Connecting the Dots: Sierra Leone – US Shared History

Years ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer I had no idea the coastal rice growing culture of Sierra Leone I lived in had a special connection and significance for Americans. 

Bumpeh Chiefdom rice harvest

Bumpeh Chiefdom rice harvest  2013

Sierra Leone is the land of many African American ancestors who were forced into the “middle passage” and a life of slavery in the coastal rice plantations of colonial South Carolina and Georgia.  Not much was known of this connection back in the 70’s.

Little did I know when I first returned to Sierra Leone in 2011, I would actually visit the slave fort on Bunce Island.  This slave fort in Freetown’s harbor is the place from which thousands of Sierra Leonean captives were shipped to the New World over two hundred ago. 

Bunce Is. slave fort ruins

Bunce Island slave fort ruins – exterior wall

How do you describe what it’s like to visit a slave fort, especially one that’s been abandoned since the 1830’s and left virtually untouched?  Untouched except for two hundred years of tropical heat and humidity that have left it now in ruins.  The memories of thousands of lives still lurk in those ruins.

As we arrived by boat, the small island comes into focus and you recognize the Alcatraz type location.  By design, no one would escape from this place.  You initially feel the respect and awe of entering a sacred place, like a historic church or a temple of a religion you’re unfamiliar with.  You stop. You’re unsure how to proceed. 

Interior wall of Bunce Island slave fort

Trading Co. living quarters remains – Bunce Island

As our tour continued, hesitancy moves into curiosity and intrigue.  You want to understand the details of how people lived here, slaves and slave traders alike, and what actually transpired. That leads to feelings of repulsion.  How could that have happened.  When you stand at the Point of No Return gazing into the open sea leading to the New World, you’re left with your own thoughts to fathom what you’ve just seen. 

Take a video tour of Bunce Island with CNN here.

Unloading rice to the threshing floor

Unloading rice from field to the threshing floor 2013

Where the dots really connect for me is when I am now in the small rice growing villages of Bumpeh Chiefdom, places where much of daily life hasn’t changed that much in two hundred years. Like this picture and the one above I took in November, where rice that’s planted and harvested all by hand is being brought in with hand made dugout canoes to be threshed by hand.  

I think to myself, this is an area where people could have been taken captive many years ago, or where captives from the interior could have traveled down the Bumpeh River to the coast and on to their fate on Bunce Island.

A lot more is now known of the process, if not all the details, of the slave trade.  Slave ship records have been analyzed and indicate a majority of enslaved Africans headed for the southern US shores came from the coastal countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea via Bunce Island.  African captives leaving from other better known launch points at the slave forts in Ghana and Senegal were destined for the West Indies and Brazil, usually for sugar cane plantations.

Bunce Island slave fort rendering, taken from www.bunce-island.org

Bunce Is. slave fort rendering www.bunce-island.org

Personal DNA testing is now available for anyone wishing to more deeply understand their heritage.  33% of African Americans who have had their DNA tested to trace their ancestral roots find they are genetically tied to Temne, Mende and other ethnic groups in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  Records from the Bunce Island trading companies and from slave ships indicate 80,000 slaves were shipped from there to the US between 1756 and 1807 when Britain outlawed the slave trade.  Extrapolating from these numbers, it’s believed more than 33% of African Americans are of Sierra Leonean descent.  Probably a lot more.

These Sierra Leone men, women and children were sought out for their skills in growing rice for the southern U S colonies.  It came full circle when Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, and resettled slaves they freed as a new British colony on the peninsula of today’s Sierra Leone they named Freetown.  Although the US also stopped importing slaves in 1808, the slave trade within the US continued for more than fifty years more.

Joseph Opala, from Wikipedia

Joseph Opala, from Wikipedia

Professor Joe Opala, anthropologist and former professor at James Madison University, is the one who really connected the dots in Sierra Leone and US history. He made study of Bunce Island and the Gullah communities in coastal South Carolina his life’s work.  Joe came to Sierra Leone in 1974 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, as part of my same Peace Corps training group.  He got his PhD and taught at Freetown’s Fourah Bay College for 20 years.  His ground breaking research made the connection between Sierra Leoneans and the African American communities in lowland South Carolina and Georgia known as Gullahs, demonstrating their similar language, appearance and cultures. 

Until fairly recently, these coastal lowlands were relatively isolated and undeveloped, keeping the Gullah community and their culture intact.  Groups of Sierra Leoneans and Gullah that visited each other in the 80’s could immediately understand their unique dialect as Krio, an English based language that’s today’s Sierra Leone lingua franca. They recognized each other’s cultural practices from song and dance, to food and sweetwater grass basket making.  DNA testing later confirmed Gullahs and Sierra Leoneans are kin.   http://www.yale.edu/glc/gullah/index.htm

"Language You Cry In"  Georgia family reconnect with kin in Sierra Leone (from California Newsreel)

“The Language You Cry In” A Georgia family reconnects with long lost kin in Sierra Leone (from California Newsreel)

Professor Opala with Ethnomusicologist, Cynthia Schmidt and Sierra Leonean linguist, Tazzia Koroma recognized Mende words in an old folksong recording sung by a woman in a Georgia Gullah community. They were able to trace it to a specific Mende village in Sierra Leone still singing the same song, a traditional song women sing when burying their dead.  This remarkable work is documented in the film “The Language You Cry In.”   YouTube Trailer     (Available from California Newsreel and Amazon.)

Sierra Leonean slaves eventually moved across the southern America, and their descendants went on to populate the US.  It’s estimated that 60% of African Americans may trace their ancestry to Sierra Leone.  These include Colin Powell and Whoopie Goldberg.

Sierra Leone is anxious to reach out to these “DNA Sierra Leoneans” and welcome them back to the home of their ancestors. 

The Bunce Island Coalition, whose US branch is led by Joe Opala, is today working with the Sierra Leonean government to have Bunce Island and the remains of the slave fort there designated as a national historic site. 

When I now travel down the Bumpeh River and visit traditional rice farms and villages, I remain mindful that there is a special link between Americans and the people of Sierra Leone.  Our people are kin.   Whether black or white, our histories and cultures are inextricably linked.

Arlene Golembiewski
Executive Director, Sherbro Foundation

6 thoughts on “Connecting the Dots: Sierra Leone – US Shared History

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