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Real Photo of Bai Bureh Discovered

24 May 2013 at 19:21 | 4411 views

Members of the Sierra Leone media in Freetown were invited to a press conference at the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs (off King Harmon Road) on Tuesday, April 30th, 2013.

Honourable Peter Bayuku Konteh, Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, introduced Mr. Gary Schulze, an American with a 51-year relationship with Sierra Leone. Schulze was a member of the first US Peace Corps group that came to the country in 1962.

Mr. Schulze is the co-discoverer of a remarkable historical discovery, a clear, face-on photograph of Bai Bureh, Sierra Leone’s greatest hero. The photo shows Bai Bureh sitting in a relaxed manner with his hands folded on his lap, looking slightly away from the camera. He’s wearing his trademark “ronko” gown (or war shirt) and a small embroidered Muslim hat. An Sierra Leonean policeman in uniform stands next to Bai Bureh keeping a watchful eye on his captive, and holding a large rifle with a fixed bayonet. But the soldier is also clearly relaxed.

British officers who fought Bai Bureh in the Hut Tax War of 1898 were impressed with his fighting skills, and with the protection he accorded British and Creole civilians in the war zone. After Bai Bureh surrendered, he was treated as a political prisoner, not as a criminal, and given some limited personal freedom. In the photograph, he appears to be sitting in the back compound of a Creole family of modest means. You can see an ordinary domestic scene – a “board house” with a thatched roof, a man emerging from the house in European dress, a girl picking a papaya, some scattered cooking pots, and even a “pepper stone.”

The photo is inscribed with these words (some abbreviated in the original):

"Bai Bureh, Chief of the Timini when a prisoner at Sierra Leone in 1898. An original photograph by Lieutenant Arthur Greer West India Regiment who died August 7, 1900, when storming a blockade after the relief of Kumassie."

Schulze discovered the photo on eBay, the online auction house, in August last year, and his long-time friend, William Hart, noticed the photo on eBay at the same time. Hart also has a long connection with Sierra Leone, beginning with a job lecturing at Fourah Bay College in the 1970s. Schulze and Hart both collect antique art, artifacts, documents and photos relating to Sierra Leone, and both knew instantly that this was something rare – the only known photograph of Bai Bureh. They coordinated their efforts so as not to bid against each other, but in the end, a professional document dealer in London placed the bid that won the photograph, which panicked Schulze and Hart. They were afraid the dealer would sell the photo to some private collector who would never make it public, so that this priceless document of Sierra Leone’s history might disappear and never be seen again.

But Gary immediately sent a message to the dealer through eBay, offering significantly more than he had paid for it only a few days before, and fortunately the dealer accepted Schulze’s offer after a bit of haggling. Then, excited at his discovery, Schulze decided to bring the photo to Sierra Leone on his next trip to this country just a few months later.

Schulze and Hart’s discovery is remarkable for being the only known photograph of Bai Bureh, but it is also unusual in the information that is available to confirm its authenticity beyond the smallest doubt. The inscription on the photo is quite convincing in itself, but Hart, who lectured at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland before his retirement, located even more solid evidence. He was able to trace the photographer, Lt. Greer, to a village in Northern Ireland where his descendants still live in the same house today, and he found that they had a stack of letters Greer wrote to his family during his military service abroad, including Sierra Leone’s Hut Tax War. The family allowed Hart to read a letter written in 1898 in which Greer described the circumstances in which he took the photo, and his description of the scene matches what we can see in the photograph in every detail.

Schulze and Hart both have decades-long connections to Sierra Leone:

Schulze’s connection starts with his service in the Peace Corps in the early 1960s, when he taught history at Albert Academy, and also served as Acting Curator in the Sierra Leone Museum. Later, he served on the board of the Friends of Sierra Leone group that played a major role in securing political asylum status in the United States for thousands of Sierra Leoneans during the rebel war. He also acted as a United Nations election observer during the crucial 1996 elections. Schulze has contributed money over the years to a number of aid projects in rural areas, including Kagboro Chiefdom, where he will be crowned an Honourary Paramount Chief on May 4th in recognition of his longstanding efforts.

Hart’s connection to Sierra Leone started when he lectured at FBC in the 1970s. Although he is a philosophy lecturer by profession, he fell in love with the traditional arts of Sierra Leone from his first days in this country, and he has now spent almost forty years researching and publishing on that subject. His trademark contribution is the survey he conducted over many years of Sierra Leonean art and artifacts held in museum collections all across Europe. Some of the objects he found were hundreds of years old, but looked like new due to the care taken to preserve them for generations. Hart is now working on a project supported by the British Museum and other prestigious institutions in the UK, called “Reanimating Cultural Heritage.” The project will give Sierra Leoneans access online to the rare artifacts that he and other scholars have found outside the country, together with video and other supporting materials that will breathe new life into these historical treasures.

Sierra Leoneans are very fortunate to have this authentic photograph of their country’s greatest hero. Until now, the only image of Bai Bureh made during his lifetime was a pencil sketch that a British army officer, named H.E. Green, made soon after his surrender. The drawing shows the great warrior dressed in his ronko gown sitting on a shipping crate, and leaning forward in what seems to be an attitude of defeat. Green’s Bai Bureh is a tired and exhausted old man, seemingly depleted of his physical powers. We will never know if Lt. Green’s drawing is a true depiction of Bai Bureh soon after he surrendered, or if Green drew him that way to make the point that British forces had not just defeated Bai Bureh, but also rendered him into a state of despair. In other words, we don’t know if Green’s sketch is an accurate portrait of the great man at that moment, or a work of political propaganda.

But we do know Bai Bureh’s condition when Lt. Greer photographed him around the same time. Bai Bureh is clearly a strong and healthy man in that photo, with an attitude of confidence. He is being guarded by an armed soldier, but he still has the appearance of a man in charge, a man long accustomed to issuing commands and having them carried out at once. There is no hint of despair in this version of Bai Bureh. The camera doesn’t lie.

When Gary Schulze was a young Peace Corps Volunteer in a newly independent Sierra Leone, he sensed that Sierra Leoneans needed Bai Bureh to be something more than Green’s pencil sketch. So, with the permission of Dr. M.C.F. Easmon, the founder of the museum, he commissioned a grave monument maker, named J.D. Marsh, to create a life-size standing figure of Bai Bureh. Then, he dressed the statue in a ronko gown he found in the museum’s collections and a three-cornered hat made of reddish-brown ronko material, and he wired a war sword dating to the Hut Tax War period to the statue’s right hand. The statue was immediately popular, and hundreds of people came to see it over the next few months, and thousands in the years to come. Then, in 1994, the Sierra Leone Government issued a Le 1,000 note with Bai Bureh’s portrait based on a photograph of the statue’s face.

Schulze has always been proud of the role he played in creating the museum’s standing figure of Bai Bureh, but as the years passed, he became more aware of its limitations. Mr. Marsh was working with very rough materials – wire and plaster – and the statue’s face is more like a doll than a living person, which is readily apparent on the Le 1000 note. And historians have told him that the hat he chose for Bai Bureh is actually a hunter’s hat worn in Sierra Leone only among the Limba, Koranko, and Yalunka peoples. Bai Bureh was a Loko man who ruled in a Temne kingdom, and there is no reason to believe that he ever wore such a hat. Yet, there it is on the great warrior’s head on Sierra Leone’s currency.

As the years went by, and Schulze thought more about the statue’s inaccuracies, it occurred to him that a photograph of the great man, if it could be found, would correct those problems, and for decades he kept his eyes open for a photo of Bai Bureh as he searched the world for interesting relics of Sierra Leone’s past. Then in August, 2012, he finally saw what he was looking for, but always suspected never existed. And it exceeded his expectations, as the Bai Bureh in Lt. Greer’s clear photograph is a real flesh and blood human being whose confidence and strength of character cannot be denied.

Some historians have suggested that Bai Bureh knew that he could not possibly defeat British military forces in an extended war, and that his objective was not to drive the British out of the region, but to make a point that its people could be pushed only so far before they fought back, and that if they had to, they could trade punch for punch. If that is true, then the great warrior succeeded in his goals, and had good reason to feel satisfied with his life even after he surrendered. And, indeed, the Bai Bureh in Lt. Greer’s photo looks like an elderly man looking back on his life and thinking that he made his mark on the world, and that his name would be on the lips of his people for many many years to come.

Sierra Leoneans will have a number of opportunities to view the Bai Bureh photo over the next two weeks, and learn more about its discovery. Mr. Schulze will give a lecture at the British Council on Thursday, May 9th at 10:00 AM. But he will also speak at other venues including FBC and the US Embassy at times to be announced in the local media.

The most important event will be an exhibit at the Sierra Leone National Museum, called “The Face of Bai Bureh,” where the public will have an opportunity not just to view the photograph, but a very large blown-up version of the image created for this exhibit. There will be a small admission charge with the funds going to the upkeep of the museum. Mr. Schulze will speak at the opening, and answer questions from the public. Museum visitors will also have the opportunity to purchase a new booklet on the Bai Bureh photo. The exhibit will be open to the public for at least a week, the times to be announced soon.

Mr. Schulze will also be calling on Sierra Leone officials to donate framed copies of the Bai Bureh photo to their respective offices. He looks forward to presenting President Koroma with one copy that can be hung at State House and another for the president himself. But Mr. Schulze is also quite keen to donate a copy to the Bank of Sierra Leone. He will urge the Governor to release a new version of the Le 1000 note with a respectful portrait of Bai Bureh based on the photograph, rather than the doll-like face based on the museum statue.

Gary Schulze, one of the two people that discovered and bought Bai Bureh’s photo on e-Bay. He was recently made a honorary Paramount Chief in Shenge, Kagboro chiefdom, Moyamba district, south of Sierra Leone where he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer decades ago. He can be seen as a Paramount Chief, holding his staff of office in this photo by Peter Andersen, publisher of Sierra Leone Web.

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