The Diary of Antera Duke

Eighteenth-century Trader

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 20


Antera Duke Ephraim was a prominent merchant from the Efik-speaking trading community of Old Calabar in the Cross River region of what is now southeastern Nigeria.


His diary, written in the late eighteenth century, is one of the earliest and most extensive surviving documents written by an African during the era of emerging international trade in West Africa.


Written largely in English, The Diary of Antera Duke provides a candid account of daily life in his African community, chronicling day-to-day social and cultural life as well as providing valuable information on Old Calabar’s economic activity.


The original manuscript of Antera Duke’s diary was destroyed in Scotland during World War II, although extracts have been preserved.


Antera Duke Ephraim, or Ntiero Edem Efiom to use his full Efik name, is thought to have been born in the 1730s in Duke Town, Old Calabar. ‘Antera’ and ‘Ephraim’ are actually anglicised versions of the Efik names Ntiero and Efiom. Antera Duke was essentially the traditional name for the male head of the Ntiero family in Duke Town.


Antera, like his father and grandfather before him, learned to write and speak English to aid communication with British merchants.


During this time period, the British were the most frequent visitors to Old Calabar and regularly traded with the Efik. Between 1785 and 1788, Efik merchants are believed to have sold approximately 15,000 captives, 500,000 yams and 100 tons of ivory, palm oil, dyewood and pepper to various European traders.


Antera’s diary contains details on Efik society not documented elsewhere and provides us with an African perspective of life in a prominent global commercial centre.


Below is an excerpt and some notes from his diary:


January 25, 1785

About 4 a.m. [1] we were in Eyo Willy Honesty’s [2] house and we walked up to see Willy Honesty in his yard [3]. He killed 1 big goat for us [4]. Soon after that we walked up to see our town [5] and took one great gun (cannon) [6] to put in a canoe [7] for two of Egbo Young Ofiong’s [8] men to bring home to Aqua Landing [9]. We went together to Henshaw Town [10] and came back, and at 3 o’clock in the afternoon we and everybody went to dash [11] Eyo Willy Honesty’s daughter… 1496 rods [12] besides cloth, gunpowder and iron [13]. We played [14] all day before nightfall.

[1] Antera Duke’s time references suggest that he owned a timepiece.


[2] Eyo Willy Honesty was the Efik leader, Eyo Nsa, from Creek Town.


[3] The compound of a typical Efik merchant consisted of rectangular buildings and courtyards surrounded by a high wall of wattle and daub.


[4] Efik hospitality requires the provision of food for visitors. A host who does not offer food and drink insults his guest.


[5] After visiting Willy Honesty in Creek Town, Antera Duke visited some of his people living in the area. He then walked up a hill to observe Duke Town across the river and then boated downstream to Aqua Landing (see 9).


[6] The Efik fortified the beach with small cannons to be fired for military purposes, during funeral rites or to announce the arrival of European sailing vessels. They also armed their canoes with these cannons.


[7] The Efik purchased various-sized canoes. On November 1, 1787, Antera Duke travelled to Akwa Bakasi (on the Gulf of Guinea) to buy canoes.


[8] Egbo Young is an anglicisation of Ekpenyong, the name of a god or spirit, as well as a personal name.


[9] Aqua is a transcription of the Efik adjective akwa meaning ‘big’. The big landing was presumably situated somewhere along the beach at Duke Town.


[10] Henshaw Town, from the Efik word nsa, is one mile south of Duke Town. It was estimated to have a population of 300 in February 1805.


[11] The word ‘dash’ is used extensively in West Africa to denote any gift or present.


[12] The Efik had a currency of copper or brass rods and wire. Copper rods were about eighteen inches long and one inch in circumference, valued at about one shilling each.


[13] Willy Honesty’s daughter celebrated the wearing of her first cloth, which in Efik culture signifies the attainment of womanhood. Her family, relatives, and friends marked her newly acquired status by giving her gifts.


[14] ‘Play’ signifies all types of singing, music or dancing, whether performed by an individual or a group.

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