Slavery presents one of the most humiliating treatments that Africans underwent over the 18th, 19th, and part of the 20th century. Largely African kings and chiefs participated in the slave trade, selling some of their subjects and others captured during raids to Arab merchants and later European merchants for plantation labor. While most kings had their subjects captured, it was a rare occurrence to have princes captured and sold into slavery. Among the most captivating tale of the Transatlantic slave trade, therefore, is the capture of Ephraim and Ancona John, members of a ruling family in west Africa in the Bight of Biafra (Sparks, 2002, p. 557). Although they were later released from slavery by fighting for their own freedom, these two came back to become slave merchants. Many underlying reasons prompted Africans into slave trade participation. Although it came later, Christianity played an important role in ending the Transatlantic trade.
Having been tricked into a supposed treaty and agreement to help in fighting off competition from the New Town, Ephraim and Ancona Johns were captured aboard the Duke of York by English merchants (Sparks, 2002, 567). While slavery was never a choice for many Africans, some did sell themselves into slavery as a means of escaping the worst situations. Most of the slaves were however war captives, criminals, and children whose parents had many mouths to feed. The return of the John Robins is however an attestation to the fact that some African slaves did consider regaining their freedom. Given that fewer Africans, and slaves, got to earn their freedom, only under special circumstances, the return of the Johns was, therefore, a feat worth noting. Additionally, their return also suggests their royal background and knowledge of the European culture and language as well as their cultural background as Atlantic creoles as having put them in a better position to regain their independence. More importantly, the Johns cosmopolitan view and their wealth of skills also played an important role in enabling them to return to Old Calabar even after their capture (Sparks, 2002, p.557).
The suffering that the two went through: being sold into Dominica (Sparks, 2002, p. 569), then betrayed to be sold to the cruel Thompson, an escape and the hospitality of the Jones serves to explain the suffering that the two had to endure to gain their freedom. The Johns miraculously survived the trip and were together sold to a French physician who was kind to them (Sparks, 2002, p. 569). However, the two escaped to William Sharp, the Captain of Peggy, who had promised to take them back home. Sharp however sold them again into slavery in Virginia, to Captain Thompson who was abusive and cruel to them (Sparks, 2002, p. 569).
At the death of Thompson, the two Johns escaped enslavement and bumped into O’Neil who promised to buy them. However, O’Neil had no money and planned to sell them to slavery (Sparks, 2002, p. 572). After a long trail of letters, however, the two were finally freed with the help of Jones. The Jones provided a family for them in addition to exposing them to Christianity as well as widening their scope in friendship through the Methodist church. Such was the close attachment that the Johns had with Charles, a teacher and church leader, with whom they regularly have correspondence (Sparks, 2002, p. 579). The Johns’ journey home, as eventful and trying as it was shows the determination of the two royalties to return home and continue their family legacy.
In a remote sense, Christianity offered a reprieve from the suffering that the two Johns were experiencing through Jones (Sparks, 2002, p. 577). There in addition to constant campaigns against slavery and the slave trade, and even the final abolition of the slave trade in Europe and America, Christianity gave solace to slaves leading them in the path of light (Sensbach, 2007, p. 635). The Jones was a true manifestation of the compassion of Christians and Christianity towards slaves, given that they not only loved slaves but as well took the Johns into their home and provided for them. Thus, even with their return to Old Calabar, and their engagement in the slave trade, the Johns were equally responsible for the spread of Christianity in the region after their return.
The Johns return home, while it would have signaled an end to slavery and slave trade in the family, given the experience that the two had with slavery, did not deter them from participating in the slave trade. The Johns’ drive back to the slave trade was therefore a culture that was within the family. According to Sparks (2002), the Johns’ return to the slave trade was simply an engrained drive, given that it was the initial family trade (p. 583). Since the experience of slavery was not new to them, having been slaves themselves, they very much understood the pain that was there in slavery. However, their positions as royalties dictated that they carry on with the family business as it was before their departure.
Among the creoles and slaves, it was an uphill task for a slave to gain their freedom. Only under special circumstances such as a master’s concubine begetting a child, would both the child and the mother be set free (Inikori, 2000, p. 390). The only other way for self-betterment for a slave was therefore the purchase of their very own slaves. Having been sold into slavery, therefore, the Johns’s only way for self-improvement was the purchase of slaves. In addition, if they were to climb up the social ladder, they had to participate in the trade, as it was the most viable at the time, and one that would bring handsome profits.
Participation in the slave trade among Africans was therefore largely for economic reasons, a fact that was also true for the Americans’ and British’s participation in the trade (Meager, 2007, p. 1). For many Europeans and Americans therefore, slavery offered a leeway through which Africans and some Islamic Africans could come into contact with Christianity especially in the Americas (Reddie, 2007), which eventually resulted in the colonization of Africa (Hunn & Wantchekon, 2011, p. 3223). The African rulers on the other hand saw slavery and the slave trade as an avenue for making profits and growing rich (Sparks, 2002, p. 559).
African rulers (chiefs and kings) on the other hand, used the slave trade as a means of acquiring firearms and Western commodities. The firearms were particularly important in the expansion of their rule and power within their regions (Lovejoy, 2000, p. 145). To subdue the neighboring communities and ensure a continuous supply of slaves, for instance, the Efiks needed firearms to conduct slave raids and ensure minimum resistance from these communities (Sparks, 2002, p. 559). With Europeans in need of slaves and capable of supplying firearms as well as other commodities such as cloth, perfume, and glassware, most African chiefs and rulers would order a raid on their neighboring communities (Thornton, 1998, p. 66).
A result of the demand for slaves from Europeans drew more African communities into wars and raids. The pressure mounted on the need to acquire firearm supplies and other commodities (Thornton, 1998, p. 66). Therefore, African’s participation in the slave trade was through raids and wars for the capture of slaves (Smith, 2009). Other slaves voluntarily sold themselves into slavery seeing no other option aside from their service in bondage.
The Johns presents a long and successful struggle against slavery among Africans. Theirs was a special case considering that they were captured and sentenced to slavery, although they were from the ruling family. In their life as slaves, their knowledge of English as a cosmopolitan view came in handy towards their eventual emancipation. Specifically, Christianity played a major role in their release, as they were assisted by the Jones. African participation in the slave trade was ultimate because of financial and political pressure and reasons. While Christianity played a major role in ending the slave trade, it did at one point, fuel the European participation in the slave trade.
Inikori, J., E., (2000). Africa and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In Africa, Volume 1: African History before 1885, ed. Toyin, F. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press
Lovejoy, E. P. (2000). Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press
Meager, D., (2007). Why Did Christians Justify African Slavery? CrossWay, 104
Nunn, N., & Wantchekon, L., (2011). The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa. American Economic Review, 101:3221-3252
Reddie, R., (2007). Atlantic Slave Trade and Abolition. BBC
Sensbach, J., F., (2007). Religion in the Early South in an Age of Atlantic Empire. Journal of Southern History, 73(3):631-641
Smith, D., (2009). African Chiefs Urged to Apologize for Slave Trade. The Guardian
Sparks, R., J., (2002). Two Princes of Calabar: An Atlantic Odyssey from Slavery to Freedom. The William and Mary Quarterly, 59(3):555-584
Thornton, J., (1998). Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680. New York: Cambridge University Press