San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

Economic History of Sierra Leone

People of African descent were fewer in numbers in England in the days before the American Revolution and generally better treated. Most of the Black people of England at that time had been brought there as personal servant-slaves from the North American colonies or the British Caribbean possessions. A court ruled in 1772 that slavery in England was illegal and immediately there was a substantial number of free Black men in the cities of England. The story of the declaration of the illegality of slavery in Britain is an interesting one.

In England at that time there was a religious sect called the Evangelicals but popularly known as the Saints. The Evangelicals were morally strict, being against alcoholic beverages, swearing, overeating and lewdness. They required also strict adherence to the sanctity of the Sabbath. They also opposed slavery and several prominent Evangelicals devoted their lives to the abolition of slavery. One of these, William Wilberforce, was instrumental in getting England to suppress the Atlantic slave trade. Another Evangelical or Saint was Granville Sharp. Granville Sharp was a key figure in the court decision which made slavery illegal in England. He was thrust in that role by chance.

Granville Sharp

One of Granville Sharp's brothers was a surgeon. One day Granville Sharp was visiting his surgeon brother and literally bumped into a slave, Jonathan Strong, who had been beaten by his owner so severely that it affected his eyesight. That owner had deemed Jonathan Strong worthless, beat him in the face and threw him into the street. Sharp and his brother put Strong into a hospital and when he recovered his health they gave him clothing and got him a job as a servant.

Two years later the legal owner of Strong, a lawyer from Barbados, saw Strong working as a servant and sought to reclaim him as his property. The owner had Strong arrested, who fearing for his life, got a message sent to Granville Sharp.

Sharp sought legal help but no lawyer was willing to take the case. Sharp had no legal training but in desperation he studied the law enough to argue the case himself. Sharp prepared a brief that argued that any slave who entered England automatically became free. His case was so well prepared that Jonathan Strong's former owner dropped his suit to recover possession of Strong. Sharp, however, was not content with obtaining just Strong's freedom. Sharp spent five years pursuing the issue until in 1772 he won the case of James Somerset before the High Court of England and obtained the judgement that slavery was illegal in England.

Granville Sharp was not a rich man. All the while he was pleading the case against slavery he had to support himself as a clerk in the Ordnance Office of the British Government. Later his two brothers, who were more affluent than he was, offered to support him so that he could carry on his good work.

After 1772 the problem of poverty among the freed Blacks replaced the abolition of slavery in the minds of Granville Sharp and the other Saints. The Saints started thinking of a settlement in Africa and by 1786 West Africa and in particular the territory of Sierra Leone had become the focus of their attention. Henry Smeathman presented a proposal before the Committee for the Black Poor for the establishment of such a colony in Sierra Leone. Smeathman died however in July of 1786 and the Committee consider a number of other locales for a settlement. The other places considered were the Brahamas Islands, the Gambia in Africa and New Brunswick in what is now Canada.

The Black people who were interested in the scheme thought Sierra Leone was far superior to the other alternatives, although they did not know much about Sierra Leone.

The Treasury of the British Government favored the plan and arranged for the Navy to provide transportation. There were as many as 500 Black people interested in the scheme, but only 300 who actually joined the expedition. The Navy Board decided to round up any Black vagrants from London and include them by force in the settlement scheme.

The expedition's ships left London in December of 1786 intending to reach Sierra Leone before the rainy season which starts in May. But the ships were held up until April in Portmouth, England due to bad weather. During this delay fifty passengers died of fever and several others were put off the ships. The final count for the settlement voyage was 411, of which about 300 were Black men, 40 Black women, a few white officials and 70 White women who were probably wives and girl friends of the Black men but who were alleged to have been London prostitutes.

On May 15th of 1787 the settlers put ashore at what is now Freetown. Their number had been reduced by about another score of deaths on the voyage. The leaders attempted to buy land from the local tribal chief, but although the chief took the payment and put his mark on the agreement it was clear he did not understand it and consequently would not abide by it. The town the settlers established was initially named not Freetown but Granville Town and the name they gave to the region was The Province of Freedom.

The first months of the settlement were traumatic. The torrential rains began soon after the settlers' arrival. They could not grow food and soon they were starving. Some of the settlers left the town and worked for the slavers in the region. Some of these eventually became prosperous slavers on their own, including one whom Sharp had once personally rescued from kidnappers in England who would have sold him into slavery.

By early in 1788 there were only 130 people left in the settlement. Sharp was not discouraged and raised funds to send 39 more settlers, most of whom were White. These reenforcements only followed their predecessors into the slave trade.

To make matters worse there was a new tribal chief who wanted gifts in order to permit the settlers to remain. When the settlers did not comply the new chief ordered Granville town burned.

Sharp took a different approach in the face of all these calamatities. He and his Saint collaborators formed a company, later named the Sierra Leone Company. This company provided the finances for building a new settlers' town two miles to the east of the original. The Company also provided weapons for its future defense. An arrangement was made for the settlement land with a higher-level chief than the one who had burned the original town.

While the settlers in Sierra Leone were struggling to create a community political events were occurring elsewhere which would affect the future of Sierra Leone.

At the end of the American Revolution there were 3,000 Blacks who went with the 25,000 loyalist Whites to Nova Scotia. These Black people had to work for the Nova Scotian farmers and found the climate of Nova Scotia inhospitable. They petitioned the British Government for land or to arrange for them to be located elsewhere. An Evangelical served as the advocate for the Nova Scotian Blacks and over one thousand chose to move to the settlement in Sierra Leone. They arrived in February 1791 and built a settlement on the original Granville Town site and named the new settlement Freetown. Many of the Nova Scotian migrants were carpenters.

The Sierra Leone Company set up a plantation to raise cotton, sugar and rice using paid, native labor. Some of the settlers established their own farms. The settlement was definitely developing. This progress was set back in September of 1794 when seven ships under the control of revolutionary French sailors beseiged the settlement and wreaked havoc on the town. The sailors did not just loot the town but vandalized it as well. But the settlement did recover.

In 1800 there was a new wave of immigrants. These came indirectly from Jamaica. Their history was complex. In 1655, when the English were about to take control from the Spanish in Jamaica, the Spanish plantation owners released their slaves rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the English. These freed slaves, later joined by runaway slaves, were called Maroons, from the Spanish word for wild, cimaron. They survived in the back country and maintained their independence. The British reached an accomodation with the Maroons in 1739; they could maintain their independence if they helped capture any newly-escaped plantation slaves. The British paid the Maroons a bounty of £3 a head for these escaped slaves. This bounty provided the Maroons with money for buying those things they wanted, such as tea and sugar, but could not produce themselves.

The Maroons prospered until the bounty for returned slaves was reduced to £2. Resentful at this loss of income and angered by other British treatment the Maroons rebelled. When the rebellion was put down the Jamaican authorities exiled the Maroons to Nova Scotia, a singularly unsuitable place for Jamaicans. In Nova Scotia the Maroons petitioned the British Government to transport them to Sierra Leone.

Five hundred and fifty Maroons arrived in Sierra Leone at the time of a local rebellion over taxes. The Maroons had a military tradition and were soon enlisted in the suppression of the rebellion.

The Maroons overwhelmed one rebel outpost with a bayonet charge which prompted one rebel survivor to say to the Maroons,

You don't fight fair. You don't kill 'em and be done with it; you poke'em, poke'em, poke'em!

Nevertheless the Maroons became an integral part of the community and provided defense against the native tribes of the area.

The largest source of settlers to Sierra Leone came from captured slave ships. When the British Navy began suppressing the Atlantic slave trade in 1808 there was a problem of what to do with the liberated slaves. It was not feasible to return them to their homelands. On the other hand there was no place for them in the European countries. Sierra Leone was the solution. These liberated Africans were called "recaptured slaves."

The captains of the ships that captured slave ships received as a reward the value of the slaves on board. This reward was paid by the British Government and the process required the legal adjudication of the guilt of the ships' owners and the assessment of the value of the slaves on board. The Government chose to have this process carried out at Freetown and the liberated slaves settled in Sierra Leone. The flood of recaptured slaves raised the population of Sierra Leone from about two thousand before 1808 to fifty thousand by 1850.

Early Freetown

The British suppression of the slave trade did not always make things better for the Africans. Since the legal process required slaves as evidence of guilt, the crews on the slave ships in danger of capture had an incentive to throw the slaves overboard to destroy the evidence. Without slaves on the ship there would be no reward for the capturing ship. The bounty hunting ships would be faced with capturing and escorting a bountyless ship to Freetown or seeking another capture elsewhere on the high seas. Thus a slave ship devoid of any bounty might be allowed to escape.

Even the capture of the slaves by the British Navy was traumatic for them. The Portuguese told the slaves that the British were capturing slaves only to sell them to cannibals. Also the journey of the slaves in the British ships may have been just as uncomfortable as on the slave ships.

Freetown survived and the coastal area was made a British colony in 1808. In 1896 the British took control of the interior grass lands of what is now the Republic of Sierra Leone. The population of this interior territory far exceeds the population of the Freetown coastal area. The descendants of the resettled slaves constitute only about two percent of the population of Sierra Leone although they have dominated the politics and economy of the country. The official language of the country has been Krio; i.e., Creole English.

20th Century Freetown

In 1961 Sierra Leoned became an independent nation within the British Commonwealth. A military coup d'etat in 1967 resulted in military rule for a year, civilian control was regained. In 1971 Sierra Leone became a republic.

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