Bunce Island Preservation Project Report

The following piece was culled from the Bunce Island Preservation Project Report, prepared by the Bunce Island Coalition and covering the period 2010 - 2012.

Bunce Island is a small island, about 1700 feet long and 350 feet wide, located in the Sierra Leone River (or Freetown Harbour) about 17 miles upriver from Freetown. The Sierra Leone River is a huge estuary formed by the confluence of the Rokel River and Port Loko Creek. It is the largest natural harbour in the African continent and the third largest in the world after the great harbours in Sydney, Australia and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. European slave traders operated on Bunce Island from about 1668 to 1807 when the British Parliament outlawed the Atlantic slave trade, and based a fleet in Freetown to enforce their ban. British slave traders built their fort on Bunce Island for both defensive and commercial reasons. When war broke out between Britain and France in the 1700s, the two countries always attacked each other’s slaving operations in West Africa. Since Bunce Island is located at the limit of navigation for ocean-going ships in the harbour, it could be attacked only from the downriver side. This gave the slave traders an opportunity to escape into the shallows on the upriver side when the enemy attacked. But the island’s location at the limit of navigation also meant that the slave traders based there were situated farther upriver than their competitors who were also trading with the big ships that came from Europe and, thus, had the first look at the slaves and goods brought down the Rokel River and Port Loko Creek.

Four British slave trading firms operated Bunce Island during its long history: the Gambia Adventurers; the Royal African Company; Grant, Oswald & Company; and the Company of John & Alexander Anderson. All four companies leased Bunce Island from the local king, titled “Bai Sama,” who controlled the “Bullom Shore” area on the north side of the harbour. They dealt in slaves, but also a number of local products including gold nuggets, ivory tusks, camwood, bees wax, and cow hides. They purchased these items with guns and ammunition, cloth from Europe and the East Indies, metal goods, alcoholic drink such as rum and wine, and trinkets like glass beads and tobacco pipes. They did their trading primarily in the dry season (September through April) when their African suppliers in the interior could travel down to the sea, and their European buyers could travel safely on the sea in their sailing ships. But the Bunce Island slave traders did not just wait for trade to come to them, they also operated small trading posts at the mouths of the various rivers that empty into the Atlantic up to 300 miles north and 300 miles south of the Sierra Leone River. They operated a “small navy” of single-mast “sloops,” or sailing boats, to supply their trading posts. It is now believed that during its roughly 140 year history, Bunce Island sent about 30,000 women, men and children into slavery on plantations in the Americas.

Bunce Island is just one of about 40 major commercial forts that Europeans operated on the West African coast during the slave trade period, but it is unique in one respect -- its close ties to North America. The other slave castles sent nearly all their captives to the sugar-producing islands in the West Indies, but Bunce Island sent as many as 20% of its captives to the North American Colonies, and particularly South Carolina and Georgia where rice was grown. The rice planters in those colonies were eager to make use of the rice-growing skills of farmers from what they called the “Rice Coast” region of West Africa, the area extending from Senegal and Gambia in the north down to Sierra Leone and Liberia in the south. The American rice planters imported so many captives from that area during the second half of the 1700s that the Gullah people, the descendants of the rice growing slaves, still have many linguistic and cultural traits in common with Sierra Leoneans. Gullahs have made three high-profile “homecoming” visits to Sierra Leone since November, 1989. All three of those groups made poignant visits to Bunce Island, and the home-comers all said that they could sense the presence of their ancestors in the men’s and women’s slave yards. The Gullah visitors shed many tears in those places.
More to come...