters by former slaves to Charles Wesley. The writers were brothers from an elite family in a slave-trading community on the Bight of Biafra. During a 1767 conflict with another slave-trading clan--an altercation abetted by English slave merchants--the two were seized by a slave-ship captain and launched on a seven-year struggle to get home...Seamlessly weaving great chunks of eighteenth-century documentation into the narrative, Sparks makes the brothers' saga an absorbing true-life adventure.
— Ray Olson
In his brief, informative and wide-ranging account, Mr. Sparks uses the two princes' capture and release as a prism through which to view the religion, commerce, literature and roguery of the time, on both sides of the ocean. It helps to be reminded that nothing in the past is quite so simple--so black and white--as moralists might like it to be.
— Stuart Ferguson
The Two Princes of Calabar is an excellent brief study of late 18th-century West African slaving culture, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, British Methodism and the efforts of religious British to abolish the slave trade.
— Robert Waters
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.
— David Richardson
1. "A Very Bloody Transaction": Old Calabar and the Massacre of 1767
2. "Nothing But Sivellety and Fare Trade": Old Calabar and the Impact of the Slave Trade on an African Society
3. "This Deplorable Condition": The Robin Johns' Enslavement in British America
4. "We Were Free People": Bristol, the English Courts, and the Question of Slavery
5. "A Very Blessed Time": The Robin Johns and English Methodism
6. "We Go Home to Old Calabar": The Robin Johns' Legacy in Old Calabar and England