One Saturday we took a slow boat, not to China, but to Bunce Island, a former slave fort, in the estuary of the Sierra Leone River. We passed the island before on our way down river from Marampa mine, but this time we landed and explored. Briefed already by the exhibition at the National Museum and meeting representatives from the Bunce Island Coalition, we were prepared for the tour. We also had a guide on hand to explain what we were seeing. The hills behind Freetown were misty as we chugged up river. We first clung to the shoreline, which is actually the main shipping lane, past the port, before crossing the main body of water and passing the ferry terminal on the Lungi shore.
Thus we followed the route of the slave ships arriving from Europe. They would have been attracted to the river entrance by bonfires lit on Cape Sierra, the promontory which extends furthest west into the Atlantic. Pilots would have boarded the vessels to guide them past the shallow banks in the middle of the river. On our return journey it was low tide and we saw for ourselves how extensive the sandbanks are. Many fishermen had beached their boats on them and were filling sacks – presumably with shellfish.
On the north shore the land has little elevation and little population, so it is tree-lined and green, with a sandy fringe. The sky had cleared and the sun shone brightly on the small boats on the water, including three with sails. There is no jetty on the island, so the boat pulled in to the beach as far as it could, leaving us to step into the water and paddle ashore. We landed besides the remains of a concrete jetty constructed during WWII, but no longer in use, and close to the stone ramp which used to lead up the slope to the fort and down which the slaves took their last walk on African soil. An old cannon with the insignia of King George III lies abandoned on the slope, pointing out to sea.
The trees beside the landing area have names carved into their bark, but these are not the last legacy of slaves – the trees have grown since the fort was abandoned in the mid 19th century. Looking up from the beach the walls of the former fort loom between the trees which now dominate the skyline. In the era of the fort this area would have been clear of vegetation to give the slavers clear view down river, so they could see both approaching slave ships and pirates or enemies. The fort was attacked by the French four times, and by pirates twice. It was burnt to the ground several times, but was so lucrative that it was rebuilt to carry on the trade. Behind the main wall facing the sea are a line of cannons, but these were insufficient to defend the fort. They were used to salute vessels and as a volley to delay attackers while the traders escaped from the back of the island, upriver until things had quietened down. The island was at the limits of navigability for ocean going vessels.
It was essentially a trading post.The Europeans traded goods for the captured slaves. The island was rented from the king of the Bulom (north) shore, Bai Sama, who received annual rent in trade goods (guns, cloth, axes, knives, alcoholic spirits, clay pipes, beads) and married his daughters to the traders to act as spies. He also supplied workers for the fort and neighbouring shipyard. Some 600 free Africans worked on the island or adjacent Tasso Island on which they grew food for the fort and from which fresh water was transported.
Slavery was a trade which had criss crossed West Africa for centuries; raids and skirmishes between tribes resulted in the taking of slaves. These were then traded with other tribes, or itinerant traders and could end up far from their home. The tales of Olaudah Equiano tell of his abduction as a child in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria and subsequent travels across West Africa as he was traded and passed on until he finally took ‘the Middle Passage’ and reached the West Indies. He later settled in Britain and wrote his memoirs to help the abolition movement. A good description of both the trading along the coast and the Middle Passage is found in Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth.
The slaves gathered on Bunce Island were treated as commodities, transported in appalling conditions and sold to work on plantations in the New World. The triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the New World made many fortunes and transported thousands of Africans far from their homes. A community in South Carolina, the Gullahs, can directly trace their DNA to Sierra Leone and some have visited Bunce Island in homage to their ancestors.
We walked up to the old fort entrance where we found a well, now almost surrounded by the roots of a giant tree. No safety barrier protects visitors from the sheer drop of about 10 metres to the level of the water. We walked up the slope into what would have the ‘the front yard’. This would have been clear of vegetation and the cannons would have been mounted on wooden carriages ready for action, in front of the main building which was two storeys. A covered verandah would have surrounded the upper level, and from here the traders could survey the water to the front and the slave yard to the rear. This balcony is long gone.
In places the walls are seemingly being consumed by the vegetation – somewhat reminiscent of Ta Prohm in Cambodia. The ruined walls show that some local stone was used , but much of the interior walls of the main building are of brick, brought as ballast in ships arriving from UK. They would have also brought the goods for trade which were unloaded and sorted next to the main building. Once they had loaded sufficient slaves, fresh water and provisions, they would set sail for the New World.
We walked around the ruins, through the male slave yard and the smaller yard behind, which was for the women and children. Little remains but the crumbling outer walls. Stepping down levels towards the rear beach we passed the former strong room, now almost enclosed by the protective curtain wall of a tree root. There was a separate store for explosives, well away from other buildings.
Our circular walk brought us back to the entrance, from which we headed south along a quite wide track through the most amazing cobweb strewn palm trees. They would be perfect for a tropical version of Miss Haversham’s house. At the far end was the island cemetery. A few headstones survive, some elaborately inscribed, others just rough rocks. It was very peaceful. The cemetery extended much farther, but is now overgrown. The only grave bearing an African name has become a place of annual pilgrimage for his descendants – unfortunately they are in the habit of breaking off a piece of his gravestone to take with them, so it is a shrinking relic.
Bunce Island is now so tranquil, the trees so beautiful, that it is hard to conjure up the disturbing past. It was an interesting day out, but the difficulty reaching the island (you need to rent a boat) means that it is unlikely to become a thriving tourist spot. That is probably not a bad thing – the ruins can remain, as silent witness to what happened here.
Our return journey was hampered by the incoming tide which whipped up a few more waves than our flat boat was happy with – several broke over the bows giving us a refreshing free ‘surf look’. Once again we crossed the width of the river and kept to the shore – this time looking for some sheltered water! The bonus was a close up view of the old Fourah Bay College building , founded in 1827 by the Church Missionary Society, in the foreground and the more modern one on the hill behind.
En route back to Aberdeen we passed King Tom bay and saw a marooned boat, apparently washed there by a hurricane.