Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Sierra Leone: The Resettlement of Freed Slaves

One of the most shameful episodes of Western slavery happened in Sierra Leone in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In a span of 400 years, the Europeans had brought about fifteen million slaves to the Americas and Europe. They were using the slaves to run their plantations, fight their wars, and work in their industries and homes. They had grown rich from the slave trade and from sugar and other goods that the slaves produced. But when they didn’t require these slaves they decided to dump them in Sierra Leone which was then a lawless place.

When the slaves of Haiti started their violent revolution for independence in 1791, the European governments realized that having a large slave population in any area was dangerous, since the slaves could become united under black leaders and start fighting for independence. They decided to take measures to bring down the number of slaves in their territories. 

In 1807, Britain banned slave trade—though illegal slave trade continued to thrive for several decades. Another decision that the British took in this period was to transport a part of their slave population to Sierra Leone and other territories in Africa. These slaves were the descendants of those who were forcibly brought to the Americas and Europe fifty to two hundred years ago. Having lived in Western territories for several generations, they had converted to Christianity and had adopted some of the Western attitudes. They knew nothing about Africa. 

With the involvement of some abolitionists, the British Crown established a utopia for free slaves, known as the Province of Freedom or Freetown, in Sierra Leone. Like all utopias, Freetown was dysfunctional and corrupt. The first batch of 400 blacks and 60 whites were shipped to Freetown in 1787. Ninety-six passengers died during the ocean journey. It was the rainy season when they arrived in Freetown and they found that there was no shelter. In the next two years, many of them succumbed to African diseases and many were killed in warfare with the locals.

In 1792, another attempt was made to populate Freetown. The British had settled 3000 Africans in Nova Scotia in Canada. These settlers were former slaves who had been freed after they had served in the British Army during the American Revolutionary War. The problem was that the local whites were hostile to the Africans living in their midst. So the decision was taken to move the 3000 army veterans to Freetown. A significant number of these veterans died within five years of their arrival at Freetown.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, a few thousand Africans (no reliable data exists on their exact number) were living in the poor districts of London. Many of these Africans were former slaves who had been freed after serving in the British army. The pro-slavery elements in British society accused the Africans of committing crimes and saw them as a threat to the purity of the British race. The British government, led by the conservative leader William Pitt the Younger, decided to get rid of the African slave population by sending them to Sierra Leone.

The Africans in London did not want to go to Africa, which was an alien land to them. They had been living in Western territories for several generations. Some force had to be used to make them board the ships bound for Sierra Leone. They were told that they would get free land in Sierra Leone, but that promise was not kept. The London Investors, who controlled Sierra Leone, refused to give free land to the freed Africans who were being brought there.

In 1799, some groups of settlers in Sierra Leone revolted for not getting the land that they were promised. The British brought an army of Jamaican maroons (runaway slaves) to maintain order. The Jamaican maroons overcame the settlers, and took possession of the best agricultural lands and houses in Sierra Leone. Between 1808 and 1871, more than 80,000 Africans were sent to Sierra Leone. The descendants of these freed African Americans and African Europeans are called the Creole people. They comprise about two percent of the population of Sierra Leone.

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