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Located about 20 miles upriver from Sierra Leone's capital city of Freetown on the coast, Bunce Island lies in the Sierra Leone River (also 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 in Africa's largest natural harbor made it an ideal base for European slave merchants.
Bunce Island was first settled 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 British influence in the region. 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. It was abandoned until the mid-1740s.
Bunce Island was operated later by two London-based companies: Grant, Oswald & Company and John & Alexander Anderson, and at that period 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 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 sold slaves and local products there. During its late history, Afro-English families, such as the Caulkers, Tuckers, and Clevelands, sold slaves at Bunce Island. 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 mostly to the Caribbean and the American South.
Due to its importance 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 America's French allies took advantage of the conflict to attack British assets outside North America. Pirates also attacked the castle twice (1719 and 1720), including Bartholomew Roberts, or "Black Bart," the most notorious pirate of the 18th century. 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 suppliers of slaves to planters for the rice industry in the British colonies of South Carolina and Georgia. 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 Sierra Leone and Liberia in the south.
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.
Henry Laurens, Bunce Island's business agent in Charleston, a wealthy rice planter and slave dealer, later became President of the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War and then United States (US) envoy to Holland. Captured by the British en route to his post in Europe, 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, and Laurens' friend 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. This reflects the wealth and position achieved by these men by their trade in rice and slaves.
Bunce Island was also linked to the Northern Colonies of Britain. 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.
Eclipse of Bunce Island
British philanthropists involved with the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor established Freetown in 1787, a settlement for freed slaves, on the Sierra Leone Peninsula, just 20 miles downriver from Bunce Island. 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 several hundred Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia, who chose to try conditions in the African colony.
In 1807 the British Parliament outlawed 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 did the research that linked 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 “Priscilla’s Homecoming" (in production). These received considerable international coverage, during a period when African Americans were researching their family ties to African areas. 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, African-American TV actor Isaiah Washington visited Bunce Island after learning through a DNA test that some of his ancestors came from 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. Project directors Joseph Opala and Gary Chatelain at James Madison University are producing a 3-D image of the castle using computer-aided design, which allows the viewer to "enter" all the structures and "see" them as they appeared 200 years ago. Their animation will be made 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, historians have recently discovered 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. Thomas Walker (AKA "Beau Walker") came from Bristol, one of Britain's principal slaving ports. After making his fortune in the slave trade, he immigrated to the U.S. through New York in 1792. Walker made sizable investments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but he was killed by his own crew in 1797 when they could no longer bear the brutality he inflicted on them. He had several children in the U.S., including a son named "George Walker." The Walker and Bush clans connected when Prescott Bush (later a U.S. Senator) married Dorothy Walker in 1921. Dorothy Walker Bush was the mother of President George Herbert Walker Bush, and the grandmother of President George Walker Bush.
Bunce Island became Sierra Leone's first officially protected historic site in 1948. 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. In 1989 a group of Gullahs (members of an African-American community in coastal South Carolina and Georgia) 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. Plans were put off by the confusion of the Sierra Leone civil war. “Gullah Homecomings” in 1997 and 2005 resulted in visits by African Americans to Bunce Island, which were documented as public history projects .
Bunce Island is under the protection of 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 a reminder of the past and to attract tourists, especially African Americans. Although other slave castles—especially Gorée in Senegal and Elmina in Ghana—are more popular attractions for black Americans, those castles are historically connected more to slave descendants of the West Indies than North America. Bunce Island has been called "the most important historic site in Africa for the United States."
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 by the experience, Powell spoke of his reaction to the slave castle 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 recently 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 now 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 to preserve the ruins of the castle and to build a museum in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital city, devoted to the history of Bunce Island and the impact of the Atlantic slave trade in Sierra Leone.
- "Bunce Island in Sierra Leone", from The Gullah by Joseph A. Opala
- "Sierra Leone Draws Americans Seeking Slave Roots", Reuters March 22, 2007
- Importance for African Americans New York Times, Nov. 8, 1987.
- Bunce Island Computer Reconstruction Project CBS News, 14 Mar 2007
- Bunce Island: A British Slave Castle in Sierra Leone” Official website for the Bunce Island exhibit
- Priscilla's Homecoming website Gilder Lehrman Center, Yale University
- Priscilla's Homecoming and the USF Africana Heritage Project
- "George W. Bush’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandfather Was a Slave Trader" Slate June 20, 2013
- Bunce Island preservation project, Providence Journal
- Bunce Island preservation project, Christian Science Monitor
- Sierra Leone Moves into Slave Tourism BBC News, June 28, 2012 (see computer reconstruction)
- Opala's research and preservation efforts on Bunce Island "Old South High" website, Harrisonburg, Virginia
- Tour of Bunce Island CNN, Inside Africa, "Slave Trade Ghost Town," broadcast May 16, 2013 (see text and video)
- Photos by BBC News
- Photos by Peter Andersen
- Photos by Matthew Oldfield 1
- Photos by Matthew Oldfield 2
- Bunce Island on Global Heritage Network Satellite photos
- Family Across the Sea Full-length documentary by SCETV, 1990
- The Language You Cry In Full-length documentary by INKO Productions, 1998
- Tour of Bunce Island for MSNBC's Rock Center, broadcast February 15, 2012
- Ball, Edward (1998) "Slaves in the Family,” New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
- Brooks, George (2003) "Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, and Religious Observance from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century,” Athens: Ohio University Press.
- DeCorse, Christopher (2007) "Bunce Island Cultural Resource Assessment," Report prepared for the U.S. Embassy in Sierra Leone and the Sierra Leone Monuments and Relics Commission.
- Farrow, Anne, Joel Lang & Jenifer Frank (2005) "Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery," New York: Ballantine Books.
- Fyfe, Christopher (1962) "A History of Sierra Leone," London: Oxford University Press.
- Hancock, David (1995) “Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735-1785,” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Landsman, Ned C. (2001) "Nation and Province in the First British Empire: Scotland and the Americas, 1600-1800," Cranbury, NJ: Bucknell University Press.
- Kup, Alexander Peter (1961) "A History of Sierra Leone, 1400-1787," Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Opala, Joseph (2007) "Bunce Island: A British Slave Castle in Sierra Leone (Historical Summary)" in DeCorse (2007).
- Powell, Colin [with Joseph Persico] (1995) "My American Journey," New York: Random House.
- Rodney, Walter (1970) "A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800," Oxford: Clarendon Press.