Augusta State University
Upon the end of the transatlantic slave trade within the British Empire in the early 19th century, the question arose of how to properly manage the liberated African peoples who had been kept in captivity throughout Britain’s holdings. In seeking to rectify the atrocities committed by practitioners of the slavery, abolitionists in Great Britain pursued the creation of a resettlement colony in the 1780s for the Africans that only years prior had been captured and enslaved within their own state. However, this benevolence came to be corrupted by those who sought to continue to exploit the local population as well as the newly freed slaves. Resulting from this was a society that publicly hailed liberty as its standard and privately acted as it willed. During its developmental stages as a colony into the following century into the 1820s, the country of Sierra Leone faced a number of challenges and discrepancies in its implementation of anti-slavery laws. Continuation of the trade was still commonplace and enforcement of the laws in place was lax due to corruption in the higher levels of government.
The collision between the Western and local indigenous culture also presented difficulties in creating a society for these people groups due to their cultural differences. While some expressed hope for the success of the Sierra Leone colony, others remained doubtful of its ability to foster the peaceful society that abolitionists hoped to achieve. Although its initial stages proved to be less than what the abolitionists had originally intended, and in some cases deemed a dystopia, defined as “failed projects… warn[ing] people elsewhere not to attempt similar things,” the colony possessed promising potential as a country that fostered the advancement of the former slaves, and would eventually become known for its stability and success.1
Before its permanent establishment as a resettlement colony for freed slaves in the late 18th century, “Sierra Leone …was responsible for almost a fifth of disembarkations in the British leewards” in relation to the industry of selling Africans to England and other countries around the world.2 British influence upon the native population was kept almost strictly to trade and small factions of Christian missions clustered close to the Atlantic coast. Upon the creation of the port of Freetown in 1792, the relocation of English and the British Commonwealth slaves had been underway for almost a decade. Because “it had long been a centre for British and other European slave traders,” abolitionists in Parliament viewed it as a place of opportunity for a black society to flourish and be able to easily self-sustain.3 However, signs of early mistrust between the local population, the liberated blacks, and their Western overlords were evident.
The future and nature of Sierra Leone quickly became a focal point of commentary and debate amongst those who sought to continue the abuses against those of African descent and others who desired to advance these people’s chances of equality and better living conditions in terms of social and economic means. While Sierra Leone was “humane and politic in its design, … there was evidently sufficient mismanagement attending the conduct and execution of it to defeat its success,” which became more evident as the colony became more populous.4 Due to its remote location and lack of reputable settlements according to European standards, very few people chose to travel and see for themselves this curious experiment. However, in interviews conducted by female abolitionist Anna Maria Falconbridge during her travels through Sierra Leone prior to the prohibition of the slave trade, there were already indications of a great mistrust amongst the slaves towards their British overlords. Because they had been “so often deceived by white people,” inhabitants of the settlement did not feel that their petitions would be heard by the local government in Freetown concerning the crimes done against them.5 This sentiment remained within the indigenous and transplanted populations into the era following the abolishment of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1803.
With the implementation of the law outlawing the sale, though not ownership, of slaves came waves of immigration from not only Great Britain itself, but also from Nova Scotia and other parts of the empire. Placed under the oversight of the abolitionist founded Sierra Leone Company, who chose representatives to physically preside in Africa, it was planned that the land would act as a place of refuge and autonomy for the freed blacks to thrive and create their own country. Bringing hopes of a better future in their new home, many “who found themselves in poverty there [in England] and unable to emigrate” were provided passage to Sierra Leone.6 Although a great many aboard these transport ships were not of Sierra Leone origin, the chance to exist as a free people far outweighed the dislocation and danger of the voyage itself, in which they risked being recaptured by privateers and resold into slavery on the black market. Once enough people settled, it was shown in these early stages that the relocated slaves “seem[ed] desirous to give education to their children” and provide the potential for a brighter future in the state. 7 Initiatives were taken to create a stable economy that would continue to export Sierra Leone’s traditional goods of cotton and precious minerals to replace the slavery exchange.
Unfortunately, these utopian ideals would fall drastically short during the developmental period of the colony. Little time passed before it became evident that “it produce[d] not only no surplus, but not a sufficiency to support itself” and in need of a steady stream of supplies to be shipped from other parts of the British Empire.8 From these issues came other manifestations of the flaws that were rampant throughout all levels and spheres of society. Described as being “in the most abject, forlorn and degraded state, without industry, without knowledge, without improvement, without morality, and WITHOUT RELGION,” some abolitionists despaired that “[t]he whole scheme was a complete failure” and called for more strict regulation of the laws in place to protect the local population.9 Abuses of the anti-slave trade laws were constantly being reported and violators frequently charged but were just as quickly dismissed.
Although the Sierra Leone Company members presiding in Sierra Leone’s government vowed that it would not “suffer their servants to have the slightest connexion with the slave trade” or to allow abuses to occur, there was ample evidence that “no part of …[such a promise] was ever carried into effect” and that there was little preventative actions taken.10 While some conducted the selling of slaves in subtler manners, others openly made transactions. Men like Samuel Samo, a local business owner in Freetown, plead innocence from any crime, yet evidence of documents such as a “bill of landing… stating that fifteen slaves …[were] to be delivered in good condition at the Havannah” were produced in numerous trials.11 Along with the inability to fully regulate slavery, the African Institution’s promise to build educational programs for the repatriated settlers were never officially developed nor were educators hired to help improve the reading and writing skills of the colony’s children, as was so greatly desired by the freed slaves. Instead, the British government presiding over Sierra Leone paid two African children, both of whom could barely read and write themselves, to instruct their peers in the place of more learned adults.12
In response to such blatant infringements of the law, the abolitionists in England began to renew their efforts in protecting the colony’s existence. Denouncing that “the professions and promises of the Institution for benefitting Africa have been, in any respect, fulfilled,” leaders like Justice Robert Thorpe within the colony and throughout the empire began to combat the contraventions happening in Sierra Leone.13 Because of previous instances of illegal activities amongst tradeshipsmen, men like Olaudah Equiano, the famous abolitionist and former slave, were given tasks such as “receiv[ing] into … [their] charge… the surplus provisions” of trade ships to ensure its safe arrival and usage by the inhabitants of Sierra Leone and not sold to others or consumed by the shipmen themselves.14 Corruption concerning the delivery of food supplies was a focal point for those in support of the colony, since many settlers had begun to starve in reaction to the hoarding of such vital sustenance. More positive initiatives were also made to improve the circumstances of the settlers and local people, who had been subjected to informal slavery and forced labor on plantations and mines. Specifically, those who had formerly lived in Great Britain, known as “creoles,” took part in “European education, professions, business, politics and other areas of social life …. [because of] difficulties in recruiting and retaining European civil servants and soldiers,” beginning the gradual outflow of white settlers away from the colony and entrusting of governmental affairs more strictly for those of African descent.15
With its beginnings rooted in the slave trade, the repatriation colony of Sierra Leone faced many problems in creating a stable and successful society. Because of the continuation of slavery, yet not the trade itself, many of the Caucasian officials and merchants in Africa abused their power and acted as they pleased in relation to the blacks and their possessions. This rampant corruption caused outrage amongst the original abolitionist founders, who attempted, though failed, to regulate these violations. With society stratified in favor of the Europeans and the ruling powers so far removed in England, little could be done to rectify the wrongs committed. However, strides were taken to improve the situation through the physical presence and oversight of some leading abolitionists. Through their persistence in protecting the freed slaves’ civil rights and liberty, they laid the foundations for a more positive future for the inhabitants of Sierra Leone.
Samantha Borders is a senior History major and Anthropology minor at Augusta State University. With a passion for the history of abolition in the British Empire, Samantha intends to obtain a MA in Slavery Studies at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom following her graduation in May 2011. Her eventual goal is to teach at the collegiate level upon completing a doctoral program.
Samantha Borders, “The Difficulties and Stratifications of Early Sierra Leone, 1792−1823,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no. 1 (Spring 2011).