Africa, in its Fullness

January 17, 2020

The West focuses only on slavery, but the history of Africa is so much more than a footnote to European imperialism.

To understand the complexity and significance of West African history, there is no better thing to do than to go to Freetown. Sierra Leone’s capital is sited in the lee of the ‘lion-shaped’ mountain that gives the country its modern name. Portuguese sailors began to visit this part of West Africa in the second half of the 15th century; after weeks of sailing down the flat mangrove-strewn swamps south from the Senegal river, they knew they were entering a different region when they saw this mountain, and named the whole part of the coast ‘Sierra Leone’.

Today, the mountain shelters the upmarket beach resorts that stretch south of Freetown; and in the distance you can spy the large hump of Banana Island, where the slave trader John Newton (author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’) was imprisoned by a Temne trader in 1747.

Other aspects of this early history of trade and African-European encounters also remain. By the harbour downtown, by a clutch of corrugated-iron-covered stalls where fish is dried and prepared for sale, is the ‘De Ruyter stone’. This stone is named after a Dutch admiral who visited in the early 17th century, during European wars to control the slave trade, and is believed to have carved his name into one of the rocks that still stands on the beach.

For a long time, historians in the West have seen the Atlantic slave trade as shaping the beginnings of West Africa’s engagement with Europe. There is no question that the slave trade exerted a profound influence in many parts of Africa. However, to look at African history as the history of slavery and the slave trade is no more accurate than to study the history of the Nazis as the sum of the German past.

Even at the height of the Atlantic trade, there is much more to say about West African history than can possibly be glimpsed by focusing only on the slave trade. Digging a little deeper into Freetown, some of this begins to emerge; and what follows is a brief tour of the city and its historical sites to show how this works in practice.

Freetown was founded in 1792, and soon became a key site in the antislavery movement. After the Act abolishing the slave trade was passed by the UK parliament in 1807, the Royal Naval West Africa Squadron was based in Freetown. Navy ships patrolled the West African coast on the lookout for vessels that Britain deemed to be slaving illegally; if they were captured, the Navy brought them to Freetown, and liberated their captives. In this manner, Freetown came to be home to people from all over West Africa, from as far south as the kingdom of Kongo, from what is now southern Nigeria, and from Dahomey.

Just a few hundred yards above the De Ruyter stone is the Asylum. Founded in 1817, this was where Africans liberated from the festering holds of their ships were first brought. The gates to the Asylum are locked, but multicoloured name tags have been tied around them, embossed with the names of some of the captives who passed through and whom historians have identified.

The sign above the Asylum declares it the ‘Royal Hospital and Asylum for Africans Rescued from Slavery by British Valour and Philanthropy’, passing over in silence the histories of the 17th and 18th centuries when British slave traders (such as John Newton) frequented Sierra Leone; as if to remind visitors how much of African history is still characterised by silence.

Just a few blocks up the hill from the Asylum, away from the harbour, is the St John’s Maroon Church, founded in 1808 by members of the Maroon community from Jamaica. The Maroons were escaped slaves who had formed their own communities in the Jamaican highlands (just as they did in parts of Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Panama and beyond).

Some of them fought in the revolutionary wars in the US in the late-18th century, and then found their way to Freetown in the early 19th century, part of the waves of migration and resettlement during the Age of Revolution. Their church, recently restored, stands as a testament to the ways in which African peoples challenged, fought and resisted colonial power throughout the era of the slave trade.

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