Slaving away

The Oscar winning ’12 Years a Slave’ has brought slavery into the spotlight once more. Since our trip to Bunce Island I have been thinking about the slave trade from Sierra Leone. I found a fantastic resource which lists all known slave voyages and is searchable by various criteria. This can be time consuming! You can also make some attractive graphs, but unfortunately I couldn’t find a way to export those, so I have only imported the tables below as an example of what you can discover.  I found the number one destination for slaves embarked along the West African coast around Sierra Leone was Jamaica, followed by Cuba and Santa Domingo, with South Carolina in fourth place, followed by Grenada and, confusingly, Sierra Leone! Some ships must have been coastal vessels gathering slaves from ports along the coast and bringing them to a central point such as Bunce Island.

old bunce island

Bunce Island

This is an old drawing of the slave fort and a Google map image of the fort. ‘A’ is the male slave yard (the female yard is below the trees towards the wall), B is site of the main building, C the rough perimeter and D is the ‘last walk’.

Table 1: Slaves shipped from Sierra Leone

Total slaves Total voyages Average Standard deviation
Slaves embarked * 115274 580 198.7 106.1
Slaves disembarked * 99632 564 176.7 96.4
Percentage of slaves embarked who died during voyage * 114 10.6% 17.1%
Length of Middle Passage (in days) * 110 50.1 19.5
Percentage male * 92 64.2% 11.3%

However, when I refined the search to only embarkation ports in Sierra Leone most slaves were landed in Jamaica, followed by South Carolina, Santa Domingo, Barbados and Grenada. So the large number of slaves bound for Cuba must have been from either Senegal, Guinea ports or Liberia. Slaves did not always ‘go quietly’ and many mutinies happened within sight of the coast – their last hope before losing touch with their homeland. Many are described here. Perhaps the most famous was Amistad, which was made into a film by Stephen Spielberg.

Table 2 only includes slaves embarked in the area of Sierra Leone and shows the peak slaving period being 1751-1800, with a dip in the years of the American War of Independence (or Revolutionary War) 1775-83 during which the main trading nations were occupied elsewhere!

Table 2: Slaves shipped from Sierra Leone showing area of disembarkation

Europe Mainland North America Caribbean Spanish American Mainland Brazil Africa Totals
1563-1575 300 300
1626-1650 90 90
1651-1675 338 455 793
1676-1700 1643 1643
1701-1725 467 1387 1854
1726-1750 148 977 2725 3850
1751-1775 12393 32798 70 45261
1776-1800 1534 35237 36771
1801-1825 1532 9083 159 12 527 11313
1826-1845 284 1023 1307
Totals 486 16903 84002 159 1035 597 103182

[table 1 includes some small islands so has different totals to Table 2]

Table 3 below shows slaves embarked all along the coast from Senegal to Liberia and this shows an early trade to the Spanish American mainland peaking around 1576-1625 and a later trade to Brazil which peaks 1776-1825 and the Caribbean trade, which tails off from  Sierra Leone, but continues from the surrounding countries. This is probably due to the impact of British naval presence around Sierra Leone.

Table 3: Slaves disembarked from West Africa (Senegal to Liberia) by destination

Europe Mainland North America Caribbean Spanish American Mainland Brazil Africa Other Totals
1526-1550 277 137 420 834
1551-1575 895 1492 2387
1576-1600 193 21360 236 237 22026
1601-1625 120 708 22642 236 23706
1626-1650 1060 7738 1121 1839 11758
1651-1675 676 358 4429 3797 150 700 10110
1676-1700 352 1335 21028 2275 1158 49 26197
1701-1725 182 5099 21684 818 5431 33214
1726-1750 2058 15602 38658 33 2971 59322
1751-1775 1151 54682 185843 19313 483 352 261824
1776-1800 9434 140047 180 29755 469 359 180244
1801-1825 18556 53292 2274 33592 6771 114485
1826-1850 27473 7215 7454 42142
1851-1856 1151 1151
Totals 4539 105066 496738 62746 100706 15462 4143 789400

Whilst the slave trade (at least the importation of African slaves to British colonies) was outlawed by the  UK Act of Parliament of 1807 and in the same year USA outlawed the international slave trade, slavery in the British Empire was not abolished until the later Act of 1833, in the French colonies in 1848 and USA 1865. Slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888 and Cuba 1886. Table 3 shows that the later years of slave export from Sierra Leone were to Brazil and the Spanish Mainland, once the other destinations became off limits.

After abolition the UK and US navies were active in stopping slave vessels, which became increasingly armed and disguised as merchant traders. The small colony of Freetown, formally adopted as such in 1808, became the base for the Royal Navy’s West African Squadron tasked to stop the slave trade. Unfortunately for the slaves rescued, their point of origin was not considered that important. The primary aim was to return them to ‘Africa’, so for example, a group of Congolese were taken to the new colony of Liberia established in 1820, even though it was a long way from their ‘home’. Many of the returnees who came to Freetown in its early years were Yoruba or Igbo in origin, from what is now Nigeria. At least back on their home continent they were once again at liberty to settle and live as free people.

However I discovered, on a recent visit to the National Archives, that slavery in the Protectorate (the interior of Sierra Leone, beyond Freetown and the peninsula which became the formal colony) was not abolished until 1928! This anomaly occurred because although the Protectorate was taken under English law in 1898, the Frontier Police were not allowed to interfere in ‘cultural matters’, which included slavery[1]. There is considerable correspondence about cross border trading of slaves from Liberia during the early 1920’s in the National Archives. So it took 120 years from the first abolition bill being passed until the people of Sierra Leone were technically free from slavery, which is more than surprising given the reasons behind the founding of ‘Free’town, and, as mentioned above, the fact that it was the base for ending the slave trading!

Thanks to Ann here are two interesting articles about Cubans returning to their roots in Sierra Leone: visiting an Upper Bantu village, visiting the coast

[1] p9 Bradt Guide: Sierra Leone Katrina Manson & James Knight, October 2012

4 thoughts on “Slaving away

  1. Pingback: So long Salone! | Impressions of Sierra Leone

  2. Pingback: Kent, Western Peninsula, Sierra Leone | Impressions of Sierra Leone

  3. Are you familiar with Family Across the Sea (,166) And The Language You Cry In (,270)? About the connections between the American Gullah people and those in Sierra Leone.

    Also, we were in touch last year about my book, Africa is My Home: A Child of the Amistad, which has since come out. If you would like copies for schools and such in Sierra Leone, I’d love to figure out a way to get them to you. Some of my fellow former Peace Corps took a few as gifts on a recent visit.

    • Thanks for gettting in touch again. I will check out these links. I have seen some footage taken of some Cuban returnees and some from US.
      I’m sure I could find some schools that would appreciate your book if you can work out how to get them here. I wonder if the embassy could help? or maybe the Peace Corps bring in a consignment and they could be included?

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