Memories of Slavery: The Dark History of Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island

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Bunce Island is an island in the Sierra Leone River from where tens of thousands of Africans who were targeted for buying and selling on account of their rice-growing skills were shipped to the North American colonies of South Carolina and Georgia to be forced into slavery.

Memories of Slavery: The dark History of Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island

Bunce Island is an island in the Sierra Leone River Located some 30 kilometers from Freetown, the island served as a major post for the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century. Established in 1670 by English slave traders, it was the largest British slave castle on the Rice Coast where tens of thousands of Africans were targeted for buying and selling on account of their rice-growing skills and shipped to North America and the West Indies.

Bunce Island in Sierra Leone
Satellite view of Bunce Island. Photo: Google map
Location of Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island
Photo: Wikipedia

The Island was one of the chief processing points for slaves to be sold to rice planters in the British colonies of South Carolina and Georgia, where farmers where willing to pay premium prices for slaves with real hands on experience on rice cultivation.

Upon arriving in the American colonies, they were forced to work in rice paddies, cotton fields and indigo plantations along the South Carolina-Georgia seaboard where the moist climate and fertile land were very similar to their African homelands.

Rice cultivation in America saw an uplift and more extensive rice plantations were developed as more and more African captives were shipped from Bunce Island to work on rice farms.

The dark History of Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island
Historical image of the British slave trading post of Bunce Island.

South Carolina, which became one of the wealthiest states in North America with an economy based on rice cultivation, benefited the most from these enslaved Africans from the Rice Coast.

Slave auction advertisements in South Carolina and Georgia often announced slave cargoes arriving from Bunce Island to assure buyers that they would get experienced hand

There is still an intact community of descendants of slaves in the United States known as the Gullah, with roots directly traceable to Sierra Leone.

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According to UNESCO, the Gullah community in South Carolina and Georgia still retain traditions in food, names and stories that draw heavily from their Sierra Leonean roots.

According to UNESCO, What makes the story of Bunce Island different from the likes of Goree Island in Senegal and The Elmina Castle in Ghana is that it became “the only instance where Africans were particularly targeted for buying and selling on account of their skills,”

The Rice farmers from Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island
The expertise of African slaves in growing rice played a crucial role in growing the economy of South Carolina

For tens of thousands of Africans, Bunce Island was the place where their life in the continent ended — men, women and children were kidnapped and brought to the island’s fort to be traded and eventually put on slave ships bound for the Americas.

In 1807 after the British Government abolished the Atlantic slave trade, the task of enforcing it fell to the Royal Navy. The following year Freetown became a Crown Colony and the Royal Navy based its Africa Squadron there. They sent regular patrols to search for slave vessels violating the slave trade ban.

Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island
Between 1808 and 1860, the West Africa Squadron of the British Royal Navy captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans

Bunce Island was shut down for slave-trading; British firms used the castle as a cotton plantation, a trading post and a sawmill. These activities were economically unsuccessful and the island was abandoned around 1840, after which the buildings and stone walls deteriorated.

In 1948, Bunce Island was designated Sierra Leone’s first officially protected historic site.

Bunce Island holds universal value in being a place that an intact community of descendants of slaves can point at as a place of origin in Africa.

Memories of Slavery: The dark History of Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island
Abandoned in the mid-1800s, it is one of the most authentic slave trading facilities still in existence. Unlike other slave trading posts, nothing was ever built on Bunce Island once slavery was abolished

Today, Bunce Island is protected by the Sierra Leonean Monuments and Relics Commission, a branch of the country’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture. The government is also working to preserve the castle as an important historic site and as a destination for tourists, especially African Americans.

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Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.

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