Nestled in the heart of West Africa, Sierra Leone’s history is rich and diverse, but with a past shrouded in the darkness of human exploitation and slavery.
Bunce Island is a few miles north of Freetown, the bustling port city that is now the capital of Sierra Leone. This place lies a small stretch of land on the Sierra Leone River, which bears witness to the brutal legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.
This uninhabited land serves as a solemn testament to one of the most barbaric practices in human history, where abandoned, weather-beaten stone-brick structures stand tall amidst the encroaching wilderness of overreaching tree roots and wild grasses.
These structures are the last remnants of a once-thriving slave trading operation, which transformed countless innocent lives into commodities to be bought, sold, and transported across the ocean.
The remnants of this cruel enterprise on the banks of the Sierra Leone River serve as a poignant reminder of the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, urging us to remember and learn from the past to build a better future.
In the annals of human history, few chapters are as shameful and heart-wrenching as the transatlantic slave trade, a dark epoch that saw millions of Africans forcibly taken from their homes, transported across the ocean in squalid conditions, and sold into a life of unspeakable horrors.
Among the many sites that bear witness to this abominable trade, few are as poignant and evocative as Bunce Island, a small, uninhabited island off the coast of Sierra Leone that served as a bustling center of the transatlantic slave trade for over a century.
Bunce Island involvement in slavery
From the late 1600s to 1807, Bunce Island was home to a fortified British trading post and a complex of ancillary buildings that collectively came to be known as a slave castle.
Here, merchants conducted international trade in human lives, buying and selling captive men, women, and children from across West Africa and shipping them off to the sugar plantations of the West Indies and the cotton fields of North America.
The island’s buildings included merchants’ quarters, a gunpowder magazine, a slave house, a cookhouse, and an office tower.
At the heart of the castle was the Chief Agent’s residence, which overlooked a vast “slave yard” where hundreds of captives were held in brutal conditions before being loaded aboard commercial ships.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the slave trade was the way in which it targeted people from specific regions and cultures.
For instance, Bunce Island was strategically located along the “rice coast” of West Africa, which made it a key access point for slave trade operations targeting individuals from rice cultivating areas.
These captives were then sold to rice plantation owners in South Carolina and Georgia, where they were forced to work in the grueling and back-breaking fields.
Bunce Island captives were also sold in the Northern colonies, such as New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, further exacerbating the horrors of slavery.
Bunce Island played a significant role in the transatlantic slave trade as one of the primary processing points for enslaved Africans to be sold to rice planters in the British colonies of South Carolina and Georgia.
The moist climate and fertile land in these colonies, similar to their African homelands, allowed for extensive rice plantations to be developed, making South Carolina one of the wealthiest states in North America.
Slave auction advertisements in South Carolina and Georgia often announced slave cargoes arriving from Bunce Island, assuring buyers that they would obtain experienced hands.
This resulted in the creation of a community of descendants of slaves in the United States, known as the Gullah, whose roots can be traced back to Sierra Leone.
The Gullah community still retains their traditions in food, names, and stories that draw heavily from their Sierra Leonean origins, as noted by UNESCO.
Bunce Island differs from other slave trading sites, such as Goree Island in Senegal and Elmina Castle in Ghana, as it was the only instance where Africans were specifically targeted for buying and selling based on their skills.
Tens of thousands of Africans passed through Bunce Island’s doors, with their lives in the continent ending there.
After the British government abolished the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, Bunce Island was shut down for slave trading.
British firms used the castle as a cotton plantation, trading post, and sawmill, which ultimately proved economically unsuccessful, leading to its abandonment around 1840. In 1948, Bunce Island was designated Sierra Leone’s first officially protected historic site.
Today, the Sierra Leonean Monuments and Relics Commission, under the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, protects Bunce Island. The government is working towards preserving the castle as an important historic site
Despite the end of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, the legacy of Bunce Island continues to reverberate across generations, serving as a reminder of the horrors of human trafficking and the brutality of slavery.
Over the course of more than a century, an estimated 30,000 people were sent into slavery from Bunce Island, leaving an indelible mark on the island’s history and on the lives of those who were forced to endure the unimaginable.
Isatu Smith, former Head of the Monuments and Relics Commission of Sierra Leone (MRC) and WMF’s Project Manager at Bunce Island during its three-year project there, noted that “thousands of Africans passed through Bunce Island’s doors on their way to a life of captivity in the Americas.”
The partnership between WMF and MRC, launched in October 2017 and completed in July 2020, aimed to preserve this historic site and highlight its significance as a memorial to the dark chapter of human history that is the Atlantic slave trade.
Bunce Island, with its fortified British trading post and ancillary buildings, served as a key trade center for the transatlantic slave trade from the late 1600s until 1807.
Captives from rice cultivating areas were sold to rice plantation owners in South Carolina and Georgia, as well as Northern colonies such as New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Over 30,000 people were sent to slavery from Bunce Island over the course of more than a century.
As a site of memory, Bunce Island bears witness to the truths of the past and present, transcending national boundaries and serving as a testament to the transformative and traumatic period in local and regional history whose impact on the Atlantic world continues to this day.
This is particularly urgent in the wake of the massive protests that swept across the United States during the summer of 2020, which demanded acknowledgment not only of the systemic racism pervading society, but also of its deep roots that extend across an ocean and back to Sierra Leone.
The preservation efforts by the World Monuments Fund (WMF) at Bunce Island, in collaboration with the Monuments and Relics Commission of Sierra Leone (MRC) and supported by the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, have breathed new life into one of the most important heritage sites in West Africa.
Despite its historical significance, Bunce Island remained underrepresented, and it was vital to safeguard its survival for future generations.
WMF’s work has led to the development of a new visitor infrastructure, including an interpretation center, pathways, and information signs, to help tourists engage with the site and raise awareness of Bunce Island’s role in the Atlantic slave trade and its legacy.
The educational outreach and community engagement initiatives by WMF have included organized trainings for tour guides, where they received a detailed history of Sierra Leone and the relationship between the United States Gullahs, descendants of enslaved people from the rice coast, and Sierra Leoneans.
According to Isatu Smith, who headed the trainings, “I cannot underscore enough the importance of Bunce Island and especially Sierra Leone’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.
It’s very important that this place is preserved so that descendants of captives who were taken will come back to visit this place as a pilgrimage to their ancestors who were enslaved.”
WMF’s preservation work, which included stabilizing a large section of standing ruins and training local craftspeople, aligns with the MRC’s objectives of encouraging the development of a national consciousness surrounding the history of slavery in Sierra Leone.
This effort ensures that Bunce Island will live on as a unique cultural memorial of Africa’s intersection with the United States, while also honoring the memory of those who suffered in one of the darkest periods in human history.
The story of Bunce Island is a poignant reminder of the atrocities committed during the transatlantic slave trade, and the enduring legacy it left on both sides of the ocean.
While the castle may no longer be a hub for slave trading, its preservation as a historic site provides an opportunity for reflection, education, and healing.
Through continued efforts to safeguard and promote its significance, we can honor the memory of those who suffered at the hands of this cruel trade, while acknowledging the resilience and strength of those who survived and built new lives in the face of unspeakable adversity.