The Creolization of Old Calabar

9 September 2016

The business and social interactions of the African and English slave traders created a very different “Old Calabar”. As the slave trade grew the society quickly started to reflect not only the traditions and values of the Africans but of the English as well. Old Calabar became a “New Creolized Calabar”. Was this the direct result of the slave trading? The evidence says yes? The creolization of the African Society of Calabar can clearly be associated with the slave trade by analyzing their language changes, life style changes and political changes as the slave trading became more competitive and economically beneficial.

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Creolization usually brings to mind the decedents in Louisiana born to the Spanish, French and Haitians before the Civil War. Randy Sparks introduces the idea of creolization as being a way to explain what happened in Old Calabar, but interestingly, he poses the thought that it had little to do with the origin or birth of those involved. Sparks instead introduces historian Ira Berlin’s idea of the Robin Johns being a kind of “Atlantic Creole” not because of blood lines but by experiences.

Ira Berlin’s quote is as follows: “Familiar with the commerce of the Atlantic, fluent in its new languages, and intimate with its trade and cultures, they were cosmopolitan in the fullest sense. “(pg. 4) The Robin John’s were not only fluent in the English language but also in “trade language” alluded to by Ira Berlin. These various languages developed in areas from Gambia to Cameron and developed as a result of the constant exposure of slave traders to each other’s languages.

The variations spread around the Atlantic Ocean to areas where slave trade was popular from Africa to the America’s to Europe. Sparks describes the languages as a combination of mostly English words having African Grammatical structures. The African leaders in Old Calabar were responsible for the “cosmopolitan” like essence of the Robin Robins. The leaders knew that by being more European understanding the European customs and practicing the lifestyle. It gave them the competitive edge over the other African competitors who did not.

Joining with the Europeans in the lucrative slave business was an economic gold mine. So, the smart African transformed himself into an image of what they believed made them more appealing to the Europeans. An example of this would be that they ordered and used extravagant products such as English razors, pewter piss pots and mirrors six feet tall. The degree of their creolization is very apparent on pages 11 and 12 of the first chapter. Sparks’ description of Grandy King George, who was originally known as Ephraim, is filled with the pageantry of both Royal English and African fused together.

Sparks describes Grandy King George as he boards the “Royal Canoe” the day before “The Massacre of 1767”. Sparks indicates that Grandy King George wore a multicolored robe and red coat trimmed in gold lace, a silk sash thrown over his shoulders. He carried a gold skull headed cane in one hand and a fine ceremonial sword in the other. Under one arm he carried a gold trimmed cocked hat and the ensigns that, as Sparks describes them, blew in the wind, engraved with Grandy King George’s name written in English letters.

The “King’s” name being written in English letters emphasizes the point that the African Slave traders not only spoke the English language, but also had the ability to read and write it. The unique combination of “The King’s” attire and accessories powerfully displayed his desire to indicate his appreciation for both cultures. The red coat trimmed in gold clearly reflected his admiration of the English Royals, while the skull headed cane, on the other hand, indicated his pride in his African heritage. Sparks seems to save his last description of the “King” and his surroundings that day as the most obvious fusion of the two cultures.

He describes that behind the “King”, in the center of the canoe, there was a small house painted in bright colors, and on top of the house there were two men loudly playing the drums. There was a canon in the bow of the canoe, and in front of the canon was a man who shook a large bundle of reeds to symbolically ward off obstacles. Again, one could say that the mixing of cultures is self-evident. The canon would have been something purchased from the English, while the spirit man and the men beating the drums would have reflected his African faith.

African Politics in the area of Efiks experienced significant change after the slave trade with the English escalated. The economy had been predominantly based on agricultural trade and there was no strong centralized government. Small groups of population approximately 1200 were divided up into Wards and Houses lead by town council Elders and House Elders. As the economy grew, the criteria for qualification as head of house changed from lineage to wealth. Houses became larger, Wards and Towns as well. A stronger governing system was created. The “Grand Council” was introduced to govern the “Council of Elders”.

The “Ekpe Society” was created to set standards and create laws for the entire system. Entry into the system was open to all men even slaves as long as the entry fees were paid. The Society had many levels of membership determined by the wealth of the man. The Ekpe Society controlled all trading regulations both slave and agricultural. In addition they controlled the economy. They set prices for goods, enforced debt collection, payment submissions and kept track of inventory. The Ekpe Society even controlled who was responsible for sweeping the streets.

The crealization is seen in the change of the African Society governing style from a lineage system to a system influenced more by wealth and requiring strong central government. In conclusion it is clear that the relationship with the English and the huge amounts of capital to be made created a creolized African Society. It changed how they thought about status. They wanted English clothes, razors, mirrors and pewter piss pots. The government became more about money than lineage and last but not least their language changed. An entire language was created around the slave trade.

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