Overlooked: Charleston's enormous influence on Sierra Leone's history
Discover Sierra Leone
Charleston, the South Carolinian city where nine
Americans of African ancestry recently lost their lives in a racially motivated
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.
Richard 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
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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