Salone News

Bunce Island: Rising from grass to grace

9 April 2019 at 00:48 | 2278 views

By Alie Y. Kallay, Freetown, Sierra Leone*

When you travel you may arrive the same day in Freetown, and will be met at the airport by your host and transferred to Lungi international Air Port Hotel. Overnight at the Lungi Hotel (300 yards away) breakfast is free but, lunch and dinner are on your own account.

Board the boat for the historic Bunce Island and revisit the slave trade era. Fort Bunce was supplying up to three thousand slaves a year to the Danish traders who sold them to the new American rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia. Today, these slaves retained many of their African traditions, customs and linguistic ties to Sierra Leone. Their descendants are known today as the Gullah. There are no facilities on Bunce Island and although the ruins are a bit overgrown, they are very impressive and very eerie to wander around. Old British cannons still lie scattered around the island. Late morning transfer to Freetown. If transfer is via ferry, enroots, you will stop at the Rail Road Museum at Cline Town eastern Freetown. The museum housed old English Rail Engines and Coaches with a lot of history beside them. Overnight at your Freetown hotel, breakfast is free but lunch and dinner on your own account.

This morning, take a city tour by visiting the National Museum, the Big Market (former slave market still existing), which operates daily. It is a covered market and on sale are a range of crafts, bric-a-brac, traditional medicines and mystical materials. We will show you some of the historic sites around the centre of the city. After Lunch, tour the University of Sierra Leone, Fourah Bay College at Mount Aureol. Fourah College is the oldest University in West Africa founded in 1872. It is worth a visit, partly because of the stunning view from the mountain and also an opportunity to see the Botanical Gardens. Overnight at your Freetown Hotel, breakfast is again free but lunch and dinner on your own account.

Today you will visit the Tacugama Chimp Sanctuary, which is located about 40 minutes drive from the centre of Freetown. The Sanctuary was set up in 1995, and is committed to the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned and abandoned chimpanzees. The chimps enjoy a semi-wild life within the 100 acre reserve. From the Chimps Sanctuary, hike the nature trails to Charlotte Village and Charlotte Falls. The Falls is ideal for picnicking and Frolicking. You will have an opportunity to mingle with the villagers. Overnight at Freetown Hotel, breakfast but lunch and dinner on own account.
“A crumbling old slave fort off the coast of Sierra Leone is challenging long held assumptions about African-American ancestry”, writes Paige McClanahan.

For more than a century Bunce Island -a small patch of jungle of Sierra Leone’s coast - was the site of some grisly business. Men, women and children who had been kidnapped or sold from their homes were crowded inside the island’s stone fort, shackled together, and forced into holding pens. After a waitof weeks or months, they were marched onto a ship at the end of the Island’s stony pier. Those who survived the subsequent ten-week journey across the Atlantic would find themselves in an entirely new world: the rice plantations of the American colonies.

That was more than 200 years ago. Today the old slave fort is crumbling and few people outside of Sierra Leone even know that it exists. But a committed group of historians, archeologist and concern citizens have set about preserving what is left of Bunce. They want to build a museum about the Island in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, and offer guided tours of the old fort to help people understand its historical importance. In doing so, they hope they might help African Americans reconnect long-lost relatives in Sierra Leone.

“It’s the most important historic site in Africa for the United States”, says Joseph Opala, an American historian who is leading the work of the Bunce Island Preservation Project, the group behind the restoration efforts. Opala estimates that between a quarter and a fifth of all of the men, women and children who sailed from Bunce Island in the 18th Century ended up in either what is today the American state of South Carolina or Georgia. "No otherWestAfrican slave fort sent as many people directly to the Americas," he says.Bunce, which was an active slave fort almost continuously between 1670 and lSOT, was busiest in the middle of the 1700s,which is precisely when the rice plantations in the south of the Americas were producing enough to warrant slave labour.

Plantation owners in Georgia and South Carolina wanted to buy slaves who knew how to grow and process rice, a challenging crop that they had little experience with themselves. So slaves were brought out from what was then known as Africa’s’rice coast’ which reached from Senegal to Liberia. Bunce Island fell right in the middle of that stretch. Bunce shut down with the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. It was soon completely abandoned and it has sat-untouched and largely forgotten – ever since. That neglect is good in a way, Opala says, because it means that subsequent tenants have not altered the site. But it also means, after 200 years of exposure in one of the wettest parts of the world, the structure of the forth has fallen into an advanced state of disrepair. Today, the buildings are in ruins.

The group’s first and most pressing goal is to stop that deterioration. They have brought in a specialist engineering firm to study the fort and find new ways to support the structures that remain. After the fort itself is secure, the group will shift its focus to building the museum in Freetown; roughly 45 minutes from the island by boat.

When the museum is finally finished the group has set a goal of 2015 for the opening- Opala hopes that African American who may have links to Sierra Leone will visit the country to learn more about their ancestors.

"The people who left as slaves didn’t all die in the middle passage," says Isalu Smith,a Sierra Leonean who is the deputy directorof the Bunce Island preservation project."Some of them did make it to the otherside - and they lived there and they had kids. They have descendants living there today was important for me to forge a link with these descendants because, for all you know, these might be my long-lost brothers," says Smith.

To this day, hints of Sierra Leonean cultures are clearly visible in the Gullah and Geechee communities along the Georgia and Southa smattering of language and who carry on certain traditions that would be familiar to many back in Sierra Leone.

"In Gullah country, the low-country of South Carolina and Georgia, many of the people you meet will tell you that their ancestors came from Sierra Leone," says Amadu Massally, a Sierra Leonean who is starting up a company in Freetown that will run heritage tours to Bunce Island."But unfortunately we don’ t have many African Americans coming to Sierra Leone yet," Massally says. Many of them go to Ghana under the pretense that Ghana is the home of African Americans.” Ghana draws ‘heritage’ tourists with its luxury hotels, generally well-maintained historic sites and direct flights from the U.S.This tourist infrastructure is lacking in SierraLeone, which is still recovering from the civil war that gripped the country for much of the 1990s.

But some historians argue that African Americans are more likely to have roots in Sierra Leone than in Ghana. The slave castles in Ghana were run by the Portuguese; and the slaves that left their ports were sent to Brazil and other Portuguese territories in the New World, not to the American colonies.

The strong connection between the U.S. and Sierra Leone that historians have uncovered through documentary research this also turning up in the results of DNA tests, which have become increasingly popular among African Americans. The poet Maya Angelou and activist, clergy man and politician Jesse Jackson have reportedly discovered that they have Sierra Leonean ancestors. There have also been strong suggestions that the American first lady,Michelle Obama, might have a connection to the country, given that her grandfather was born in a Gullah community on theSouth Carolina coast.

Griffin Lotson, an American who hails from a Gullah community in Georgia, is keen to keep those connections strong. Our culture, the Gullah and the Geechee had its birth on the slave plantations. Lotson said during a visit to Freetown earlier this year."But for every birth, there is a conception. And unquestionably, that conception here in Sierra Leone.

* Alie Yunus Kallay is a journalist based in Sierra Leone, West Africa. He writes as a freelancer for New African, The African Courier, D + C and Travel Africa publications.