The Sierra Leone-United States Connection

Amended from a speech given by Melbourne Garber, Chairman of the National Organization of Sierra Leoneans in North America and President of the Krio Descendants Union Northeast region, at the Sierra Leone Independence celebration in New Jersey, USA, 2011.

Melbourne Garber: Ladies and gentlemen, fellow Sierra Leoneans, and well-wishers, as we are on the cusp of our country’s 50th Independence Anniversary, we here in New Jersey are thrilled at this significant milestone. My task here is to relate the very interesting link between Sierra Leone and the United States. The link begins in 1462, when Portuguese navigator Pedro da Cintra became the first European to arrive in the area that is now known as Sierra Leone. He named this land Serra de Leão, which is Portuguese for “Lion Mountains.” Thirty years later, in 1492, an Italian navigator named Christopher Columbus, sailing under the auspices of Queen Isabella of Spain, happened upon the Americas as he tried to find a western route to India.

Within ten years of his landing in the Americas, the trans-Atlantic slave trade commenced. However, for the first 125 years or so, slavery was primarily directed towards South America and the West Indies, mainly carried out by the Spaniards and Portuguese. Then in 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England, carrying the Pilgrims to start the first British colony in North America. It was not long until the British joined the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and within fifty years slaves were brought to the area now known as North America. By the late 1600’s South Carolina and Georgia were being settled by Europeans. Around 1700, it was discovered that the Low-country of this area was conducive to the growing of rice, which until then had been imported from Asia.

If you nor know osie you dey go, know osie you comot.

As lucrative as this prospect was, local landowners soon realized how labor intensive the cultivation of rice was, and they found that they were not succeeding as they had anticipated. To solve their predicament, rice plantation owners in the Low-country turned to the Rice Coast of Africa: the area of West Africa stretching from modern-day Senegal to Liberia, where the deeply-ingrained tradition of rice growing dated back centuries. It was assumed that the rice-growing skills of Africans from the Rice Coast would be beneficial to Low-country plantations, and indeed, they were. By the early 1700’s, the economic incentives for a specialized slave trade centered around rice cultivation had encouraged a regular slave trade between the Rice Coast and South Carolina. The British, whose countrymen had colonized the eastern part of North America and who recognized the immense profits to be made from the rice-growing industry and slave trade, established a trading post on the Rice Coast at a small island originally called Bance Island, then Bence Island (now called Bunce Island), located at the mouth of the Rokel River in Sierra Leone.

By the mid-1700’s, rice cultivation had become so successful in South Carolina that the Bence Island-based trade had helped make Charleston one of the wealthiest cities in America. As word of this success traveled, landowners became willing to pay higher premiums for slaves from the Rice Coast than for slaves from elsewhere in Africa. The fact that the slave castle at Bence Island was destroyed by competitive forces five times throughout the 140 years of its operation underlines the critical role played by Bence Island in the British slave trade. However, despite its financial success, the trans-Atlantic slave trade from Bunce Island to Charleston did not immediately solve all of the challenges faced by landowners in the Low-country in the 1700’s. Epidemics of malaria and yellow fever—both carried to the Americas by African slaves, many of whom had built up some immunity to the diseases—spread throughout the area, carried by mosquitoes in the semi-tropical climate, which was not so dissimilar to the climate of certain areas of West Africa.

This unique group of African and African-descended slaves became known as the Gullah people, who still live in and around Charleston today, where their African traditions and cultural heritage persist.

Though many of the African slaves were immune to these diseases, these tropical fevers posed real threats to slave owners, many of whom elected to leave the Low-country during the wet seasons (when fevers were epidemic), or else chose to live in Charleston year-round. As such, many slave owners turned to a less direct form of supervision over their plantations—and by consequence, over their slaves, leaving trusted slaves as supervisors to manage the rice growing plantations in the Low-country. With less frequent and less sustained interactions with their white owners, Africans on these plantations were able to preserve much of their culture and traditions—more so than slaves in other areas. This unique group of African and African-descended slaves became known as the Gullah people, who still live in and around Charleston today, where their African traditions and cultural heritage persist.

For example, the Gullah speak a creole language that is based on English, but contains many African loanwords and structural influences. The Gullah language is directly related to Sierra Leonean Krio, as seen in words such as bigyai (“greedy”), usai (“where”), and pantap (“on top”). Sierra Leonean influences on Gullah food are evident in Gullah dishes such as red rice (a version of the West African Jollof rice) and rice and greens (called plassas in Sierra Leone). Gullah storytelling, music (including the call-and-response style), crafts, farming, and fishing traditions all exhibit strong influences from West Africa, especially Sierra Leone. The link with Sierra Leone can even be traced to the name found in the naming of Gullah children, whose names include Sorie, Salifu, Jah, Hawa, Mariama and Fatu, all common Sierra Leonean first names.

Thomas Peters ultimately found himself at the forefront of the effort to repatriate freed slaves, including those in Nova Scotia, to Freetown in Sierra Leone.

Another interesting link between Sierra Leone and the United States is found in the late 1700’s, during the Revolutionary War. During the war, the British offered freedom to any slave who joined the British army. With this encouragement, many slaves escaped and joined the British, including Thomas Peters, a slave in North Carolina who rose to the level of Sergeant in the British army. After the end of the war, the British did indeed grant freedom to slaves who had fought on their behalf, and many of these freed slaves were sent to Nova Scotia, which was still under British rule. Thomas Peters ultimately found himself at the forefront of the effort to repatriate freed slaves, including those in Nova Scotia, to Freetown in Sierra Leone. Today, he is recognized as one of the founding fathers of modern-day Sierra Leone.

The link between Sierra Leone and the United States stretches further into the political realm of the Revolutionary War, when two business partners who were intimately involved in the Sierra Leone-America slave trade became negotiators of American independence. In the 18th century, Bunce Island was managed by an English company called Grant, Oswald & Sargent, run by Richard Oswald. Oswald developed a relationship with one of the wealthiest rice planters and slave owners in South Carolina, a man named Henry Laurens. Laurens soon became Oswald’s agent in Charleston, organizing local auctions when new slaves arrived from Bunce Island. Years later, during the American Revolutionary War, Laurens was elected President of the Constitutional Congress. On his way to Holland as an American envoy, Laurens was arrested by the British and thrown in jail. His bail was posted by Oswald, and as a free man, Laurens remained in England until the end of the war. He was ultimately appointed one of the four American Peace Commissioners to negotiate the American Independence under the Treaty of Paris—at the same time as Richard Oswald was selected to head the British negotiating team!

The prominence of major players in the Bunce Island-Charleston slave trade in the American Revolution is not surprising, as Bunce Island was undeniably among the most significant trading posts in the history of the British trans-Atlantic slave trade, marking the point of forced departure for thousands of Africans to the Americas. As a result, DNA testing has suggested that over one-third of African-Americans today have roots in Sierra Leone, including author Maya Angelou; former US Ambassador to the UN Andrew Young; civil rights leader Jesse Jackson; radio host Tom Joyner; Julius Garvey (the son of Marcus Garvey); and Martin Luther King III (the son of Martin Luther King, Jr.). Given its significance, it is not surprising that in 1948 Bunce Island became Sierra Leone’s first officially protected historic site.

“…so too will we grow stronger after our rebel war of the 1990’s.”

Today the island, to which so many African Americans can trace their family trajectories, is undergoing restoration to make it more accessible as a site of national and international Diasporan heritage in Sierra Leone. As we say in Krio: If you nor know osie you dey go, know osie you comot. “If you don’t know where you are going, know where you are from.” As we celebrate the anniversary of our country’s independence from British colonization, similar to the United States’ celebrations of its own independence every July 4th, we recognize that just as America grew stronger after of its Civil War in the 1860’s, so too will we grow stronger after our rebel war of the 1990’s. We will build upon and broadcast the amazing and unique connection between the United States, the current home of so many children of Sierra Leone, and the land that we love, our Sierra Leone.