Sierra Leone – why the name?

Every book, history and website that discusses Sierra Leone has a story to tell about how this country was named. There is no one accepted account which can be fully verified, but I will attempt to include as many as possible and offer my own theory.

While there were undoubtedly people living in the area before anyone passed by in a ship, these people have left only fragmented oral history; they had no means of making written records, much less maps. We therefore rely on reports made by later visitors who recorded what they heard about the names of geographical features.

One such source is a book written in 1803 by Thomas Winterbottom, called ‘An Account of the native Africans in the Neighbourhood of Sierra Leone’, which is fortunately available online. He reports that the local Temne people called the area Romarong which means the Mountain  [marong is mountain and ‘ro’ a common precursor to place names in Temne eg. Ro-baga]. They called the river which meets the sea here, Mitomba – now known as the Sierra Leone River. Another name for the river was Tagrin, which seems to be a name deriving from the Bullom people of the north shore, as the name survives today as the point from which the ferry leaves the north shore, which is also identified by Winterbottom as Tagrin Point. He explains that the northern side of the river is Leopard’s Island , known by the Bullom as ‘Ee-yil-eek-bill’ [ee-yil = island/ eek-bill = leopard] and is at the top edge of his map below. An earlier Portuguese account says the locals call the river and village to north Taguyri, whilst the country to the south and village there is Pymto/Pinto. This also says the mountains have been named Serra Lyoa because they are “even steeper than that of Sintra (in southern Portugal) and ten leagues in circumference” {Valentin Fernandes: Description de la Cote Occidentale d’Afrique 1510}.  A simple explanation which, maybe others thought, needed a bit more elaboration?

winterbottom map 1802A

Winterbottom quotes Cada Mostos’s account of Pedro di Sinta’s voyage [1462] that they called the cape on the southern side of the estuary, Cap Liedo/Ledo ‘on account of the gay appearance that and the country afforded them’. At the other end of the range of mountains they found three islands (Banana Islands) which “they called Salvezze and the mountains Sierra Leona, on account of the thunder upon the summit of it, which is continually wrapped up in clouds and mist”.  This must have been during the rainy season, most likely July-September. Winterbottom also observes that the hills viewed from the Bullom shore appear ‘heaped upon each other in a very irregular manner’.

gun fireThis footnote on page 16 refers to the mountains which face the Sierra Leone river, but are essentially the same chain which is the backbone of the peninsula, and suggest the Portugese called these “Montes claros” or ‘Clear Mountains’ because of the loud echo they returned from gunfire and thunder [although the connection eludes me].

An account dated 1841, by the Rev Samuel Abraham Walker, claims Sierra Leone means ‘Lioness Mountain’ and that most interpreters say it is because ‘the area was found to abound in lions’, but follows this with a quote from Winterbottom, denying that lions are, or ever were, found in the area. Rev Walker also suggests the name might derive from the noise of the surf on the shore being lion-like [although other commentators have said that the surf on this shore is not particularly noisy.]; his source being Hardouin’s notes on Pliny [translated in 1680s].

This made me curious. Why was Pliny [born 23 CE] writing about Sierra Leone? In his fifth book on the History of Nature he describes what is known of Africa. He reports the voyage of Hanno of Carthage in 5th or 6th BCE. Modern interpretations of this voyage think it reached as far as Gabon, passing the west coast with the following descriptions, others speculate it only reached Sierra Leone.


Mountain Barce is thought to be the the Dakar peninsula in Senegal. The River Bambotus could be either the Sierra Leone or Sherbro according to some interpretations as both have fresh water at the mouth suitable for both crocodiles and hippos, whereas the River Gambia (another candidate) is salty. There is much scholarly discussion about how far Hanno actually sailed. Pliny is writing from a single surviving copy of the voyage report and the original may have been written deliberately vaguely or even misleading in order to confuse competitors. Unfortunately, I cannot find the surf reference quoted by Rev Walker, which he appears to have read in a different publication.

It is generally accepted that the name Sierra Leone derives in some way from Portuguese, but whether the name can be attributed to one individual is disputed, as cogently argued by C Magbaily Fyle. Many voyages were made by the Portuguese along this coast from 1446, each captain of which would have made his own charts and likely kept them secret to prevent others exploiting the knowledge. That the name Serra Lyoa or a variation thereof [Sierra/serra liona/leona/leoja/leola/leoa/leao] appeared on such maps is confirmed by the use of the term after Pedro di Sinta’s voyage. milton

The name was certainly used, and the reputation for stormy weather was known, in the 17th century as Milton refers to both in the poem Paradise Lost, published in 1667; referring to the southern wind [Notus] and ‘thundrous clouds from Serraliona’.

Although the naming of Sierra Leone is accorded to the Portuguese and later the British who formalised the name, it is the French [Normans] who can claim to have been the first Europeans in modern times to navigate these shores. A contemporary account of the voyages of discovery sponsored by Prince Henry the Navigator in the 15th century, reports the exploration, trading and settlement  along the coast by sailors from Dieppe in the 14th century. Kaye Centers examines the evidence for these claims in her thesis, but sits on the fence, saying there is some evidence to support such claims, but not enough to be conclusive. The Normans claim to have settled at the places on this map: Petit Dieppe, Petit Paris, Assini, La Mina, Akra

map of french WA voyage

However they appear to have sailed past Sierra Leone without landing.

One suggestion for the name Serra [saw] leone is that the mountains look like lion’s teeth. But I think this unlikely:

It would take a great deal of imagination to construe these mountains as lion’s teeth, unless a very old lion with worn out molars.

However, another theory put forward by Kamara  and others for the reason behind the naming of Sierra Leone, is that the shape of the mountains from out at sea look like a lion and this combined with the sounds of thunder were the source of the name.  I feel that this is more likely:lions

  1. Head 2. Rump of recumbent lions

Sailors approaching land are likely to ‘see’ shapes in outline and these are at least as good as other ‘Lion Mountains’ around the world, for example Lion Head, Cape Town, which I could never quite make out.

P1130007 (2)

Lion Head, Cape Town

Or Lion Rock, Hong Kong.

So although I cannot point to strong historical evidence for this theory, I can show why it has credence. Perhaps the roaring was added to give more authenticity and colour to the tale.

I have found no source showing that lions were ever found here. Leopards are certainly mentioned and as forest dwelling animals are more likely. All early descriptions of the country say it was forested, which as far as I’m aware is not the natural habitat of lions. Whatever the reason for the original name, it has stuck and the lion has been adopted for the coat of arms of the country. If you have any other theories to share, please leave a comment.

Coat of arms



Update: I just came across another supporter of the lioness shape theory; non other than the polyglot explorer Richard Burton who visited Sierra Leone in 1882 and reported the following:

“The reason is disputed; some invoke the presence of the Queen of the Cats, others the leonine rumbling of the re-echoed thunder. The latter suggested the Montes Claros of the Portuguese. Cà da Mosto in 1505 tells us that the explorers ’gave the name of Sierra Leone to the mountain on account of the roaring of thunder heard from the top, which is always buried in clouds.’ But the traveller, entering the roadstead, may see in the outline of Leicester Cone a fashion of maneless lion or lioness couchant with averted head, the dexter paw protruding in the shape of a ground-bulge and the contour of the back and crupper tapering off north-eastwards. At any rate, it is as fair a resemblance as the French lion of Bastia and the British lion of ’Gib.’ Meanwhile those marvellous beings the ’mammies’ call ’the city’ ’Sillyown,’ and the pretty, naughty mulatto lady married to the Missing Link termed it ’Sa Leone.’ I shall therefore cleave to the latter, despite ’Mammy Gumbo’s’ box inscribed ’Sa leone.’”






3 thoughts on “Sierra Leone – why the name?

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

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