Bygone Bonthe

It is tempting to say that arriving in Bonthe is like stepping back in time, there are few motorised vehicles on the island (we saw one working tractor and a couple of motorcycles), so the pace of life is slowed to a stroll. However if we had stepped back in time in Bonthe, a hundred years ago, or even sixty, we would have found a bustling, thriving, trading centre which is far from the reality today. As Thomas Aldridge observed in 1910; “In the stores of the European firms, in the stores of the Creole traders and of the Syrians, outside the stores, on the roadside pitches, hawkers, pedlars, and itinerating hucksters all vie in their respective ways with one another. There is selling over the big counter, over the small counter, off the strap tray, out of calabashes carried on the heads of the little pickins [sic: children] and even from off the ground itself – all is trade, nothing that brings in ‘cash monies’ comes amiss.” The bustle this suggests is long gone. The remains of its heyday litter the waterfront; decaying warehouses, a broken seawall and abandoned houses.

Compare these photographs with those below taken in 1958, by which time the river had silted up and ships were no longer able to anchor off Bonthe or York Island. Instead launches took cargoes of palm kernels, groundnuts and pissava [dried palm stalks used for brush bristles] out to ships tied up 5 miles downstream. But it was still a lively settlement with a resident District Commissioner.

The ruin above centre is the large building seen behind the jetty. The building on the left is the local court. Just behind it is the jail, surrounded, as is customary, with razor wire topped walls, but as we walked around town on our first evening, our guide indicated three men who had just passed us with a friendly greeting and told us they were the prisoners returning to jail. On further questioning he explained that they were let out each morning and they went to work for someone, returning, by themselves, in the evening. He told us that prisoners applied to be transferred to Bonthe jail from the mainland because they know they will be allowed out during the day. The crime of one of the prisoners was to have stolen one of the solar powered street lights – not the most intelligent crime on a small island; we wondered who he thought he might sell it to?? The RUF leader Foday Sankoh was held here while awaiting trial at the UN Special Court following the war; he died before facing justice.

The decline of Bonthe as a trading settlement began with the opening of the railway which ran across the south of the country to Pendembu. Much of the palm kernel trade, which had previously been shipped out of Bonthe, diverted to the railway and the docks of Freetown. The silting of the rivers followed and gradually Bonthe was bypassed.

There are many active churches and mosques in Bonthe and a few in ruins.

St Matthew’s was consecrated in 1900, had taken four years to build and cost £5000 (probably close to £2m in today’s money) – raised locally – and could seat 500 people. The three stained glass windows, which we were able to see whilst the church was being prepared for Palm Sunday, were shipped out from England. One was in memory of those killed in the Hut Tax war of 1898, one for the pastor who began the project but died before it was completed and the third to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The latter was unveiled by Thomas Aldridge (then District Commissioner) and the pastor’s wife.P1180896

St Patrick’s is in the compound of the school with the same name and had some rivalry with St Joseph’s nearby, particularly on Empire Day, according to Peter Tucker in his autobiography ‘The Mission Boy from Shebar’. The school bands paraded through the streets to the playing fields and back; the crowds followed their favourite band – always St Patrick’s he claims!

The evening we arrived there was a football tournament being played at the playing field to the west of the town. We could hear the excitement from far away. Some supporters found creative ways of not paying the entrance fee.

These pillars were at the base of a huge water tower which used to provide water to the entire town, but is no longer shiny and no longer in use. A little further along the track, just before the airfield is the town cemetery, which we reached as the sun set behind the palms.

One of the tourist sights of the town is the Clock Tower at the end of the main street, Medina Street. Unfortunately, even though the tower is now painted in patriotic colours, it no longer has a clock. The rusted remains of one face languishes inside the tower. The photo taken in 1958 shows the clock in situ. It also shows the palm trees a little shorter and either telephone or electricity wires – which are long gone.

So many of the old houses are looking sadly neglected and unlikely to last much longer, but most are probably a hundred or so years old, so may last a little while yet.

update: 29.04.16: found the following picture of Bonthe dated 1915!

victoria road bonthe 1915

The old Wesleyan Methodist church is also a sad sight, slowly being reclaimed by nature.

Nature is also doing its best to reclaim another of Bonthe’s tourist highlights – the tree in the ship….


Long since marooned on the shore, the rusting hulk makes a good plant container.

P1180923 (2)

A local speciality is furniture made from palm stalks, stacked in alternate layers to form boxes. A back is attached to a chair with a slopping stalk.





Some of the people we met around town:

And the lady who insisted that I ‘snap her’ while she drew water from the well:


On our second evening the sun set behind the town leaving us to reflect on the calm waters of the lagoon (or ‘swamp’ as Google maps so succinctly puts it).




15 thoughts on “Bygone Bonthe

  1. This is an excellent post. Great to come across it!. Just came back from there . One of the streets in your post is named Victoria Road which leads to a small village named Victoria. While in Bonthe, this December 2016, I heard stories linking the Late Queen Victoria to the street and the village .

    Any thoughts on this?

    • That’s interesting! I wonder if linked to her Jubilee? which was certainly celebrated all over British territories. On the other hand, sometimes these local stories are concocted and passed on with no factual basis!! Roads leading to places are often called by the place name too. Hope you enjoyed your visit to Bonthe, it is quite a special place!

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  5. Another excellent and insightful post, thank you Julia! And very revealing of the complexities of the relationship between Salone and its former railway; while the railway is generally seen as an influence for good, when it opened it did indeed shift the economic focus away from coastal tradign communities like Bonthe. And several local communities felt the railway simply allowed the British to move troops and police forces around more quickly!

    • Yes, Peter, it is possible to take a ‘ferry’ (local boat) but I am not a fan of small boats (or rather, they disagree with me!) – we travelled by road, then speed boat! Might be my next blog….

  6. You write well Julia; what could be a dreary destination you reveal so much with fascinating detail. Nice blog.

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