Written by Hadi Bah    PDF Print E-mail
Overlooked: Charleston's enormous influence on Sierra Leone's history
News - Discover Sierra Leone

Charleston, the South Carolinian city where nine Americans of African ancestry recently lost their lives in a racially motivated attack was a significant player in the history of the territory that became known as Sierra Leone.  Bunce Island and Sierra Leonean proficiency in rice cultivation were the justifications that made Charleston's historical influence unavoidable.

Since the 1600s, European entrepreneurs had been attracted to Bunce Island, a speck of land in the Rokel River.  Around 1750, the island was transformed into a commercial success by Grant, Sargent and Oswald, a British company that specialized in shipping slaves to the rice growing areas of the United States.

slaveryRichard Oswald, one of the firm's principal partners, was a wealthy and influential slave merchant with contacts in the highest levels of the British government.  Over in the American Colonies, Oswald's partner was Henry Laurens, an equally wealthy and famous Charleston slave trader and rice plantation owner who was also an American Founding Father, President of the Continental Congress and envoy to Holland.

At the height of the traffic in Africans, Oswald's ships sailed directly from Bunce Island to Charleston, South Carolina. Historians estimate that of the 450,000 to 750,000 Africans enslaved in the United States (millions were sent to South America and the Caribbean), about 40% disembarked in Charleston. For a 10% commission on each sale, Laurens advertised and sold the slaves to rice planters who eagerly lined up to buy Africans whose expertise in rice growing was highly valued.

Centuries later, traces of those Africans can still be found in the American South. The Gullah, descendants of slaves from the Rice Coast of West Africa inhabit an area of the Coastal United States that stretches from North Carolina to Florida. In what was celebrated as a homecoming, Thomalind Martin Polite, a descendant of Priscilla, a 10 year old girl shipped from Bunce Island in 1756, visited Sierra Leone in May 2005. And a justice of the US Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, grew up speaking Gullah, a language similar to the Krio widely spoken in Sierra Leone.

But Charleston's biggest historical influence on Sierra Leone was the return of former American slaves to the Freetown peninsula via England and Nova Scotia as freedmen in the late 1700s.  The Charleston connection was obvious in the make up of the Nova Scotian leadership. Boston King, the first Methodist missionary in Africa was from Charleston. So was Isaac Anderson, an ex-slave who cared so much about his freedom that he later led a rebellion against British hegemony in Freetown.  Cato Perkins, a pioneer in Countess of Huntingdon Methodism in Africa had been enslaved in Charleston. John Kizell, progeny of Sherbro royalty who played a major role in the founding of Liberia rounded out the Nova Scotian leadership from Charleston.

But the Black Poor of England and the Nova Scotians never would have made it to Sierra Leone had Laurens' wishes been fulfilled.  During the Paris negotiations that led to America's independence, Sierra Leone was symbolically present because Laurens as a representative of the US sat opposite Oswald, his Bunce Island slave trading partner who was representing Britain. In the final document, Laurens and Oswald inserted a clause that called on Britain to return all runaway slaves to their former masters.  Recalling the pledge of freedom for runaways who fought on the British side, General Sir Guy Carleton brushed the Laurens-Oswald clause aside and facilitated the evacuation of thousands of Negroes from New York to Nova Scotia.

The arrival of those freed Negroes in the Freetown peninsula forever changed the history of Sierra Leone.

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