Just off the southern end of the peninsula, on which Freetown is the northern tip, the Banana Islands spill like drops from a glass into the Atlantic. The longest island is about 6 kilometres long and is the site of the ‘capital’ Dublin. It is joined to the smaller island, Ricketts, site of the second settlement with the same name, by a rocky bridge and beyond that is the tiny uninhabited Mes Mieux. A population of about 1000 live in the two villages. Although it is possible to walk between the two, it is easier to travel by boat.
Many visitors take a local boat from Kent, the nearest point on the mainland, but we went by speedboat from Freetown in around an hour and a half, bouncing over the relatively calm sea. We stepped into the shallows of one [left] small sandy beach and walked along dusty forest paths to another beach [right], our lunch spot. Here we were met by our guide, the schoolmaster/pastor who took us on an historic tour of the island.
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First stop was an old well, still one of the water sources. Our guide seemed a little confused about its age, claiming it was 2000 years old, built by the Portuguese, but later correctly saying the Portuguese were here in the 15th to 16th centuries. Next was a fortification built some way behind the beach on which we had landed. Three small cannons, one bearing the date 1813, lay half buried in the ground which was raised by a stone wall from the surrounding area. It seemed too far from the shore to be much of a defensive position, but nearby was another fortification nearer the shore and slightly elevated. Here, we were told, were the slaver’s buildings where they selected slaves suitable for transportation. Those too old or sick were cast into a pit a short way off – although this pit could be the remains of a well as suggested by Sierra Leone Monuments Commission.
On a lighter note, we were taken to the place where oral tradition has it that John Newton had a divine revelation. Newton was abandoned by a naval vessel in West Africa and given, by the slaver Amos Clow, to his mistress, who enslaved Newton on Plantain Island. He was rescued in 1748 by a ship his father had sent. On the return voyage, a storm and subsequent delivery there-from, caused Newton to convert to Christianity, but he continued in the slave trade until 1754 – possibly during this time visiting the Banana Islands again and seeing the light? He then became an Anglican clergyman who influenced Thomas Scott, co-founder of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) which was later closely involved in the early settlement of Freetown. He co-wrote numerous hymns, probably the most famous of which is known as ‘Amazing Grace’. He also counselled William Wilberforce to remain in parliament and do God’s work there. Newton wrote a pamphlet ‘Thoughts upon the slave trade’ which he sent to all MPs during the campaign for abolition of the slave trade, describing the horrors which he had personally witnessed. He died in 1807 shortly after the passing of the Slave Trade Act. Following abolition the Royal Navy set up posts along the West African coast from which to board slaving ships. Banana Islands was one of these. The ‘recaptives’ were then taken to Freetown and settled in the new Colony, set up by the British Government in 1808 so that slavers could be tried there.
In front of this small white church is a large bell, cast in Sheffield in 1881, which is still used to summon the faithful. The school, nearby, uses an empty gas cylinder hanging from a tree to call the children. Beside the church are the ruined walls of a former building which was too big to maintain. The sad state of the current building with its sagging ceiling and benches crumbling from termite attack, seem to indicate the problem remains, despite some support from the diocese of Chichester.
The complex society of termites became the passion of another colourful character who lived on the Banana Islands for four years from 1771, Henry Smeathman. He collected specimens for gentlemen scientists like Sir Joseph Banks and Dr John Fothergill, but turned from botany to entomology and became an expert on termites. He later made a living lecturing about them and is famous for his illustrations – see them here. Not unlike a mound we passed and the ones we saw at Picket Hill. Smeathman cultivated a vegetable garden and also reports playing golf in the cool of the afternoon. He was later instrumental in the founding of Freetown, by suggesting the location as a good one for a new colony of freed slaves.
The forest tracks took us past a variety of dwelling across the island to the cemetery, the resting place of many from centuries past. Mostly overgrown, some family areas are still used and well tended. Graves can be re-used after seven years.
The fishing port is on the south coast down a stone-lined path which reaches the beach between two enormous cotton trees. It is a picturesque spot with colourful fishing boats, sand, azure sea and distant rocks covered in birds, which we now know are ‘white birds’ thanks to our guide.
The ‘pink church’ was a large building, home to a flock of swallows nesting inside the roof and swooping between the rafters and open windows. Some interesting plaques remember John Campbell, sunk by enemy action in 1916, and Mrs Comfort Campbell (63) who died in a raid in 1898.
Back at the beach we swam in the warm waters and had fresh fish for lunch. Our entertainment from the shady terrace was weaver birds preparing new nests. Quite amazing to see them arrive with a long strand of green vegetation and weave it into place – all with no hands!
The return trip took us closer to shore, a great perspective on the peninsula from which we have so often gazed out to sea. The alarming rate of deforestation is clearer still from this vantage point.
As the sun set, we rounded Cape Sierra Leone with its old lighthouse, the western most point of the mainland of Sierra Leone and one of the points on the African continent closest to South America.