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Bunce Island (also spelled "Bence," "Bense," or "Bance" at different periods) is the site of an 18th-century British slave castle, or trading site, located in the Sierra Leone River in the present-day Republic of Sierra Leone in West Africa. Thousands of slaves were shipped from here to the North American colonies of South Carolina and Georgia, and were ancestors to many African Americans of the United States.
Located about 20 miles upriver from Sierra Leone's capital city of Freetown on the coast, Bunce Island lies in what was later called the "Freetown Harbour", the vast estuary formed by the Rokel River and Port Loko Creek. Although a small island, about 1650 feet long and 350 feet wide, its strategic position at the limit of navigation for ocean-going ships, in Africa's largest natural harbor, made it an ideal base for European slave traders.
For the 2007-2008 bicentennial of Great Britain's and the United States' abolition of the African slave trade, a team at James Madison University created an exhibit, a 3-D animation of the castle as of 1805, and a video to tell the history of the site. It has been touring universities and other venues, and is permanently held by the Freetown Museum.
Bunce Island was first settled and fortified by English slave traders about 1670. During its early history, the castle was operated by two London-based firms, the Gambia Adventurers and the Royal African Company of England, the latter a "Crown-chartered company," or parastatal, subsidized by the British government. The castle was not commercially successful at this period, but it served as a symbol of English influence in the region, where Portuguese slave traders had been established since the 1500s.
This early phase of the castle's history came to an end in 1728, when Bunce Island was raided by José Lopez da Moura, an Afro-Portuguese competitor in the slave trade based in the area. The richest man in present-day territory of Sierra Leone, he was the grandson of a Mande king and part of the Mestiza Afro-Portuguese community that had developed along the lower rivers. This mulatto class acted as middlemen, resisting efforts by the Royal African Company to build a monopoly on trade with African rulers. Lopez led others in destroying the Bunce Island factory.
Bunce Island was abandoned until the mid-1740s. It was later operated by two London-based companies: Grant, Oswald & Company and John & Alexander Anderson, and in the late 18th century, it was a highly profitable enterprise. During the second half of the 18th century, the companies sent thousands of African captives from Bunce Island to sales for plantations on the British- and French-controlled islands in the West Indies and to Britain's North American colonies. The London-based owners grew wealthy from the castle's operations.
The slave traders who did business at Bunce Island came from a variety of different backgrounds. During the castle's early history, Afro-Portuguese, part of what historian Ira Berlin described as the "Atlantic Creole generation," sold slaves and local products there. They were well-established along the rivers near the coast. They were descendants of Portuguese men in the slave trade, known as lançados, and African women, and were often bilingual.
During the island's later history, Afro-English dynasties had become established in their turn in communities along the West African coast, beginning in the 17th century. By 1800, there were about 12,000 Afro-English in this area. Mulatto men from such families as the Caulkers, Tuckers, and Clevelands, sold slaves and traded goods at Bunce Island. Like the Portuguese descendants, they occupied a middle ground, often marrying into the upper classes of some of the African tribes. The slave ships came from the British ports of London, Liverpool, and Bristol; from Newport, Rhode Island in the North American colonies; and from France and Denmark. They transported slaves from there mostly to British markets of the Caribbean and the American South.
Important as a British commercial outpost, Bunce Island was an attractive target during times of war. French naval forces attacked the castle four times (1695, 1704, 1779, and 1794), damaging or destroying it each time. The attack of 1779 took place during the American Revolutionary War when the rebel Continental Army's French allies took advantage of the conflict to attack British assets outside North America. Pirates, including Bartholomew Roberts, or "Black Bart," the most notorious pirate of the 18th century, attacked the castle in 1719 and 1720. The British traders rebuilt the castle after each attack, gradually altering its architecture during the roughly 140 years it was used as a slave trade entrepôt.
Links to North America
Bunce Island is best known as one of the chief processing points for slaves to be sold to planters in Lowcountry of the British colonies of South Carolina and Georgia, including the Sea Islands, where they developed extensive rice plantations. Rice requires a great deal of technical knowledge for its successful cultivation. South Carolina and Georgia planters were willing to pay premium prices for slave labor brought from what they called the "Rice Coast" of West Africa, the traditional rice-growing region stretching from what is now Senegal and Gambia in the north down to present-day Sierra Leone and Liberia in the south. Still, records of the port of Charleston show that nearly 40 percent of the slaves came from Angola.
Bunce Island was the largest British slave castle on the Rice Coast. African farmers with rice-growing skills were kidnapped from inland areas and sold at the castle or at one of its many "outfactories" (trading posts) along the coast before being transported to North America. Several thousand slaves from Bunce Island were taken to the ports of Charleston (South Carolina) and Savannah (Georgia) during the second half of the 18th century. Slave auction advertisements in those cities often announced slave cargoes arriving from "Bance" or "Bense" Island.
Colonist Henry Laurens served as Bunce Island's business agent in Charleston, and was a wealthy rice planter and slave dealer. He later was elected as President of the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, and was later appointed as the United States (US) envoy to the Netherlands. Captured by the British en route to his post in Europe during the war, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. After hostilities ended, he became one of the Peace Commissioners who negotiated United States independence under the Treaty of Paris. The chief negotiator on the British side was Richard Oswald, the principal owner of Bunce Island. He and Laurens had been friends for 30 years. United States independence was negotiated in part between the British owner of Bunce Island and his American business agent in South Carolina, demonstrating the wealth and status achieved by these men by their trade in rice and slaves.
Bunce Island was also linked to the Northern colonies in America. Slave ships based in northern ports frequently called at Bunce Island, taking on supplies such as fresh water and provisions for the Atlantic crossing, and buying slaves for sale in the British islands of the West Indies and the Southern Colonies. The North American slave ships that called at Bunce Island were sailing out of Newport (Rhode Island), New London (Connecticut), Salem (Massachusetts), and New York City.
Eclipse of Bunce Island
British philanthropists involved with the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in London established Freetown in 1787, a settlement for freed slaves, on the Sierra Leone Peninsula, just 20 miles downriver from Bunce Island. This was eventually established as the colony of Sierra Leone. The Atlantic slave trade continued to be legal for the next two decades.
During that period, Bunce Island slave traders harassed the fledgling colony by inciting local African chiefs against it, organizing trade boycotts to isolate it, and at one point kidnapping and selling as slaves some Freetown colonists whom they accused of stealing goods at the castle. Before the end of the century, Britain also relocated there more than 1,000 Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia, who had been resettled after the Revolution, and chose to try life in the African colony.
In 1807 the British Parliament abolished the Atlantic slave trade. The following year Freetown became a Crown Colony, and the British Navy based its Africa Squadron there. They sent out regular patrols to search for slave vessels violating the ban. Bunce Island shut down for slave trading. British firms used the castle for other purposes: a cotton plantation, a trading post and a sawmill. These activities were economically unsuccessful, and the island was abandoned around 1840. The buildings and stone walls deteriorated.
Today, substantial ruins stand on the north end of the island. Bance Island House, the headquarters building where the Chief Agent lived with his senior officers, is at the center of the castle. Parts of the building still rise to second-story level.
Immediately behind it is the open-air slave yard, divided between a large area for men and a smaller one for women and children. Remnants stand of two watchtowers, a fortification with places for eight cannons, and a gunpowder magazine. Some of the cannons bear the royal cipher of King George III). At the south end of the island, several inscribed tombstones mark the graves of slave traders, slave ship captains, and the foreman of African workers.
Research on Bunce Island
Three American scholars have done extensive research on Bunce Island. Anthropologist Joseph Opala has contributed research linking Bunce Island to the Gullah people of the United States Low Country. He organized the Gullah "homecomings" portrayed in the documentary films: “Family Across the Sea (1990), The Language You Cry In (1998), and the website, Priscilla’s Homecoming (2005). This covers the trip of Thomalind (Martin) Polite to Sierra Leone; she is documented as a descendant of a slave girl named Priscilla, taken from Bunce Island and sold in South Carolina in 1756. These received considerable international coverage, especially as more African Americans have been researching their family ties to African areas since the 1970s. Historian David Hancock documented Bunce Island in great detail during the period of Grant, Oswald & Company in his study, Citizens of the World (1997). Archaeologist Christopher DeCorse and his team conducted a thorough survey of Bunce Island’s ruins for a report submitted to the Sierra Leone government (2006).
In 2006, Isaiah Washington, an African-American TV actor, visited Bunce Island after learning through a DNA test that he had ancestry from the indigenous Mende people of Sierra Leone. Washington later donated $25,000 to a project to create a computer reconstruction of Bunce Island as it appeared in the year 1805, as part of a bicentennial project to mark the abolition of the African slave trade by Great Britain and the United States. In addition, a reconstructed slave ship will be docked at the island.
Project directors Joseph Opala and Gary Chatelain at James Madison University created a 3-D image of the castle using computer-aided design and historic drawings. It is part of an exhibit that portrays the history of the island, and allows the viewer to "enter" all the structures and "see" them as they appeared 200 years ago. Period furnishings and cargo will also be included. This animation project is available to museums and educational institutions. A traveling exhibit on the history of Bunce Island, which contains some of these computer-generated images, is available in the U.S. and U.K. The full exhibit is on permanent display at the Sierra Leone National Museum in Freetown.
Scholars have found evidence of numerous historical and genealogical links between the people of Bunce Island and the United States. For example, in 2013 historians reported learning that two U.S. presidents, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, are descended directly from a slave ship captain who operated out of Bunce Island and other slave trade bases in the Sierra Leone region in the late 1700s. Their ancestor Thomas Walker (AKA "Beau Walker") came from Bristol, one of Britain's principal slaving ports. He was found to have been involved in 11 expeditions in the slave trade; he immigrated with his fortune to the U.S., where he became naturalized in 1792. Walker settled for a time in New Jersey. One of his descendants, Dorothy (Walker) Bush, was the mother of George H.W. Bush.
In 1948, Bunce Island was designated as Sierra Leone's first officially protected historic site. M.C.F. Easmon, a Sierra Leonean medical doctor and amateur historian, led an expedition that year that cleared the vegetation, and mapped and photographed the ruins for the first time. Research at the island has been underway since the 1970s but a hurricane struck in 1974, damaging structures.
In 1989 a group of Gullahs from the United States made an historic "homecoming" visit to Sierra Leone and toured the ruins of Bunce Island. Shortly after that, the U.S. National Park Service announced a preservation program for the castle in coordination with the Sierra Leone government. Plans were put off by the disruption of the lengthy Sierra Leone civil war. African Americans made Gullah Homecomings in 1997 and 2005, which were documented as public history projects.
Bunce Island is now protected by Sierra Leone's Monuments and Relics Commission, a branch of the country's Ministry of Tourism and Culture. The government is working to preserve the castle as an important historic site and as a destination for tourists, especially African Americans. Bunce Island has been called "the most important historic site in Africa for the United States" as thousands of slaves were shipped from here to ports in the American South. Goree Island in Senegal has become better known and has attracted African-American tourists and support for preservation since the 1980s.
General Colin Powell, then Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Bunce Island in 1992 while on an official visit to Sierra Leone. Deeply moved, Powell spoke of his feelings in a farewell speech he made before leaving the country. "I am an American...," he said. "But today, I am something more...I am an African too...I feel my roots here in this continent."
The U.S. National Park Service team that surveyed the castle in 1989 suggested stabilizing the ruins. In addition, they recommended the installation of all-weather displays showing what the buildings looked like and their activities. No historic preservation work has been done. The castle’s ruins are deteriorating rapidly in Sierra Leone’s tropical climate. The World Monuments Fund placed Bunce Island (and other historic sites in Sierra Leone) on its 2008 watch list of the world’s “100 Most Endangered Sites.” Several organizations in Sierra Leone, the United States, and Great Britain are promoting popular awareness of Bunce Island and its history, and working toward the preservation of the castle.
In October 2010, the Bunce Island Coalition (US) and its partner organization, the Bunce Island Coalition (SL), announced the start of the Bunce Island Preservation Project, a five-year, $5 million effort. Its goals are to preserve the ruins of the castle as a historic landmark, and to build a museum in Freetown, the capital city, devoted to the history of Bunce Island and the influence of the Atlantic slave trade in Sierra Leone.
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