Bunce Island is located twenty miles up-river in the huge Rokel River Estuary, which is the largest natural harbor in Africa and the third largest in the world, after the Sydney and Rio de Janiero Harbors.
It is situated in the Lokomasama Chiefdom, Port Loko District in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. When the fortifications were first established, the area was inhabited by the Bullom peoples, an ethnicity no longer in full existence today.
Lying just about twenty miles up the Rokel River from Freetown, Capital of Sierra Leone, Bunce Island’s claim to prominence is that in the past centuries it was notorious as a British fortress for the conduct of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The British slavers on the island did business with the Bullom rulers who then fell under their influence.
Europeans who frequently visited the Rokel Estuary, at first named it the Sierra Leone River and Bunce Island, first known as Bence, Bense then Bance, finally settled on its current name by the eighteenth century. Thousands of Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Western world, the Americas and West Indies, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries in inhumane conditions.
At its height, Bunce Island housed a fort, a fortified house to which was attached a huge slave yard, and a cemetery. Cannons, still extant, were mounted outside the towers as the Island was successively attacked by other European vessels, part of the wars between European nations that extended to wherever the other’s installations were located.
At first in the late seventeenth century, the fort was operated by two companies – the Gambia Adventurers and the Royal African Company of England. These companies were chartered and therefore subsidized by the British Government. An Afro-Portuguese slave trader named Jose Lopez de Moura, attacked and destroyed the fort in 1728, and effectively drove the Royal African Company out of the Sierra Leone River. The fort was revived briefly by a small time slave trader – George Fryer- who soon sold his interest a decade later to another British company – Grant, Oswald and Sargent Company.
At the demise of the principal partner, Richard Oswald, the fort came under the control of John and Alexander Anderson, his nephews. So profitable was their slave trading business that Oswald, then principal owner of Bunce Island, became very rich and prominent enough to participate in peace negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris that contributed to American Independence from Britain.
One of the lingering positive impacts of the slave trade to the Americas is that slaves transported from the area of Bunce Island supplied the know-how and technology for the expansion of rice production particularly in the then British colonies of Georgia and South Carolina. Slaves coming from Bunce Island therefore fetched a premium price in those areas as their indigenous knowledge was exploited.
The British slave traders on Bunce Island became hostile to even other British interests, particularly as the British established a colony for freed slaves in the Sierra Leone peninsula at what later became Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, starting in 1787. As the fledgling colony struggled, the British slave traders at Bunce Island harassed the colony, using all the resources and connections they had established with the Bullom rulers of the area. It was not until after the new colony was taken over as a Crown Colony by the British Government in 1808 and the British navy started patrolling the area, arresting slave trading vessels that Bunce Island declined. The Island could not survive on other trading arrangements and was abandoned by the 1830s.
A significant part of the former buildings still remain. Segments of the main castle where the chief agent and his immediate British workers lived are still visible up to parts of the second floor level. The open air slave yard, divided into sections for male and female slaves, is still visible. Remnants of the watchtower and the mountings for cannon and gunpowder magazine are still decipherable. The cemetery still carries headstones with markings identifying slave traders who lived on the Island or did business there.
More Recent Developments
Bunce Island was the first monument to be declared after the Monuments and Relics Ordinance was effected in 1948. Dr. M.C.F. Easmon, a medical doctor who founded the Sierra Leone Museum, visited the Island in the same year and mapped out the ruins for the first time. In 1976, the Institute of African Studies of Fourah Bay College held a one week rehabilitation camp on Bunce Island which attempted to reduce the giant creepers that have gripped the building. A wooden plaque was left on the island and the proceedings of the camp was published in the Institute’s mouthpiece, the Africana Research Bulletin in the same year.
Interest in Africa in general, in Bunce Island in particular, heightened among African Americans by the 1970s, and in 1989, a group of African Americans from the Gullah Communities of South Carolina and Georgia visited Sierra Leone and Bunce Island as part of a highly publicized “home coming” trip. This was followed by two similar trips in 1997 and 2005.
The Monument and Relics Commission, an arm of the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, has custody of the Island monument and moves are more recently being aggressively pursued towards a proper rehabilitation of the Island, enhancing its touristic potential for future use. Bunce Island has been identified by the World Monuments Fund as one of the world’s “100 Most Endangered Sites”, raising its potential to attract funds for its restoration.