There’s a clue to the origin of Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, in the city’s name.
Freetown began life as a refuge for ex-slaves and free folk – people who had been personally displaced, or whose families had been displaced, by the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Since then the city has grown into a bustling, West African capital, with a population of over one million.
The founding of Freetown
Fifteen ships, containing 1,100 former slaves, sailed from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone in 1792. They landed at the mouth of an enormous natural harbour, and there established a settlement that would become known as Freetown.
In the ensuing years Freetown became a haven for freed slaves heralding from North America and the Caribbean.
The Cotton Tree
The Cotton Tree, situated in the midst of a busy downtown round-about, between the National Museum and the Supreme Courts, is both a landmark and a historical point of interest.
It’s said that the first settlers of Freetown conducted their very first thanksgiving day service beneath the boughs of this mighty tree way back in 1792.
Fourah Bay College
Fourah Bay College, situated on a prominent ridge above the city, was established in 1827. It has the honour of being the oldest western university in West Africa.
The sprawling campus grounds range from primly well-kept to ramshackle and rundown. There are killer views on offer throughout the grounds – I imagine the views must be a permanent distraction to the students. Come here for a Sunday afternoon stroll and you won’t be disappointed.
St Georges Cathedral
St George’s Cathedral, in downtown Freetown, was completed in 1828. It is one of the grandest churches in the Sierra Leonean capital.
You’ll sometimes hear Sierra Leone being described as a predominately a Muslim country. Other times you’ll hear it described as 50% Muslim, 50% Christian. The ambiguity comes from the fact that many Sierra Leoneans identify as both Christian and Muslim – ChrisMus is the term.
This large mosque located in East Freetown was paid for by the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.
Gaddafi also gave Sierra Leone a fleet of new buses and garbage trucks, which was nice of him.
UN Special Court
The Special Court for Sierra Leone was a judicial body formed between the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone as a means of trying those responsible for the civil war (which lasted 11 years – from 1991 to 2002 – and resulted in over 50, 000 deaths).
The court opened in 2002, and it dissolved in 2013, having indicted a total of 13 individuals for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other violations of international humanitarian law.
The Special Court now serves as a museum of sorts. Visits are by appointment only, and it is well worth obtaining the services of a guide if you are planning an excursion here, as there are no information displays inside the facility.
While it is great that the Special Court is being preserved as a museum, it appears that no money is being given to its upkeep. Much of the site is already in desperate need of maintenance.
Bod oses (meaning: board houses), or Krio houses, such as the delightful timber dwelling seen in the photo above, can be found scattered throughout Freetown.
The architectural style of these dwellings isn’t colonial in origin, as you might at first presume. It’s the architecture of the grand homes of North America of the late 18th Century, and it came to Sierra Leone via the freed people and former slaves that migrated here during that era.
Freetown is blessed with many beautiful beaches. Start with Lumley Beach, in western Freetown, then head to Lakka Beach, Sussex Beach, River Number 2 Beach (where they filmed the famous Bounty chocolate bar advertisement of 1987 – you can watch the ad on Youtube here), and keep going till you reach Bureh Beach at the far end of the peninsula.
I explore the beaches of the Freetown Peninsula in significantly more detail here.
Freetown is situated on an attractive piece of real estate. The landscape is rugged and steep and green with water views from almost every angle.
The best place to go for an overview of the entire city is Leicester Peak. It sits on the outskirts of town, near the United States Embassy, and is another swell spot to visit on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
2017 Freetown landslide
In the early hours of August 14 2017, following three days of torrential rain, a large slope on the lower part of Sugar Loaf Mountain collapsed, creating a mudslide that surged down the gully below, wiping out everything that lay in its path. The scar that was left behind can be seen in the photo above.
The mudslide occurred at roughly 6 a.m., while most people were still sleeping in their beds. More than 1,000 people were killed.
Deforestation and poor urban planning, combined with steep topography and monsoon climate, were held to blame.
Setting for Graham Greene’s the Heart of the Matter
Remember the laterite hills, the vultures fighting on corrugated iron roofs, the illicit kiss between Wilson and Louise Scobie in the abandoned railway station, and other such scenes from Graham Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter? They all took place here, in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Although the city isn’t named in the novel, Greene admitted in his 1980 memoir, Ways of Escape, that Freetown was the setting forThe Heart of the Matter.
Graham Greene was stationed in Sierra Leone as an MI6 agent during WWII.
Is Freetown safe?
Yes, for the most part, during the day at least.
Go with the rule: if there are people around, it’s fine; if there is no one around, use precaution.
This is the way I viewed the situation, and I never experienced any trouble.
Is Freetown worth a visit?
Yes, Freetown is a stunning city filled with warm, friendly people. I was lucky enough to spend 6 months in the city, and I loved my time there.
However, it isn’t a city that is geared towards tourism, and I probably wouldn’t recommend the city to novice travellers.
But if you know someone who lives there who can show you around, or if you are willing to shell out for a driver and guide, then you’ll have a great time in the Sierra Leonean capital.
Practical information and how to reach Freetown:
There are direct flights to Freetown from Paris, Brussels, Casablanca, and London. Smaller airlines fly to Monrovia (Liberia), Conakry (Guinea), Dakar (Senegal), and Banjul (the Gambia). More transport info here.