An early African colony: contested freedom, identity and authority in Sierra Leone

The deployment of royal navy anti-slave trade patrols at Sierra Leone in the first half of the 19th century resulted in the release of almost 100,000 enslaved Africans at Freetown. Taken off slave ships intercepted at various stages in the Atlantic crossing, these African men, women and children originally destined for slavery in the Americas were diverted to the British Crown colony for adjudication by an anti-slavery court. Historical research has tended to focus on the role of the Royal Navy in the suppression of the slave trade, and comparatively little attention has been paid to the identities and experiences of the individuals liberated at Freetown. My research at archives in Sierra Leone and Britain involves building up fragmentary evidence about the life histories of the first individuals released in the immediate aftermath of British abolition of the slave trade. Registers of Liberated Africans which were recently rediscovered in the Public Archives of Sierra Leone provide rare biographical information on over 12,000 individuals liberated between 1808 and 1819. An important objective of my research is to trace the subsequent movements and experiences of these ‘recaptives’ or Liberated Africans, as little is known about what happened to them after they had been disembarked from slave ships. Many were apprenticed for periods of up to 14 years within a system attacked by contemporaries as another form of enslavement. Others did not survive the trauma of the journey.

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The Capture of the Slaver Formidable by HMS Buzzard, 17 December 1834. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK.

Intervention by anti-slave trade patrols resulted in the forced resettlement of people uprooted and displaced from various regions of West Africa. However, the origins of Sierra Leone as a multicultural society and the world’s first post-slave society can be traced back to the late 18th century. From its foundation as a settlement for freed slaves in 1787, the colony played a pivotal role in the campaign to end the slave trade and slavery. Although established in the midst of an ongoing area of slave supply in West Africa, this ‘Province of Freedom’ was intended as a territory free from slave trading and slavery. The unique composition of the colony resulting from diverse streams of coerced and voluntary migration from Nova Scotia, Britain, the West Indies and Africa is also an important focus of my research.

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Extract from Register of Liberated Africans, 1808-1812, Public Archives of Sierra Leone, Fourah Bay College, Freetown.

This project, linked with the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, explores the development of Sierra Leone as an international experiment in abolitionist policy. Twenty years before the abolition of the trade, this ‘infant colony’ had already emerged as an important focus for debate on methods of eradicating the traffic in slaves, attacking the system of plantation slavery in the Americas, and promoting an alternative ‘legitimate’ form of commerce. Experimentation by the Sierra Leone Company focused in particular on the development of honourable or ethical trade in agricultural produce, and its ideas of Commerce, Civilization and Christianity laid the foundations of Victorian policy towards West Africa.

Professor Suzanne Schwarz
University of Worcester

Suzanne was awarded a Research Fellowship grant in 2011.