The Two Princes of Calabar Book Review

8 August 2016

The Two Princes Of Calabar Book Review In 1767 Little Ephraim Robin John and Ancona Robin Robin John were living as Old Calabar’s ruling class, in a trading port in the Bight of Biafra known as Old Town, modern day Nigeria. Old Calabar was a primary source of African slaves in the Atlantic and West Indies, and the Robin John family contributed significantly to the slave population in the Americas, before ironically contributing two of their own family.

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Old Calabar was divided into sections, prominently Old Town and New Town, which were ruled different competing slave trading families. In an attempt to ruin Old Town, the King of New Town worked together with English slave traders to orchestrate a brutal assault on the ruling class Old Town, inviting the King of Old Town to celebrate their “peace treaty”.

Once the King arrived with his family and their servants, they were betrayed and massacred, resulting in the death and enslavement of the servants and ruling family, including the King’s brother Ancona Robin and his nephew Little Ephraim Robin John. Author Randy Sparks, who found letters written by the “Two Princes” comprised a story that detailed their experiences in the New World, struggle for freedom, and eventual return back to Old Calabar.

The Two Princes endured the Middle Passage to be sold as slaves in the West Indies, where they gained a nuanced African Creole identity and worldview, which Randy Sparks highlights in the prologue as one of the main themes, saying “… in this book I explore the impact of the rise of the Atlantic World on a particular place in time–eighteenth-century Old Calabar–through the lives of two men who were themselves products of that Atlantic World. ” (Sparks, xii). The Princes struggled for their freedom just as the rest of their fellow enslaved African brethren, experiencing more betrayal than hope.

Years later the two were on their way to Bristol to be sold as slaves when they acquired a comrade, a British merchant named Thomas Jones who helped them escape the ship. They were kept in jail until their case was heard before a judge, who granted them back their freedom after almost ten years of enslavement. In that time the Princes gained the support of Charles and John Wesley while acquiring an interest in Methodist Christianity, which helped lead to their freedom in the very English focused culture of Bristol.

After several years in London, the Two Princes returned to Old Calabar in 1774, where they ironically return to slave trading even after all of their numerous tragedies and firsthand experience of slavery from both sides. Little Ephraim and Ancona Robin finally achieved their freedom through many trials and tribulations, and their success was due in large part to their social standing as Atlantic Creoles, which gave them nuanced knowledge of European traditions and outlook.

Their experience of constant struggle for freedom was emblematic of many African slaves’ experiences, although their story seems to suggest that Atlantic Creoles were in a far better position to achieve freedom than African slaves without the Atlantic Creole background. The story of Olaudah Equiano also demonstrates how the Atlantic Creole had more opportunities than their African brethren, although unlike the two Princes, when Equiano achieved his freedom, “he condemned the idea that Africans were inferior to Europeans and therefore deserved to be slaves” (Foner, 130).

Equiano’s experience, as well as those of the two Princes, illustrates that for Atlantic Creoles “The Atlantic was more of a bridge than a barrier between the Old and New Worlds” (Foner 131). The journey and experiences of the Two Princes of Calabar is truly an amazing one of triumph and freedom, and was never an uninteresting read. Author Randy Sparks used their real-life events to shape this well-worded, and powerful story, which truly captured an era of American life that was previously scarcely understood.

Even through experiencing all of their tribulations, the Two Princes returned to slave trading upon arriving back in Old Calabar, which enhanced our understanding of sovereignty and autonomy; in the eighteenth century, ownership of another human being was truly the indicator of personal power and freedom. Randy Sparks takes care to illustrate the intricacy and convolution of the human condition while carrying the reader through a riveting firsthand experience of the Atlantic slave trade.

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