Growing up in Australia meant I learnt minimal to nil West African history, and I had just the barest understanding of the Atlantic slave trade. I knew slaves were taken from Africa and sent to the United States – also to the Caribbean, to Central America, and to South America – but that’s about all I knew. I had never heard of Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, and I knew nothing of the significant role it played in the transportation of slaves from Africa to the United States.
Bunce Island is a small, seemingly-innocuous sliver of land; it’s just 500 metres long by 100 metres wide; it’s low-lying; it’s covered in jungle, and it’s located 30 kilometres upriver from the capital, Freetown.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to take an interest in the lands of Sierra Leone. In 1462 Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sentra named the region Serra Lyoa (Lioness Mountain), having come to the conclusion that the mountains surrounding the deepwater harbour they were sheltering in (now known as Freetown Harbour) resembled the profile of a lion.
No one has been able to locate that profile, or find the mountain’s resemblance to a lion, ever since.
Freetown Harbour turned out to be the biggest deepwater harbour in West Africa, and the Portuguese used it as a re-provisioning stop – and one of their many locations in which they conducted slave trading – throughout the next century.
By the 17th Century the Portuguese Empire had fallen into decline; they lost interest in Sierra Leone, and the British swooped in.
In 1670, a British firm, known as the Royal Africa Company, built a fortified trading post on Bunce Island – called Bense Island at the time – the primary business of which was the sale of slaves to passing ships. The trading post wasn’t particularly successful, and following an attack by a rival slave trader in 1728, the island was abandoned.
Bunce Island phase II
A new British company (Grant, Oswald & Company) returned to Bunce Island in 1748, and they soon had the slave castle up and running again. Under the new management team the Bunce Island slave business thrived.
In the following 60 years up to 50,000 slaves would be brought to Bunce Island, where they would be bought and sold, then loaded onto waiting ships, and transported to plantations in distant lands.
The slaves that were sold on Bunce Island were primarily picked up along the coast of West Africa from Senegal to Liberia. Some slaves came from further afield, including from as far south as Angola.
Unlike the other slave trading posts in West Africa (there were at least 40 of them, the best known Île de Gorée in Senegal, and Elmina Castle in Ghana), which mostly sent slaves to the Caribbean and South America, Bunce Island sent the bulk of their slaves to the United States.
Why did the slaves from Bunce Island end up in the United States?
Because of rice.
There were a bunch of rice farms getting started in South Carolina and Georgia and the plantations owners wanted slaves that knew how to cultivate and harvest rice.
The strip of coastline encompassing Senegal, the Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia was known as the Rice Coast of Africa at the time – a name it had acquired as the inhabitants of these regions had been growing rice locally for centuries. The slave traders had an angle, they worked that angle, and the buyers lapped it up.
No records have been found relating to the treatment of slaves whilst they were on Bunce Island, but you can assume the conditions would have been awful. About 15% of the slaves on each ship would die in the ensuing sea crossing.
Freed slaves started returning to a new colony in Sierra Leone – called Freetown – from 1792. Slavery was still legal at this time, and there are reports that some freed slaves were recaptured and sold as slaves for a second time.
Finally, in 1807, slavery was abolished in the UK, and all the misery and suffering this little sliver of an island witnessed came to an end.
With the slave trade over, Bunce Island looked for other avenues in which to do business. It tried its hand as a timber mill, and as a general trading post, but these industries flopped, and in 1840 the island was abandoned.
The slave castle was left to rot in the jungle for the next 200 years.
And not much has happened since. Several archaeological investigations have been undertaken, but little, if any, preservation work has been completed. The site is currently overrun by jungle – as the photos show.
In 2008 World Monument Fund placed Bunce Island on the list of the world’s “100 Most Endangered Sites”.
There were major building collapses in 2012 and 2013, so it seems they were right.
Practical information and how to reach Bunce Island:
Bunce Island is 30 km upriver from Freetown (about 1 hour in a small motorised boat). There are several tourism agencies in town that can organise trips to the island. Or there are plenty of aspiring tour guides in Freetown who will be more than glad to accompany you if you can organise your own boat transfer. More transport info here.