Tour Guide Sierra Leone
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Trip to Bunce Island
 
Bunce Island is the site of an 18th century British slave castle. Located about 20 miles upriver from Freetown, Bunce Island lies in the Sierra Leone River (also called the "Freetown Harbour"), the vast estuary formed by the Rokel River and Port Loko Creek. Although just a tiny island only about 1650 feet long and 350 feet wide, its strategic position at the limit of navigation in Africa's largest natural harbour made it an ideal base for European slave merchants.
 
History
 
Bunce Island was first settled by English slave traders about 1670. During its early history the castle was operated by two London-based firms, the Gambia Adventurers and the Royal African Company of England, the latter a "crown-chartered company," or parastatal, subsidized by the British government. The castle was not commercially successful at this period, but it served as a symbol of British influence in the region. This early phase of the castle's history came to an end in 1728 when Bunce Island was raided by an Afro-Portuguese competitor in the slave trade named José Lopez da Moura. It was abandoned until the mid-1740s.
 
During the second half of the 18th century Bunce Island sent thousands of captives to British- and French-controlled islands in the West Indies and to Britain's North American Colonies, and the London-based owners grew wealthy from the castle's operations. The slave traders who did business at Bunce Island came from a variety of different backgrounds. During the castle's early history the Afro-Portuguese sold slaves and local products there. During its late history Afro-English families such as the Caulkers, Tuckers, and Clevelands sold slaves at Bunce Island. The slave ships that anchored there came from the British ports of London, Liverpool, and Bristol; from Newport, Rhode Island in the North American Colonies; and from France and Denmark.
 
Due to its importance as a British commercial outpost, Bunce Island was an attractive target during times of war. French naval forces attacked the castle four times (1695, 1704, 1779, & 1794), damaging or destroying it each time. The attack of 1779 took place during the American Revolutionary War when America's French allies took advantage of the conflict to attack British assets outside North America. Pirates also attacked the castle twice (1719 & 1720), including Bartholomew Roberts, or "Black Bart," the most notorious pirate of the 18th century. The British traders rebuilt the castle after each attack, gradually altering its architecture during the roughly 140 years it was used as a slave trade entrepôt.
 
Links to North America
 
Bunce Island is best known as one of the chief suppliers of slaves to the rice industry in the North American Colonies of South Carolina and Georgia. Rice requires a great deal of technical knowledge for its successful cultivation, and South Carolina and Georgia planters were willing to pay premium prices for slave labour brought from what they called the "Rice Coast" of West Africa, the traditional rice-growing region stretching from what is now Senegal and Gambia in the north down to Sierra Leone and Liberia in the south.
 
Henry Laurens, Bunce Island's business agent in Charleston, a wealthy rice planter and slave dealer, later became President of the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War and then US envoy to Holland. Captured by the British enroute to his post in Europe, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. After hostilities ended, he became one of the Peace Commissioners who negotiated US Independence under the Treaty of Paris. Tellingly, the chief negotiator on the British side was Richard Oswald, the principal owner of Bunce Island, and Laurens' friend for 30 years. US Independence was, thus, negotiated, in part, between the British owner of Bunce Island and his American business agent in South Carolina. This reflects the wealth generated by the trade in rice and slaves.
 
But Bunce Island was not connected just to South Carolina and Georgia; it was also linked to the Northern Colonies. Slave ships based in northern ports frequently called at Bunce Island, taking on supplies like fresh water and provisions for the Atlantic crossing, and buying slaves for sale in the British islands of the West Indies and the Southern Colonies. The North American slave ships that called at Bunce Island were sailing out of Newport (Rhode Island), New London (Connecticut), Salem (Massachusetts), and New York.
 
Eclipse of Bunce Island
 
British philanthropists established Freetown in 1787, a settlement for freed slaves, on the Sierra Leone Peninsula, just 20 miles downriver from Bunce Island. The Atlantic slave trade continued to be legal for the next two decades, though, and during that period the Bunce Island slave traders harassed the fledgling colony by inciting the local African chiefs against it, organizing trade boycotts to isolate it, and at one point even selling away as slaves some Freetown colonists they accused of stealing goods at the castle.
 
Freetown finally gained the upper hand when the British Parliament outlawed the Atlantic slave trade in 1807. The following year Freetown became a Crown Colony, and the British Navy based its Africa Squadron there, sending out patrols to search for slave vessels violating the ban. Bunce Island immediately shut down for slave trading, and British firms now used the castle for other purposes -- a cotton plantation, a trading post and a sawmill. These activities were ultimately unsuccessful, though, and the island was abandoned around 1840. The wooden verandas decayed, the slate roofs collapsed, some stone walls toppled, and tropical vegetation gradually covered the site.
Today, there are substantial ruins on the north end of the island. "Bance Island House", the headquarters building where the Chief Agent lived with his senior officers, is at the centre of the castle; and parts of the building still rise to second-story level. Immediately behind it is the open-air slave yard, divided between a large area for men and a smaller one for women and children. There are also remnants of two watchtowers, a fortification with places for eight cannons, and a gunpowder magazine. (Some of the cannons bear the royal cipher of King George III.) At the south end of the island there are several inscribed tombstones marking the graves of slave traders, slave ship captains, and the foreman of the African workers.
 
Current status
 
In 1948 Bunce Island became Sierra Leone's first officially protected historic site. M.C.F. Easmon, a Sierra Leonean medical doctor and amateur historian, led an expedition that year that cleared the vegetation and mapped and photographed the ruins for the first time. Little else happened, though, until 1989, when a group of Gullahs (members of an African American community in coastal South Carolina and Georgia), made an historic "Homecoming" visit to Sierra Leone and toured the ruins of Bunce Island. Shortly after that, the U.S. National Park Service announced a preservation program for the castle, but it fell through during the confusion of the Sierra Leone civil war. Two more "Gullah Homecomings" in 1997 and 2005 also resulted in historic visits by African Americans to Bunce Island.
Bunce Island is under the protection of Sierra Leone's Monuments and Relics Commission, a branch of the country's Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Efforts are now underway to preserve the castle as a reminder of the past and to attract tourists, especially African Americans whose heritage is closely linked to Bunce Island. Although other slave castles -- especially Gorée in Senegal and Elmina in Ghana -- are more popular attractions for black Americans, those castles are, historically speaking, far more connected to the West Indies than North America. Bunce Island has been called "the most important historic site in Africa for the United States".
General Colin Powell, then Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Bunce Island in 1992 while on an official visit to Sierra Leone. Deeply moved by the experience, Powell spoke of his reaction to the slave castle in a farewell speech he made before leaving the country. "I am an American...", he said. "But today, I am something more...I am an African too...I feel my roots here in this continent".
 
Preservation Efforts
 
The U.S. National Park Service team that surveyed the castle in 1989 suggested that the ruins be stabilized and that all-weather displays showing what the buildings looked like and what went on there be erected for each structure. But no historic preservation work has ever been done. The castle's ruins are deteriorating rapidly in Sierra Leone's tropical climate. Many walls have already collapsed. Trees are growing on the tops of some walls, their roots crushing the masonry. A valuable bronze ship's cannon was stolen several years ago.
 
The World Monuments Fund recently placed Bunce Island (and other historic sites in Sierra Leone) on its 2008 watch list of the world's "100 Most Endangered Sites". Several organizations in Sierra Leone, the United States, and Great Britain are now promoting popular awareness of Bunce Island and its history and working toward the preservation of the castle.
 
 

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