TOYIN FALOLA AND CHRISTIAN JENNINGS, EDS. Part III of Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Part III is called “Documentary Sources,” 169-238.

PHILIP D. CURTIN ET AL. Part I of Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. Part I is called “African Travelers of the Eighteenth Century, 3-139, omitting the section on Olaudah Equiano, 60-98.

STEPHEN D. BEHRENDT, A.J.H. LATHAM, AND DAVID NORTHRUP. Part II of The Diary of Antera Duke: An Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Part II is called “Extracts from the Diary of Antera Duke,” 133-220.


The main readings for this week are documentary sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. Two of these sources were written by West African peoples themselves, while the third was written by a European man yet based off of his interactions with a West African. Additionally, two of the sources appear as excerpts in Africa Remembered, an edited volume compiled by the historian Philip Curtin. They come from the book’s first part, entitled “African Travelers of the Eighteenth Century.”[1] The first source is the published slave narrative of a Fulbe Muslim trader named Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1734). The second is a series of letters from a Fanti missionary, slave factory chaplain, and sharity school teacher named Philip Quaque (1766-1811). In addition, the diary of a prominent Efik chief and slave trader named Antera Duke Ephrim constitutes the third source (1785-1788). Taken together, these three documentary sources not only represent different regions of Africa but also different experiences with the slave trade and different genres of writing. Finally, chapters taken from Sources and Methods in African History, compiled by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, provide context for analyzing these narratives.

In his introduction to the “Documentary Sources” section of Sources and Methods in African History, Thomas Spear explains why historians of Africa have been more reluctant to critically engage with written primary sources than scholars of other fields.[2] Documentary sources for studying African history, particularly from the long eighteenth-century, are both rare and problematic. As the African philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe has demonstrated in a detailed theoretical and historiographical critique, called The Invention of Africa, these sources often reflect ‘Western epistemologies’ such as ‘discourses on African primitiveness.’ These epistemological frameworks typically fail to engage with how African peoples thought of themselves and their own societies.[3] As Spear explains, the problematic nature of documentary sources has led African historians to devote their energies to developing alternative materials for understanding he African past. These innovative departures are epitomized by scholarship like that of Jan Vansina. An historian and anthropologist of Africa, Vansina devoted much of his career to developing a guide for fieldworkers who want to employ oral traditions as a primary source for understanding both the past and present of African societies. Vansina’s work, written up in 1959 and then updated in 1985, has demonstrated that oral traditions are a complex, diverse, and necessary component of historical research in African societies. They are not just a medium to be turned to when written materials are unavailable.[4]

Inspired by the innovative methods of anthropologists like Vansina and the cogent critiques of philosophers like Mudimbe, many scholars of Africa are starting to revisit the historical potential of documentary source materials, especially when these materials are interpreted in new ways. In a series of three essays on written source materials of the nineteenth-century, Christian Jennings, Kristin Mann, and Meredith McKittrick offer case studies that suggest why “documentary sources remain vital to our historical understanding, no matter who produced them and how and why they did so.”[5] These authors reaffirm the view that, just like oral traditions, written source materials can spark historical revelations about African societies when historians approach them with thoughtful questions. For example, in revisiting early Church records from East Africa in the 1840s and 1850s, Jennings demonstrates that missionaries had a much better understanding of the cultures of Massai and Iloikop pastoralists than later historians were willing to concede. The missionaries had interpreted these Rift Valley societies through the lens of their own prejudices, like Mudimbe explains, but they also based their ethnographic work on local informants from within the communities. As a result, when their works are carefully studied, they have the potential to affect some of our most longstanding historical assumptions—in this case, about the evolution of Massai identity. It is with this view in mind that we turn to our three readings from the eighteenth century.[6]

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (known to the British as Job ben Solomon):

Our first text is an excerpt from the published narrative of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. Suleiman was a Fulbe Muslim merchant from Bondu, a province located in the interior of the Senegambia region. He was born around 1701 to a family of high clerics. In 1731, he was seized and enslaved by “a company of the Mandingoes” while he was undertaking an errand to trade his father’s goods with British factors across the Gambia River. He was sold into chattel slavery in Maryland, where he lived for about two years before British patrons purchased him and sent him to England. He lived in England for a little over fifteen months. Upon returning to Senegambia in 1734, Suleiman became an agent, linguist, and intermediary for the Royal African Company’s operations on the Gambia River near Joar. Those who managed the British side of this trade hoped that he could act as a cultural broker between British trading interests on the Gambia River and various African trading networks in the Senegambian interior. These networks included the Gold Trade from Bambuk, the slave trade from Bambara, and the gum trade from Ferlo. Of the three narratives read for this week, Suleiman’s is the only one about a West African who became enslaved.[7]

Suleiman’s narrative, written and published in 1734 by Thomas Bluett, provides a window into the Islamic influences that formed one part of what the historian Ali Mazrui has called Africa’s “triple heritage.”[8] According to Mazrui, Islam’s arrival and then expansion across Eastern, Northern, and Western Africa from roughly the seventh century onward ushered in an new era of social, political, and cultural transformation that he defines as Sudanization.[9] Mazrui describes this period as nothing less than an “Islamic phase of identity formation.” This phase gave Africa new empires, like Mali and Songhai, as well as cultural centers like classical Timbuktu. The cultural legacies of the African-Islamic identities that were forged during this era are demonstrated in the content of Suleiman’s narrative. Bluett depicts Suleiman as a devout “Mussulman.”[10] He claims, for instance, that Suleiman will not eat pork, that he only eats halāl meat, that he can recite and transcribe the “Alkoran” from memory, that his wives must wear veils after marriage, that he sees visual representations of God are acts of idolatry, that he prays regularly, and that he knows both Senegambian languages, like Jallof, as well as Arabic.[11] Overall, Bluett’s emphasis on the Islamic characteristics of Suleiman’s identity demonstrates a British fascination with Muslim-African cultures—a version of what Curtin has called the contemporary romans africains.[12] This fascination is even more clear when Bluett distinguishes Suleiman’s practices from his own ideas about Islam among the Turks. Additionally, Bluett’s emphasis on Islam testifies to the extraordinary cultural impact that the religion had made on regions of greater Senegambia by the time of Suleiman’s life.

Philip Quaque (born as Kewku):

Our second text is a sample from the correspondence of Philip Quaque. Qauque was born in Fanteland on the Central Gold Coast of Western Africa. At the age of 13, he was sent to Britain to receive a Western-style religious education. He lived in England for about 12 years before returning to Africa in 1766. For the next half century, he lived in and around the British fort of Cape Coast Castle, serving as its resident missionary, school teacher, and chaplain. He also served many of the same roles for the adjacent town of Cape Coast. Quaque’s experience is told through a series of letters that he wrote to the secretary of one of his two London-based employers, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Unlike Suleiman, Quaque was never enslaved and the documents about his life were written in his own hand as the events that they discuss unfolded, rather than years after they had occurred.[13] Nonetheless, despite being an African from Fanteland by birth, Quaque identifies much more with British culture. Quaque received his formal education in Britain, became ordained as an Anglican minister, took an English wife, forgot his native African language, sent his children to Britain for their education, and devoted the majority of his adult life to serving as an evangel for Western religious and educational doctrines in West Africa.[14]

In an introduction to Quaque’s letters in Africa Remembered, Margaret Priestley observes that Quaque’s conflict with traditional African societies is one of the themes that prevails throughout his tenure at Cape Coast.[15] Accordingly, readers of Quaque’s correspondence will notice that he articulates what Mudimbe has described as Western “epistemological ethnocentrism.”[16] Readers see a discourse of African savagery on display when Quaque writes disparagingly of the “avaricious disposition of the blacks,” or when he laments the “ungrateful” and “unthankful” attitudes of his African charges.[17] Likewise, Quaque writes about Gold Coast Africans’ “vile customs and practices,” namely their ritualized sacrificing of nobles’ servants upon their death. He also looks down on Gold Coast funeral ceremonies as “detestable” and “barbarous” events.[18] And he has even embraced Western “ethnic” stereotypes about the “turbulent spirit” of Fante peoples. He describes them as “strangers to civil discipline and inveterate enemies of public tranquility.”[19] Additionally, Quaque looks down on matrilineal inheritance practices, on the ‘vile jargon’ of African languages, and on the polytheistic aspects of traditional African religions. On the one hand, his writings provide insight into many Gold Coast customs. (For instance, Quaque tells readers about the annual jubilee which coincides with the yam harvest and about the palaver customs of Fante elders known as penins.) On the other hand, historians must read these ethnographic passages against the grain of Quaque’s deeply held assumptions about British cultural, political, and social superiority.

Antera Duke Ephrim (transliterated as Ntiero Eden Efiom in Efik)

Our third and final text is a transcription of a diary by Antera Duke Ephrim. Duke was a prominent eighteenth-century Efik chief and slave trader from Old Calabar (also called New Town or Duke Town). Old Calabar was a town located about 45-miles up the Old Calabar River in the Cross Rivers region of what British traders described as the Bight of Biafra. Antera Duke was born sometime in the 1730s. He first enters the historical record in 1769, during which time he is already working as a slave dealer for Europeans. He last appears in written records in 1805, though he may have lived to the year 1809.[20] Unlike Sulieman and Quaque, Duke remained in Africa for his entire life. He traversed a vast “regional trading network” that covered perhaps 30,000 square miles of present-day Nigeria and Cameroon.[21] However, he never resided in either Britain or the American colonies. He was similar to Suleiman and Qauque in the fact that he traded with and worked closely with European merchants in his home region. He recorded these activities in pidgin or trade English in a diary between January 18, 1785, and January 31, 1788. Today, a transcription of that diary is the only surviving eyewitness account of the slave trade written by an African merchant, as well as “the most extensive surviving African text from precolonial Old Calabar.”[22]

Duke’s diary gives historians an incomparable look into the inner workings of the domestic slave trade in a West African society. As the editors of the volume put it, Duke’s diary is “the sole extant” historical source from the eighteenth-century to chronicle “the day-to-day social and cultural life of an African community.”[23] In addition, unlike the works of Sulieman and Qauque, Duke was not writing for either a public or a Western audience and so he reveals intimate and commonplace details about his life. Readers learn tremendous amounts of information regarding the culture of Efik-speaking communities, from the customary way that a slave could seek out sanctuary from elders, to the roles that animal sacrifices played in relationships between community members, to the gendered expectations of wives, husbands, daughters, and sons.[24] Readers not only see exactly how Duke and his companions purchase their products—including slaves—and exchanged them directly and intimately with British captains on the decks of their vessels, they also experience the complex commercial trade language that Efik peoples invented for this process. Words like “dash,” “brek book,” and “comey” are examples of an entirely new vocabulary that testifies to the strength of Efik-British commercial ties.[25] And yet, among the countless insights to be taken from Duke’s diary, maybe the most compelling is what we learn about Efik-governance. Duke reveals the many ways that life in Old Calabar revolves around the work of a secret society known as ekpe.


What broad conclusions can we draw about documentary sources by African writers in the eighteenth century based off of these three texts? First, we can say that it is no coincidence that all three of these figures—Suleiman, Qauque, and Duke—have writings that survive by or about them and they were also elites in their communities and highly acculturated to European society. These individuals all had intimate connections with European traders and that is the primary reason that these textual materials survive. Second, we can say that, as representatives of Western Africa during this era, Suleiman, Quaque, and Duke span a spectrum of attitudes about African peoples and cultures. If Quaque’s letters appear to be the most hostile, then historians must juxtapose this with Suleiman’s critiques of Western culture in the face of his Senegambian beliefs. Scholars must also account for someone like Duke, who fraternized closely with Europeans and embraced aspects of Western culture yet never seems to denigrate or distance himself from Efik society. Mazrui and Mudimbe have both explored, in their own unique ways, the idea that “Westernization” is a foundational part of African historical identity. The works of Sulieman, Quaque, and Duke are evidence of this fact. More specifically, they are evidence of the fact that West African peoples mixed Western influences with their own cultures to varying degrees and in widely different ways.


[1] Philip Curtin, Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), 13-139. I have chosen not to discuss the narrative of Olaudah Equiano, which also appears here, see 69-98.

[2] Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings (eds.), Sources and Methods  in African History: Spoken, Written, and Unearthed (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004), 169.

[3] Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 20

[4] Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 6-7, 196, 200.

[5] Falola and Jennings (eds.), Sources and Methods  in African History, 172.

[6] Ibid. 173-174.

[7] For the excerpt of Suleiman’s narrative that was used in this essay, see Curtin, Africa Remembered, 34-59.

[8] Ali A. Mazrui, “The Re-Invention of Africa: Edward Said, V.Y. Mudimbe, and beyond,” Research in African Literatures 36:3 (2005), 71, 76, 79.

[9] Ibid. 71.

[10] Curtin, Africa Remembered, 44.

[11] Ibid. 43-44, 52-53.

[12] Ibid. 6-7

[13] Ibid. 7.

[14] For the sample of Quaque’s correspondence used in this essay, see Curtin, Africa Remembered, 113-139.

[15] Curtin, Africa Remembered, 111-112.

[16] Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa, 15.

[17] Curtin, Africa Remembered, 138-139.

[18] Ibid. 138-139.

[19] Ibid. 125.

[20] Stephen D. Behrendt, A.J.H. Latham, and David Northrup (eds.),  The Diary of Antera Duke: An Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2.

[21] Ibid. 8.

[22] Ibid. 1, 3.  For the version of the diary used in this essay, see pages 134-219.

[23] Ibid. 3.

[24] Ibid. 209, 217, 168-169.

[25] Ibid. 134, 141, 153.

*NB: This post was written as part of an independent-study course entitled “West African Ethnographies and Histories of the Eighteenth Century.” The course was taken in the UC Davis History Department during Fall Quarter of 2017.