Learning about the history of a place also means trying to understand and uncover its darkest moments. Sierra Leone was one of the places where one of the cruelest chapters of modern history unfolded – the transatlantic slave trade, that saw millions of Africans ripped from their homeland to be sent to labour camps in America and the Caribbean, never to return. The history of modern-day Sierra Leone is actually closely related to movements for the abolition of the slave trade. Even as early as during the aftermath of the American Revolution, formerly enslaved persons who had supported Britain were offered refuge in Sierra Leone, where the ‘Freetown Colony’ was established. A new influx came during the aftermath of the Maroon wars in Jamaica, in the early 19th century. Britain outlawed slavery in 1807, and former slave trade bases all over Sierra Leone were used to enforce this ban. Slave trading ships were intercepted and captives were taken back to Sierra Leone – and many chose to stay in Freetown. These early residents came from the Americas, from the Caribbean, and from all over Africa. This diversity became its own distinct ethnic group – the Krio, with its culture and language, still the lingua franca of modern-day Sierra Leone. Here are some of the places you can visit around Sierra Leone to learn more about slavery.
Bunce Island was the location of Britain’s largest slave trade fort, built in 1670 and active until the abolition of slavery in 1807. It was the main location in the country where captive people from all over West Africa were held and processed, before being sent to the Americas. After the abolition of slavery, the fort and island were abandoned and vegetation slowly started reclaiming the buildings, with vines and trees growing on top of crumbling walls.
The island is now uninhabited and can only be visited on a guided tour – visitors are taken on a tour of the castle, accommodation quarters and holding spaces, as well as the Door of No Return, where it is estimated that 30,000 Africans walked through before starting the treacherous journey to the Americas.
Tasso Island is located less than a mile southwest of Bunce, and at 4 square miles, it’s far larger. It was first occupied by the British in 1660, with the construction of a ‘factory’, a holding space for goods to be exported while waiting for favourable sailing weather. The first British fort was actually built on Tasso Island, but it was moved to Bunce soon afterward due to hostility with the Dutch for control over trade in the region. During the time of Bunce’s occupation, most of the fruit and vegetables to feed the captives and British troops was actually grown on Tasso. During the 18th century, Tasso was also the centre of indigo production, with most of the work being carried out both by enslaved and free Africans. However, this industry was to be short lived, as synthetic dyes soon wiped out the market for natural indigo. Nowadays, this agricultural heritage survives on Tasso. The island also houses an ecotourism project, and it’s often visited on day trips after touring Bunce.
Bonthe / Sherbro Island
Bonthe/Sherbro Island is located at the mouth of the Sherbro River, in Sierra Leone’s southern district. Its name comes from the main ethnic group in this part of the country, who still make up the majority of the population.
In the 17th century, the Royal African Company established a trading post on Bonthe/Sherbro Island, first trading goods, and then enslaved Africans. The base was operational until Britain outlawed slavery – following that date, groups of formerly enslaved people were offered a place to settle on the island, and built the largest city, Bonthe. Nowadays, Bonthe is worth visiting for its colonial history and architecture, including a number of really stunning clapboard Krio houses dating back to this period.
The Cotton Tree is perhaps the best known landmark around Freetown, a giant kapok tree that is said to be over 500 years old – actually predating the construction of the city.
The tree’s fame is related to an event that happened in 1792, when the first formerly enslaved people were offered safe haven in present-day Freetown. When the first boat arrived from the Americas, its occupants walked to a large tree overlooking the landing site, and sat all around it praying, singing hymns and saying thanks. Nobody knows how old the tree is for sure, but it was said to be the largest tree to be seen for miles back in 1792 – so it could indeed be 500 years old, or even older.