Written by Hadi Bah    PDF Print E-mail
Lomboko Island and the Mende Mission: Amistad memorials that Sierra Leone takes no notice of
News - Discover Sierra Leone

Lomboko Island and the Mende Mission, important locations in the historic Amistad narrative which started and ended in Sierra Leone hardly ever receive any play in the plans of the Sierra Leone tourism establishment. Nor are they acknowledged and listed in the catalog of the Sierra Leone Monuments and Relics Commission.

Ignored, isolated and abandoned to the depredations of nature, the world is unable to experience the momentous events that took place at Lomboko Island, site of embarkation for Cuba of the Amistad Sierra Leoneans and the Mende Mission which was set up to spread Christianity in Africa as a result of their odyssey in the New World. And the local communities around both locations in Sierra Leone, economically depressed, are left without any benefit from the likely tourist traffic.

lombokoIn 1839, Pedro Blanco, a crafty Spaniard operating in southern Sierra Leone sold Cinque (known in Sierra Leone as Sengbeh Pieh) and fifty-two other Sierra Leoneans into slavery. Before their shipment to Cuba, the slaves were held on Lomboko Island, itself encircled by a maze of secret waterways and thick mangroves which made detection by British naval patrols in the Atlantic Ocean nearby difficult. The naval patrols were meant to suppress the slave trade which Britain had declared illegal in 1807.

Located on the salty and muddy Gallinas or Kerefe River, getting to Lomboko Island requires a dugout canoe ride in waters believed to be crocodile infested by locals. The island is still surrounded by mangroves made even thicker by the lack of human traffic.  The local young men who accompanied this writer to the island literally had to hack through the mangroves to make way for the dugouts. That was followed by a quarter mile hike in knee deep mud. The roar of the Atlantic Ocean not too far away provided the perfect backdrop for this very isolated island on which old bottles and cutlery were seen and left in place.

The Mende Mission, rented to American missionaries by Chief Harry Tucker in 1843 is also located in a remote area of Sierra Leone that can be reached only after a long automobile journey on appalling roads. Local villagers who were eager to take the approximately one mile hike to the site knew that it had something to do with Sengbeh Pieh, but were unaware of its historic international significance. Armed with machetes, they cut their way through overgrown bushes and bamboo trees to reveal a grave site, an old well, and a landing site near the river as was described by George Thompson, a missionary who wrote about his experiences at the Mende Mission in Thompson in Africa.

One of the most celebrated cases of the 19th century, the story of the Amistad Sierra Leoneans set in motion a great debate about slavery and gave abolitionists an opening to outline the evils of human trafficking. It involved the US, Spain, Britain, France and Cuba. In February and March 1841, it also involved the US Supreme Court and former US President John Quincy Adams who came out of retirement at the urging of abolitionists to defend the Sierra Leoneans.

Out of the Amistad case has come numerous books, articles and a movie by famous American producer Steven Spielberg. The Amistad case has also produced countless speeches, university courses and research centers.

Historically Black Colleges such as Fisk and Atlanta University among others were founded when the American Missionary Association, inspired by the Amistad case launched a massive program aimed at educating people of color in the United States. Thomas DeSaliere Tucker, taken from the Mende Mission to America by missionary William Raymond became a prominent educator of African-Americans and president of what is today known as Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, predominantly black institution of higher learning. Before the establishment of the Mende Mission, education and Christianity were restricted to the Freetown Peninsula, only the plight and heroism of the Amistad Sierra Leoneans changed that.

Unfortunately, except for a portrait of Pieh on Le5, 000 notes, Sierra Leoneans have not reaped any economic benefit from the odyssey of their compatriots on the Amistad schooner.  If Connecticut cities like Hartford, Farmington and New Haven can have museums and historic societies dedicated to the Amistad case, why does Bo, Pujehun, or Matru not have one? If Tulane University in New Orleans can have a research center dedicated to the Amistad story, why does Fourah Bay College not have one?

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