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A crumbling old slave fort in Sierra Leone is challenging long-held assumptions about African-American ancestry and could threaten Ghana’s domination of African American tourism to the continent, writes freelance journalist Paige McClanahan in this article published in the latest issue of our Focus on Africa magazine. (Photo: This is how the fort may have looked more than 200 years ago (Computer image by Gary Chatelain and Joseph Opala)
For more than a century Bunce Island – a small patch of jungle off the coast of Sierra Leone – was the site of some grisly business.
Men, women and children who had been kidnapped or sold from their homes were crowded inside the island’s stone fort, shackled together, and forced into holding pens.
“No other West African slave fort sent as many people directly to North America,” Joseph Opala Historian
After a wait of weeks or months, they were marched onto a ship at the end of the island’s stony pier.
Those who survived the subsequent 10-week journey across the Atlantic Ocean would find themselves in an entirely new world – the rice plantations of the American colonies.
That was more than 200 years ago. Today the old slave fort is crumbling and few people outside of Sierra Leone even know that it exists.
But a committed group of historians, archaeologists and concerned citizens have set about preserving what is left of Bunce.
They want to build a museum about the island in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, and offer guided tours of the old fort to help people understand its historical importance.
In doing so, they hope they might help African-Americans reconnect with long-lost relatives in Sierra Leone.
Data: Estimates from The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database
“It’s the most important historic site in Africa for the United States,” says Joseph Opala, an American historian who is leading the work of the Bunce Island Preservation Project, the group behind the restoration efforts.
Mr Opala estimates that between a quarter and a fifth of all of the men, women and children who sailed from Bunce Island in the 18th Century ended up in either what are today the American states of South Carolina or Georgia.
“No other West African slave fort sent as many people directly to North America,” he says.
Bunce, which was an active slave fort almost continuously between 1670 and 1807, was busiest in the middle of the 1700s, which is precisely when American rice plantations were producing enough to warrant slave labour.
Plantation owners in Georgia and South Carolina wanted to buy slaves who knew how to grow and process rice, a challenging crop that they had little experience with themselves.
So slaves were brought out from what was then known as Africa’s “rice coast” which reached from Senegal to Liberia. Bunce Island fell right in the middle of that stretch.
Bunce shut down with the UK’s abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807.
It was soon completely abandoned and it has sat untouched – and largely forgotten – ever since.
That neglect is good in a way, Mr Opala says, because it means that subsequent tenants have not altered the site.
But it also means that, after 200 years of exposure in one of the wettest parts of the world, the structure of the fort has fallen into an advanced state of disrepair. Today, the buildings are in ruins.
The group’s first and most pressing goal is to stop that deterioration. They have brought in a specialist engineering firm to study the fort and find new ways to support the structures that remain.
After the fort itself is secure, the group will shift its focus to building the museum in Freetown, roughly 45 minutes from the island by boat.
When the museum is finally finished – the group has set a goal of 2015 for the opening – Mr Opala hopes that African-Americans who may have links to Sierra Leone will visit the country to learn more about their ancestors.
“The people who left as slaves didn’t all die in the Middle Passage,” says Isatu Smith, a Sierra Leonean who is the deputy director of the Bunce Island Preservation Project.
“Some of them did make it to the other side – and they lived there and they had kids. They have descendants living there today,” says Ms Smith.
“It was important for me to forge a link with these descendants because, for all you know, these might be my long-lost brothers.”
To this day, hints of Sierra Leonean culture are clearly visible in the Gullah and Geechee communities along the Georgia and South Carolina coast.
There, you can find people who still eat rice three times a day, who use a smattering of language and who carry on certain traditions that would be familiar to many back in Sierra Leone.
“In Gullah country, the low-country of South Carolina and Georgia, many of the people you meet will tell you that their ancestors came from Sierra Leone,” says Amadu Massally, a Sierra Leonean who is starting up a company in Freetown that will run heritage tours to Bunce Island.
“But unfortunately we don’t have many African-Americans coming to Sierra Leone yet,” Mr Massaly says.
“Many of them go to Ghana under the pretence that Ghana is the home of African-Americans.”
Ghana draws “heritage” tourists with its luxury hotels, generally well-maintained historic sites and direct flights from the US.
This tourist infrastructure is lacking in Sierra Leone, which is still recovering from the civil war that gripped the country for much of the 1990s.
But some historians argue that African-Americans are more likely to have roots in Sierra Leone than in Ghana.
The slave castles in Ghana were run by the Portuguese, and the slaves that left their ports were sent to Brazil and other Portuguese territories in the New World, not to the American colonies.
The strong connection between the US and Sierra Leone that historians have uncovered through documentary research is also turning up in the results of DNA tests, which have become increasingly popular among African-Americans.
The poet Maya Angelou and activist, clergyman and politician Jesse Jackson have reportedly discovered that they have Sierra Leonean ancestors.
There have also been strong suggestions that the American first lady, Michelle Obama, might have a connection to the country, given that her grandfather was born in a Gullah community on the South Carolina coast.
Griffin Lotson, an American who hails from a Gullah community in Georgia, is keen to keep those connections strong.
“Our culture, the Gullah and the Geechee, had its birth on the slave plantations,” Mr Lotson said during a visit to Freetown earlier this year.
“But for every birth, there is a conception. And unquestionably, that conception was here in Sierra Leone.”
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