Information on Sierra Leone

History Discovering

During the 20th Century the British governor who also ruled the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the Gambia settlements used Freetown as the residence. Sierra Leone also served as the educational centre of British West Africa. Sierra Leone became an important centre of the transatlantic trade in human beings (i.e., slaves), until 1792 when Freetown was founded by the Sierra Leone Company as a home for formerly enslaved African-Americans. Freetown, on the coast, was ceded to English settlers in 1787 as a home for blacks discharged from the British armed forces and also for runaway slaves who had found asylum in London. In 1808 the coastal area became a British colony, and in 1896 a British protectorate was proclaimed over the hinterland. Sierra Leone became an independent nation on April 27, 1961. A military coup overthrew the civilian government in 1967, which was in turn replaced by civilian rule a year later. In history, the country declared itself a republic on April 19, 1971. Sierra Leone was also the first African country to resettle former American slaves. The Bulom people were thought to have been the earliest inhabitants of Sierra Leone, followed by the Mende and Temne people in the 15th century and thereafter the Fulani. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the land and gave Sierra Leone its name. In the early 1800s, abolitionists in America and England raised money and solicited missionaries and teachers to bring back freed slaves from North America to West Africa. Due to their familiarity with and support from Great Britain’s more liberal society, they decided to resettle in the territories under the colonial protection of England. During the heyday of the rice plantation industry in the American colonies of South Carolina and Georgia, Sierra Leone gained commercial importance. European settlers had little or no experience with rice cultivation. The demand for slaves with rice-growing skills increased significantly and the ethnic groups in the surrounding areas of Sierra Leone were known to possess this agricultural knowledge. The rice fields were carved out of tidal swamps along coastal rivers by slaves brought to South Carolina from the West Indies and West Africa. With primitive tools, the slaves cleared the low-lying land of huge cypress and gum trees, and built canals, dikes, and trunks (small floodgates) that allowed the flooding and draining of fields with the high and low tides. From the 18th century to the Civil War, slaves planted, tended, and harvested the crops that made plantation owners wealthy and Georgetown County, South Carolina, the second largest rice producer in the world thus the volume of slaves from the “windward coast” or “rice coast” of West Africa increased to keep up with the demand. As a result, many South Carolinian and Georgian African-Americans can trace their African ancestry through the slave trading period in Sierra Leone.

In fact, Cinque, the leader of the Amistad’s liberated African slaves was eventually returned to Sierra Leone in search of his village amongst the Mendes ethnic group. In addition, Sierra Leone boast Old Fourah Bay College which was the first university in West Africa that was modelled after western teachings and most of the future African leaders of the Pan-African Movement of the 20th century received their formal education at this university. On April 27 1961, Sierra Leone received its independence from Britain and became a republic. In the 1990’s democratically elected leaders were overthrown but subsequently regained powers. The West African state of Sierra Leone emerged from a decade of civil war in early 2002 with the help of Britain, the former colonial power, and a large United Nations peacekeeping mission. More than 17,000 foreign troops disarmed tens of thousands of rebels and militia fighters in the biggest UN peacekeeping success in Africa for many years to avoid the disastrously unfortunate events experienced during the 1990s in Angola, Rwanda and Somalia. In eastern Sierra Leone is an interior region of large plateaus interspersed with high mountains, where Mount Bintumani reaches 1,948 meters (6,390 ft), the highest point in the country. The upper part of the drainage basin of the Moa River is located in the south of the region. In the central part of the country is a region of lowland plains, containing forests, bush and farmland that occupy about 43% of Sierra Leone’s land area.


In 1800 Sierra Leone was still only a small Colony extending a few miles (a few km) up the peninsula from Freetown. The bulk of the territory that makes up present-day Sierra Leone was still the sovereign territory of indigenous people such as the Mende and Temne, and was little affected by the tiny population of the Colony. Over the course of the 1800s that gradually changed: the British and Creoles in the Freetown area increased their involvement in — and their control over — the surrounding territory by engaging in trade, treaty making, and military expeditions. Trade was the driving force; the treaties and military expeditions were undertaken primarily to promote and increase it. In their treaties with the native chiefs the British were largely concerned with securing local peace so that commerce would not be interrupted. Typically, the British government agreed to pay a chief a stipend in return for a commitment from him to keep the peace with his neighbours; other specific commitments extracted from a chief might include keeping roads open, allowing the British to collect customs duties, and submitting disputes with his neighbours to British adjudication. In the decades following Britain’s outlawry of the slave trade in 1807, the treaties sometimes also required chiefs to desist from slave trading. Suppression of slave trading and suppression of inter-chiefdom war went hand-in-hand because the trade thrived on the wars (and caused them). Thus, to the commercial reasons for pacification could be added anti-slavery ones. At least by the mid 1820s, the army and navy were going out from the Colony to attack chiefs whose behaviour did not conform to British dictates. In 1826, Governor Turner led troops to the Bum-Kittam area, captured two stockaded towns, burnt others, and declared a blockade on the coast as far as Capem Mount. This was partly an anti-slaving exercise and partly to punish the chief for refusing territory to the British. Later that year acting-Governor Macaulay sent out an expedition which went up the Jong River and burned Commenda, a town belonging to a related chief. In the 1880s, Britain’s intervention in the hinterland received added impetus because of the “Scramble for Africa”: an intense competition between the European powers for territory in Africa. In this case the rival was France. To forestall French incursion into what they had come to consider as their own sphere, the British government renewed efforts to finalize a boundary agreement with France and on 1 January 1890 instructed Governor Hay in Sierra Leone to get from chiefs in the boundary area friendship treaties containing a clause forbidding them to treat with another European power without British consent. Consequently, in 1890 and ’91 Hay and two travelling Commissioners, Garrett and Aldridge, went on extensive tours of what is now Sierra Leone obtaining treaties from chiefs. Most of these were not, however, treaties of session; they were in the form of cooperative agreements between two sovereign powers. In January 1895 a boundary agreement was signed in Paris, roughly fixing the line between French Guinea and Sierra Leone. The exact line was to be determined by surveyors later. As Christopher Fyfe notes, “The delimitation was made almost entirely in geographical terms — rivers, watersheds, parallels — not political. Samu chiefdom, for instance, was divided; the people on the frontier had to opt for farms on one side or villages on the other.” More generally it may be noted that the arbitrary lumping together of disparate native peoples into geographical units decided on by the colonial powers has been an ongoing source of trouble throughout Africa.

These geographical units are now attempting to function as nations but are not naturally nations, being composed in many cases of peoples who are traditional enemies. In Sierra Leone, for example, the Mende, Temne, and Creoles remain as rival power blocs between whom lines of fission easily emerge. In 1884 Mechanics Alliance, a trade union (possibly the first) is formed, and then in 1885 Carpenters Defensive Union (trade union) formed.  In August 1895 an Order-in-Council was issued in Britain authorising the Colony to make laws for the territory around it, extending out to the agreed-upon boundary (which corresponds closely to that of present-day Sierra Leone). On 31 August 1896 a Proclamation was issued in the Colony declaring that territory to be a British “Protectorate”. The Colony remained a distinct political entity; the Protectorate was governed from it. The “Protectorate” had not been voluntarily entered into by most of the Chiefs whose territories it subsumed. Many had signed treaties of friendship with Britain, but these were expressed as being between sovereign powers contracting with each other; there was no subordination. Only a handful of Chiefs had signed treaties of cession, and in some of those cases it is doubtful whether they had understood the terms. In remote areas no treaties had been obtained at all. Strictly speaking, a Protectorate does not exist unless the people in it have agreed to be protected. The Sierra Leone Protectorate was more in the nature of a unilateral acquisition of territory by Britain. Almost every Chieftaincy in Sierra Leone responded to the British arrogation of power with armed resistance. The Protectorate Ordinances (passed in the Colony in 1896 and 1897) abolished the title of King and replaced it with “Paramount Chief”; Chiefs and Kings had formerly been selected by the leading members of their own communities, now all Chiefs, even Paramount ones, could be deposed or installed at the will of the Governor; most of the judicial powers of the Chiefs were removed and given to courts presided over by British “District Commissioners”; the Governor decreed that a house tax of 5s to 10s was to be levied annually on every dwelling in the Protectorate. To the Chiefs, these reductions in their power and prestige were unbearable. When, in 1898, attempts were made to actually collect the tax, they rose up, first in the North, led by a dominant Temne Chief called Bai Bureh, and then in Mende country to the South. The two struggles took on quite different characteristics: Bai Bureh’s forces conducted a disciplined and skilfully executed guerilla campaign which caused the British considerable difficulty. Hostilities began in February; Bureh’s harassing tactics confounded the British at first but by May they were gaining ground. The rainy season interrupted hostilities until October, when the British resumed the slow process of eliminating the African’s stockades. When most of these defences had been eliminated, Bureh was captured or surrendered (accounts differ) in November. After the Hut Tax War there was no more large-scale military resistance to colonialism. Resistance and dissent continued, but took other forms. Vocal political dissent came mainly from the Creoles, who had a sizeable middle and upper class of business-people and European-educated professionals such as doctors and lawyers. In the mid 1800s they had enjoyed a period of considerable political influence, but in the late 1800s the government became much less open to them. They continued to press for political rights, however, and operated a variety of newspapers which Governors considered troublesome and demagogic.

Early History

1600 – 1787

In the 1600’s Portuguese imperialism waned and, in Sierra Leone, the most significant European group became the British. By, at latest, 1628, they had a factory in the vicinity of Shebro Island, which is about 50 km South East down the coast from present-day Freetown (the capital). One commodity they got was camwood, a hard timber, from which also could be obtained a red dye. It was at that time still easily accessible from the coast. Also, elephants still lived on Sherbro Island. The Portuguese missionary, Barrierra, left Sierra Leone in 1610. During the 1600s the Temne ethno linguistic group was expanding. Around 1600 a Mani still ruled the Loko kingdom (the area North of Port Loko Creek) and another ruled the upper part of the South shore of the Freetown estuary. The North shore of the estuary was under a Bulom king, and the area just east of Freetown on the peninsula was held by a non-Mani with a European name. By the mid-1600s this situation had changed: Temne, not Bullom was spoken on the South shore, and ships stopping for water and firewood had to pay customs to the Temne king of Bureh who lived at Bagos town on the point between the Rokel River and Port Loko Creek. The Temne had thus expanded in a wedge toward the sea at Freetown, and now separated the Bulom to the North from the Mani and other Mande speakers to the South and East. In this period there are several reports of women occupying high positions. The king of the South shore used to leave one of his wives to rule when he was absent, and in the Sherbro there were woman chiefs. During the 1600s, Fula from the Upper Niger and Senegal moved into an area called Futa Jalon in the mountainous region north of present-day Sierra Leone. They were to have an important impact on the peoples of Sierra Leone because they increased trade and also produced secondary population movements into Sierra Leone. In the early 1700s a Bulom named Seniora Maria had her own town near Cape Sierra Leone. The Muslim Fula at first cohabited peaceably with the Sussa, Yalunka and non-Muslim Fula already at Futa Jalon, but around 1725 embarked on a war of domination over them. As a result many Susu and Yalunka migrated. Some Susu already converted to Islam, came South into Sierra Leone, in turn displacing Limba from North-West Sierra Leone and driving them into North-central Sierra Leone where they now are. Some Susu moved as far South as the Temne town of Port Loko, only 60 km upriver from the Atlantic. Eventually a Muslim Susu family called Senko supplanted the town’s Temne rulers. Other Susu moved westward from Futa Jalon, eventually dominating the Baga, Bulom, and Temne North of the Scarcies. In 1787 a plan was implemented to settle some of London’s “Black Poor” in Sierra Leone in what was called the “Province of Freedom.” A number of Black poor and white women arrived off the shore of Sierra Leone on 15 May 1787. The Sierra Leone Company was established to relocate another group of nearly 2,000 Black Loyalists, originally settled in Nova Scotia. Given the most barren land in Nova Scotia, many had died from the harsh winters there. They established a settlement at Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone in 1792. This settlement was joined by other groups of freed slaves and became one of Britain’s first colonies in West Africa. Originally planned as utopian community by Granville Sharp, the English abolitionist, the directors of the Sierra Leone Company refused to allow the settlers to take freehold of the land. Aware of how Highland Clearances benefited the landlord but not the tenant, the settlers revolted in 1799. The revolt was only put down by the arrival of over 500 Jamaican Maroons, who also arrived via Nova Scotia. Thousands of slaves were returned to or liberated in Freetown. Most chose to remain in Sierra Leone. These returned Africans were from all areas of Africa. They joined the previous settlers and together became known as Creole or Krio people. Cut off from their homes and traditions by the experience of slavery, they assimilated some aspects of British styles of life and built a flourishing trade on the West African coast.  The lingua franca of the colony was Krio,  a creole language rooted in eighteenth century African American English, which quickly spread across the region as a common language of trade and Christian proselytizing. British and American abolitionist movements envisioned Freetown as embodying the possibilities of a post-slave trade Africa. Portuguese ships began visiting regularly in the late 1400s, and for a while they maintained a fort on the North shore of the Freetown estuary. The estuary is one of the few good harbors on West Africa’s surf-pounded “Windward Shore” (Liberia to Senegal), and also has a good watering spot; it soon became a favourite destination of European mariners. Some of the Portuguese stayed permanently, trading and intermarrying with the local people. When Europeans first arrived in Sierra Leone, slavery among the African people of the area was rare. If the Africans were not much interested in acquiring slaves, the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English were. Initially their method was to cruise the coast, conducting quick kidnapping raids when opportunities presented themselves. Soon, however, they found local actors willing to partner with them in these vicious but profitable affairs: some chiefs were willing to part with a few of the less desirable members of their tribes for a price; others went into the war business a bevy of battle captives could be sold for a fortune in European rum, cloth, beads, copper, or muskets. This early slaving was essentially an export business. The use of slaves as labourers by the local Africans appears to have developed only later. The slave owners were originally white and foreigners, but the late eighteenth century saw the emergence of powerful mulatto slave-trading chiefs, who were said to own large numbers of ‘domestic slaves’.  Slaves were housed close to the fresh tracts of land they cleared for their masters. They were considered part of the household of their owner, and enjoyed limited rights. It was not customary to sell them except for a serious offence, such as adultery with the wife of a freeman. Small plots of land were given to them for their own use, and they might retain the proceeds of crops they grew on these plots; by this means it was possible for a slave to become the owner of another slave.
Sometimes a slave married into the household of his master and rose to a position of trust; there is an instance of a slave taking charge of a chiefdom during the minority of the heir. Descendants of slaves were often practically indistinguishable from freemen. Slaves were sometimes sent on errands outside the kingdoms of their masters and returned voluntarily. Speaking specifically of the era around 1700. Archaeological finds show that Sierra Leone has been inhabited continuously for at least 2,500 years, populated by successive movements from other parts of Africa. The use of iron was introduced to Sierra Leone by the 9th century, and by AD 1000 agriculture was being practiced by coastal tribes. Sierra Leone’s dense tropical rainforest partly isolated it from other pre-colonial African cultures. European contacts with Sierra Leone were among the first in West Africa. At this time the country was inhabited by numerous politically independent native groups. Several different languages were spoken, but there was similarity of religion. In the coastal rainforest belt there were Bulom speakers between the Sherbro and Freetown estuaries, Loko North of the Freetown estuary to the Little Scarcies, Temne at the mouth of the Scarcies and also inland, and Limba farther up the Scarcies. In the hilly savannah north of all of these were the Susu and Fula. The Susu traded regularly with the coastal peoples along river valley routes, bringing salt, clothes woven by the Fula, good quality iron work,and some gold.