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Freetown History Distorted: A Rejoinder

20 December 2018 at 16:26 | 2009 views

“Freetown History Distorted”: A Rejoinder

By Joseph J Bangura, PhD, USA.

A recent newspaper column, “Freetown History Distorted,” by Cecil Magbaily Fyle, found fault with my more soberly titled and acclaimed book, The Temne of Sierra Leone: African Agency in the Making of a British Colony. I have decided to submit a rejoinder for a number of reasons. First, Fyle’s analysis of my work is full of inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims. Second, Fyle admits that his critique is triggered by my non-recognition of his contribution to the discourse on the origins of those referred to as “Creole.” Hence he uses his analysis as cover to advertise his works. Third, it seems to me Fyle is not familiar with the historical context of the issues addressed in my book, because unlike some in the Sierra Leone academic community he has not made any original contribution to the scholarship on the history of the Sierra Leone Colony or colonial Freetown. Many of his works come across as repackaged ideas appropriated from Akintola Wyse and others.

To begin: Fyle compares my approach to the Temne language unfavorably to that of Alexander Gordon Laing. Yet Laing was an early-nineteenth-century British functionary who served in the West Indies and West Africa; he was not a scholar. Fyle states that Laing’s recordings of the names of African languages did not benefit from oral tradition – an apparent weakness of the work. Ironically, my work extensively benefitted from oral tradition as evident in the numerous interviews I conducted with indigenous Temne-speakers. Laing’s recording of “Timannee” to describe the language of Temne-speakers is based purely on what he heard from the people he met in the field. We don’t know for certain what he heard and how he heard it. Did the Temne people Laing spoke to describe the name of their language in a standard Temne dialect given the numerous dialects that existed among the group? This observation is pertinent because many Sierra Leonean languages consist of multiple dialects. Laing does not thoroughly address these issues in his report and yet Fyle is speculating on what Laing may have heard. Why should I privilege Laing’s views over the perspective of indigenous Temne chiefs, community leaders and local intellectuals I interviewed for this study? Many of the Temne-speakers I interviewed for this research referred to themselves as Theimne, which Fyle spells as Themnε. Laing had no tools for understanding the numerous dialects found in Sierra Leone. Nor could he appreciate the ways Temne words were Anglicized in colonial encounters. Indeed, he was one of the Anglicizers. I stand on the accuracy of the interviews I conducted with modern Temne -speakers, many of whom refer to themselves as Theimne, using a pronunciation with roots in the past. Academic historical scholarship rests on judicious use of sources (including, when warranted, skepticism) and a willingness to make fine distinctions (for example, Temne vs Theimne). I find Fyle’s criticism perplexing because in his recently self-published textbook, he repeatedly uses “Thaimne” to describe the language of Temne-speakers and did not make any reference to Laing’s work.

Fyle’s focus on the accurate inscription of Theimne or Temne is a convenient deflection of his inability to discern the major argument I make on Temne identity. His analysis does not engage the theoretical literature on the concept of identity in African history, which asserts that ethnic identities in Africa can be primordial, constructed or instrumental. Using this theoretical paradigm, I argue that though Temne identity was initially primordial in the Sierra Leone colony, it gradually became instrumental from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of colonial rule. In fact, with the formation of many Temne cultural associations such as Ambas Geda, Alimania, Nauru Jinati, Ariah and Boys London, Endeavor and the Temne Progressive Union, leaders of the associations became gatekeepers of Temne identity in the colony: they favored applicants who claimed to be Temne publicly. Within a relatively short period of time, the allure of the associations impelled members of other ethnic groups such as Loko-speakers, Limba-speakers, Fula-speakers and others to apply for membership in the associations. In consequence, two sets of Temne-speakers emerged: bona fide Temne (consanguineous Temne) and feign Temne (those who acted Temne in public but stealthily maintained a primary identity). Temne identity became instrumental and deployed for social, economic and political advantage. Because of this, it became clear that “being” Temne in the colony was different from “being” Temne in the protectorate. Though both regional groups spoke the same language with dialectal variations, many Temne-speakers in the colony carried dual identities throughout the colonial period. Thus, the Temne cultural associations became one of several institutions that helped raise the profile of Temneness in the face of hegemonic competition in the colony. Fyle’s fixation on whether Temne in the colony and protectorate spoke different languages shows the limitation of his understanding of the nuanced relationship between the two. We cannot understand the colony vs protectorate Temne relationship without grasping this vital distinction.

Similarly, Fyle manhandles scholarly debates about the existence of “Creole” or “Krio” in Sierra Leone. His critique of my argument on this issue is muddled at best. Fyle’s convoluted explication of the origin of Creole or Krio identity is based on a single source, Miller’s report – a report that was given to him by the late Christopher Fyfe. Fyle states that Miller’s inclusion of the word “Creole” in his report was based on his mishearing of “Akiyiro,” which described newly arrived Liberated Africans also known as “captured negroes.” This explanation has two implications: first, Miller’s report was based on speculation or conjecture – the report was based on what he heard. Second, Fyle again predicates his argument on a single source rife with speculative analysis. Despite popular uses today, many census reports in the nineteenth century did not indicate the existence of a fixed Creole or Krio community in the colony. Between 1787 and 1864 various ex-slaves were settled in the Sierra Leone Colony. These former slaves occupied different sections of the colony and they carried different identities. Their descendants continued the same tradition of describing themselves disparately. By speculating on what Miller may have heard from Liberated Africans, Fyle is guilty of reading history backwards – using the present to assess the past. Bluntly put, this is bad history. He uses Miller’s report to advance a narrative that is peculiar in its vacuity. The available historical sources (colonial documents and newspaper reports at the time) show that Creole identity was opportunistically deployed by its various users and carriers, until, in the mid-twentieth century, party politics forced the various factions within the settler community to coalesce around a single Creole identity under the leadership of Hubert Bankole-Bright of the National Council of Sierra Leone. Doubtless many Sierra Leoneans and many older scholars are attached to a notion of Creole or Krio identity. But current scholarship focuses on whether Creole identity was primordial or, alternatively, was constructed by power brokers, African elites, and colonial officials.

My book argues, using primary documents, that the compellation Creole or Krio is a misnomer. The descendants of settlers described as Creole or Krio identified themselves disparately. They used different identifiers such as “Sierra Leonean,” “African,” “Sierra Leonese,” “British subjects” and “Black Englishmen,” “Nova Scotians,” and “Maroons.” They did not use Krio– this identity was popularized by Akintola Wyse, whom Sierra Leone historiography has often followed uncritically. This is the reason Christopher Fyfe describes Wyse as the perpetrator of the Krio myth. Based on my extensive research on this topic, I completely agree with this characterization. Frederick Cooper, Terrence Ranger, Thomas Spear, Jonathon Glassman, Bill Bravman and others have argued that African elites and colonial officials constructed or imagined ethnic identities for instrumental reasons. A Krio community did not exist in the Sierra Leone Colony, but it was created and then seemed to be part of the polity. For an alternative to the misnomer that has commanded so much loyalty, I propose the appellative Freetonian to describe descendants of former slaves between 1787 and 1961. Once again, academic historical scholarship has to step in to set the record straight. It is great to see scholars such as Scanlan use this cognomen to describe former slaves in colonial Freetown in his recently published book.

A couple of other criticisms are easily refuted. First, Fyle’s attention-seeking headline, “Freetown History Distorted,” insinuates that my book distorts the history of Freetown. His criticism about Temne invasion of the territory that became Freetown starting in the fifteenth century is again based on a single source he claims to have read, Walter Rodney’s History of the Upper Guinea Coast. Rodney, Major J.J. Crooks, Dorjahn Vernon, Adeleye Ijagbemi, Michael Banton, et al. support the theory of an early Temne incursion into the coastal territory. The Temne invasion made them the preponderant ethnic community on the coast and hence they dominated many aspects of coastal life. If the Temne did not “own” the territory that became Freetown, why did Temne chiefs and their regents sell to the British land for the repatriation of former slaves from Europe, the Americas and Africa? Why did Governor McCarthy purchase a track of land up to the bank of the Ribi River from the Temne in 1819? Michael Banton’s work has numerous accounts of how the Temne continuously reminded other ethnic groups that the land on which Freetown was established belonged to them. Even the mild-mannered Prime Minister Sir Milton Margai was forced to use this assertion in a nuanced fashion during a heated political debate. Fyle has not shown how the use of this terminology misrepresents Temne claims of ownership of the coastal territory in the colonial period. His analysis also fails to show how my book distorts the history of Freetown. Second, Fyle questions the reliability of the interviews I conducted with Haja Sukainatu Bangura (she died shortly thereafter). I interviewed Haja Sukainatu Bangura multiple times in 2003. Her eldest son, Abdul Bangura, occasionally attended the interview sessions. In my interactions with Haja Sukainatu Bangura, she recommended names of other strong Temne and Susu-speaking women who contributed to the economic development of colonial Freetown. Many of these informants corroborated Bangura’s accounts of events. In all, I interviewed 38 informants for this study and Haja Sukainatu Bangura was just one of them. Fyle conveniently ignores this fact.

However, I do thank Dr. Fyle for his efforts in reading my book and responding to it in public. If we are to benefit from a new generation of young scholars, including those at Fourah Bay College, interested in Sierra Leone history, we must engage in public debate and we must model high-level historical scholarship. Dr. Fyle’s comments reveal for readers the difference between popular or textbook history and academic history.