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The history of Sierra Leone as an independent nation began in 1961, though the lands had been inhabited since at least 2,500 years ago. Sierra Leone played a significant part in modern political liberty. It began as a colony of freed British slaves and, in the 1790s, blacks voted for the time in elections, as did women. [1]


Early history

Fragments of prehistoric pottery from Kamabai Rock Shelter

Archaeological finds show that Sierra Leone has been inhabited continuously for at least 2,500 years,[2] populated by successive movements from other parts of Africa.[3] The use of iron was introduced to Sierra Leone by the 9th century, and by AD 1000 agriculture was being practiced by coastal tribes.[4] Sierra Leone's dense tropical rainforest partly isolated it from other precolonial African cultures[5] and from the spread of Islam.

European contacts with Sierra Leone were among the first in West Africa. In 1462 Portuguese explorer Pedro da Cintra mapped the hills surrounding what is now Freetown Harbour, naming the oddly shaped formation Serra Lyoa (Lion Mountains).

At this time the country was inhabited by numerous politically independent native groups. Several different languages were spoken, but there was similarity of religion. In the coastal rainforest belt there were Bulom speakers between the Sherbro and Freetown estuaries, Loko North of the Freetown estuary to the Little Scarcies, Temne at the mouth of the Scarcies and also inland, and Limba farther up the Scarcies.

In the hilly savannah North of all of these were Susu and Fula. The Susu traded regularly with the coastal peoples along river valley routes, bringing salt, clothes woven by the Fula, good quality iron work, and some gold.

European contact and slavery (1400s)

Portuguese ships began visiting regularly in the late 1400s, and for a while they maintained a fort on the North shore of the Freetown estuary. The estuary is one of the few good harbours on West Africa's surf-pounded "Windward Shore" (Liberia to Senegal), and also has a good watering spot; it soon became a favourite destination of European mariners. Some of the Portuguese stayed permanently, trading and intermarrying with the local people.

When Europeans first arrived at Sierra Leone, slavery among the African peoples of the area was rare. Historian Walter Rodney has searched the reports of the early Portuguese travelers to the area and found mention in them of only one, quite particular, kind of slavery among the Africans. Rodney says that the Portuguese reports generally were detailed and thorough, especially concerning trade, and that it is unlikely, if slavery had been an important local institution, that the reports would have been so silent about it. The one particular type of slavery that they did mention was this: a person in trouble in one kingdom could go to another and place himself under the protection of its king, whereupon he became a "slave" of that king, obliged to provide free labour and liable for sale.[6] (Such a person would likely have retained some rights and had some opportunity to rise in status as time passed.)

If the Africans were not much interested in acquiring slaves, the Portuguese — and the Dutch, French, and English who arrived later — certainly were. Initially their method was to cruise the coast, conducting quick kidnapping raids when opportunities presented themselves. Soon, however, they found local actors willing to partner with them in these vicious but profitable affairs: some chiefs were willing to part with a few of the less desirable members of their tribes for a price; others went into the war business — a bevy of battle captives could be sold for a fortune in European rum, cloth, beads, copper, or muskets.

This early slaving was essentially an export business. The use of slaves as labourers by the local Africans appears to have developed only later. It may first have occurred under coastal chiefs in the late 1700s:

The slave owners were originally white and foreigners, but the late eighteenth century saw the emergence of powerful slave-trading chiefs, who were said to own large numbers of 'domestic slaves'."[7]

For example in the late 1700s, chief William Cleveland had a large "slave town" on the mainland opposite the Banana Islands, whose inhabitants "were employed in cultivating extensive rice fields, described as being some of the largest in Africa at the time ..."[8] The existence of an indigenous slave town was recorded by an English traveler in 1823. Known in the Fula language as a rounde, it was connected with the Sulima Susu's capital city, Falaba; its inhabitants worked at farming.

Rodney has postulated two means by which slaving for export could have caused a local practise of using slaves for labour to develop:

a) Not all war captives offered for sale would have been bought by the Portuguese; eg., weak or sick looking individuals would not be bought. Their captors would therefore have had to find something else to do with them. Rodney believes that executing them was rare and that usually they would have been used for local labour.

b) There is a time lag between the time a slave is captured and the time he or she is bought. Thus there would often have been a pool of slaves awaiting sale; and while they waited they would have been put to work.[9]

There are possible additional reasons for the adoption of slavery by the locals to meet their labour requirements: 1) The Europeans provided an example for imitation. 2) Once slaving in any form is taken up it may smash a moral barrier to exploitation, and make its adoption in other forms seem a relatively minor matter. 3) Export slaving entailed the construction of a coercive apparatus which could have been subsequently turned to other ends, such as policing a captive labour force. 4) The sale of local produce, eg. palm kernels, to Europeans opened up a new sphere of economic activity; in particular it crated an increased demand for agricultural labour; slavery was a way of mobilising an agricultural work force.[10]

It is important to note that this local African slavery was slavery of a much less harsh and brutal form than the slavery practised by Europeans on, for example, the plantations of the United States, West Indies, and Brazil. The local slavery has been described, for example, by anthropologist M. McCulloch:

[S]laves were housed close to the fresh tracts of land they cleared for their masters. They were considered part of the household of their owner, and enjoyed limited rights. It was not customary to sell them except for a serious offense, such as adultery with the wife of a freeman. Small plots of land were given to them for their own use, and they might retain the proceeds of crops they grew on these plots; by this means it was possible for a slave to become the owner of another slave. Sometimes a slave married into the household of his master and rose to a position of trust; there is an instance of a slave taking charge of a chiefdom during the minority of the heir. Descendants of slaves were often practically indistinguishable from freemen.[11]

Slaves were sometimes sent on errands outside the kingdoms of their masters and returned voluntarily.[12] Speaking specifically of the era around 1700, Fyfe relates that, "Slaves not taken in war were usually criminals. In coastal areas, at least, it was rare for anyone to be sold without being charged with a crime."[13]

Voluntary dependence reminiscent of that described in the early Portuguese documents mentioned at the beginning of this section was still present in the 1800s. It was called pawning; Abraham describes a typical variety:

A freeman heavily in debt, and facing the threat of the punishment of being sold, would approach a wealthier man or chief with a plea to pay of his debts ‘while I sit on your lap’. Or he could give a son or some other dependent of his ‘to be for you’, the wealthy man or chief. This in effect meant that the person so pawned was automatically reduced to a position of dependence, and if he was never redeemed, he or his children eventually became part of the master's extended family. By this time, the children were practically indistinguishable from the real children of the master, since they grew up regarding one another as brothers.[14]

Some observers consider the term "slave" to be more misleading than informative in describing the local practice. Abraham says that in most cases, "subject, servant, client, serf, pawn, dependent, or retainer" would be more accurate.[15] Domestic slavery was abolished in Sierra Leone in 1928. McCulloch reports that at that time, amongst Sierra Leone's largest present-day ethnolinguistic group, the Mende, who then had about 560,000 people, about 15 per cent of the population (ie. 84,000) were domestic slaves. He also says that "Singulary little change followed the 1928 decree; a fair number of slaves returned to their original homes, but the great majority remained in the villages in which their former masters had placed them or their parents."[16]

We hope that this discussion of domestic slavery does not overshadow the fact that export slavery remained a major business in Sierra Leone from the late 1400s to the mid 1800s. According to Fyfe, "it was estimated in 1789 that 74,000 slaves were exported annually from West Africa, about 38,000 by British firms." In 1788 a European apologist for the slave trade estimated the annual total exported from between the Rio Nunez (110 km North of Sierra Leone) and the Sherbro as 3,000.[17] The transatlantic slave trade was banned by the British in 1807, but illegal slave trading continued for several decades after that.

Mane Invasions (1500s)

In the mid 1500s occurred events of profound importance in the modern history of Sierra Leone: these were the Mane invasions. The Mane (also called Mani), Southern members of the Mande language group, were a warrior people, well-armed and well-organised, who lived East and possibly somewhat North of present-day Sierra Leone, occupying a belt North of the coastal peoples. Sometime in the early 1500s they began moving South. According to some Mane who spoke to a Portuguese (Dornelas) in the late 1500s, their travels had begun as a result of their Chief's, a woman named Macario, having been expelled from the imperial city in Mandimansa, their homeland.[18] Their first arrival at the coast was East of Sierra Leone, at least as far away as the Cess River and likely farther. They advanced up the coast toward Sierra Leone, conquering as they went. They incorporated large numbers of the people they conquered into their army, with the result that by the time they reached Sierra Leone, the rank and file of their army consisted mostly of coastal peoples; the Mane were its commanding group. The Mane used small bows, which enabled Manes to reuse their enemies' arrows against them, while the enemy could make no use of the Manes' short arrows. Rodney describes the rest of their equipment thus:

The rest of their arms consisted of large shields made of reeds, long enough to give complete cover to the user, two knives, one of which was tied to the left arm, and two quivers for their arrows. Their clothes consisted of loose cotton shirts with wide necks and ample sleeves reaching down to their knees to become tights. One striking feature of their appearance was the abundance of feathers stuck in their shirts and their red caps.[19]

By 1545 they had reached Cape Mount, not far from the South-Eastern corner of present-day Sierra Leone. Their conquest of Sierra Leone occupied the ensuing 15 to 20 years, and resulted in the subjugation of all or nearly all of the indigenous coastal peoples — who were known collectively as the Sapes — as far North as the Scarcies. The present ethnogeography of Sierra Leone is largely a reflection of this momentous two decades. The degree to which the Mane supplanted the original inhabitants varied from place to place. Thus in the present-day Temne we have a people who partly withstood the Mane onslaught: they kept their language, but became ruled by a line of Mane kings. The present-day Loko and Mende are the result of a more complete submersion of the original culture: their languages are similar, and both essentially Mande. In their oral tradition the Mende still describe themselves as being a mixture of two peoples: they say that their original members were hunters and fishers who populated the area sparsely in small peaceful settlements; they say that their leaders came later, in a recent historical period, bringing with them the arts of war, and also building larger, more permanent villages. This history receives support from the facts that their population consists of two different racial types, and their language and culture show signs of a layering of two different forms: they have both matrilineal and patrilineal inheritance, for instance.[20]

The Mane invasions militarised Sierra Leone. The Sapes had been un-warlike, but after the invasions, right until the late 1800s, bows, shields, and knives of the Mane type had become ubiquitous in Sierra Leone, as had the Mane battle technique of using squadrons of archers fighting in formation, carrying the large-style shields.[21] Villages became fortified. The usual method of erecting two or three concentric palisades, each 12 to 20 feet (4 to 7 m) high, created a formidable obstacle to attackers — especially since, as some of the English observed in the 1800s, the thigh-thick logs planted into the earth to make the palisades often took root at the bottom and grew foliage at the top, so that the defenders occupied virtually a living wall of wood. A British officer who observed one of these fortifications around the time of the 1898 Hut Tax war ended his description of it thus:

No one who has not seen these fences can realize the immense strength of them. The outer fence at Hahu I measured in several places, and found it to be from 2 to 3 feet thick, and most of the logs, or rather trees, of which it was formed, had taken root and were throwing out leaves and shoots.

He also said that English artillery could not penetrate all three fences.[22] At that time, at least among the Mende, "a typical settlement consisted of walled towns and open villages or towns surrounding it."[23]

After the invasions, the Mane sub-chiefs among whom the country had been divided began fighting among themselves. This pattern of activity became permanent: even after the Mane had blended with the indigenous population — a process which was completed in the early 1600s — the various kingdoms in Sierra Leone remained in a fairly continual state of flux and conflict. Rodney believes that a desire to take prisoners to sell as slaves to the Europeans was a major motivation to this fighting, and may even have been a driving force behind the original Mane invasions. Little says that the principal objective in the local wars, at least among the Mende, was plunder, not the acquisition of territory.[24] Abraham cautions that slave trading should not be exaggerated as a cause: the Africans were perfectly capable of finding reasons of their own to fight: territorial and political ambitions were present.[25] It is well to remember that we are speaking of a period of some 350 years, and the motivations may have changed over time.

The wars themselves were not exceptionally deadly. Set-piece battles were rare, and the fortified towns so strong that their capture was seldom attempted. Often the fighting consisted of small ambushes.[26]

In these years the political system was that each large village along with its satellite villages and settlements would be headed by a chief. The chief would have a private army of warriors. Sometimes several chiefs would group themselves into a confederacy, acknowledging one of themselves as king (or high chief). Each paid the king fealty. If one were attacked, the king would come to his aid. The king could adjudicate local disputes.

Despite their many political divisions, the people of the country were united by cultural similarity. One component of this was the Poro, an organisation common to many different kingdoms and even ethnolinguistic groups. The Mende claim to be its originators, and there is nothing to contradict this. Possibly they imported it. The Temne claim to have imported it from the Sherbro or Bulom. The Dutch geographer Olfert Dapper knew of it in the 1600s.[27] It is often described as a "secret society", and this is partly true: its rites are closed to non-members, and what happens in the "Poro bush" is never disclosed. However, its membership is very broad: among the Mende, almost all men, and some women, are initiates. In recent years it has not (as far as we know) had a central organisation: autonomous chapters exist for each chiefdom or village. However, it is said that in pre-Protectorate days there was a "Grand Poro" with cross-chiefdom powers of making war and peace.[28] It is widely agreed that it has a restraining influence on the powers of the chiefs.[29] Headed by a fearsome principal spirit, the Gbeni, it plays a major role in the rite of passage of males from puberety to manhood. It imparts some education. In some areas, it had supervisory powers over trade, and the banking system, which used iron bars as a medium of exchange. It is not the only important society in Sierra Leone: the Sande is a female-only analogue of it; there is also the Humoi which regulates sex, and the Njayei and the Wunde. The Kpa is a healing arts collegium.

The impact of the Mane invasions on the Sapes was obviously considerable, in that they lost their political autonomy. There were other effects as well: Their trade with the interior was interrupted. Thousands were sold as slaves to the Europeans. In industry, a flourishing tradition in fine ivory carving was ended; however, improved ironworking techniques were introduced.


In the 1600s Portuguese imperialism waned and, in Sierra Leone, the most significant European group became the British. By, at latest, 1628, they had a "factory" (their name for a trading post) in the vicinity of Sherbro Island, which is about 50 km South East down the coast from present-day Freetown. One commodity they got was camwood, a hard timber, from which also could be obtained a red dye. It was at that time still easily accessible from the coast. Also, elephants still lived on Sherbro Island. The Portuguese missionary, Barrierra, left Sierra Leone in 1610. Jesuits, and later in the century, Capuchins, continued the mission. By 1700 it had closed, although priests occasionally still visited.

Map of Bunce Island from 1727

A company called the Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa received a charter from Charles II of England in 1663 and subsequently built a fort in the Sherbro and on Tasso Island in the Freetown estuary. They were plundered by the Dutch in 1664, the French in 1704, and pirates in 1719 and 1720. After the Dutch raid, the Tasso Island fort was moved to nearby Bunce Island which was more defensible.

The Europeans made payments, called Cole, for rent, tribute, and trading rights, to the king of an area. At this time the local military advantage was still on the side of the Africans, and there is a report, for instance, from 1714, of a king seizing Company goods in retaliation for a breach of protocol.[30] Local Afro-Portuguese often acted as middlemen, the Europeans advancing them goods and they trading them to the local people, most often for ivory. In 1728 an overly aggressive Company governor united the Africans and Afro-Portuguese in hostility to him; they burnt down the Bunce Island fort and it was not rebuilt until about 1750. The French wrecked it again in 1779.

Map of Sierra Leone from 1732

During the 1600s the Temne ethnolinguistic group was expanding. Around 1600 a Mani still ruled the Loko kingdom (the area North of Port Loko Creek) and another ruled the upper part of the South shore of the Freetown estuary. The North shore of the estuary was under a Bulom king, and the area just east of Freetown on the peninsula was held by a non-Mani with a European name, Dom Phillip de Leon (he may however have been a subordinate to his Mani neighbour). By the mid-1600s this situation had changed: Temne, not Bullom was spoken on the South shore, and ships stopping for water and firewood had to pay customs to the Temne king of Bureh who lived at Bagos town on the point between the Rokel River and Port Loko Creek. (The king may actually have still considered himself a Mani — in fact Temne chiefs to this day are called by Mani-derived titles — but his people were Temne. The Bureh king in place in 1690 was called Bai Tura — "Bai" is a Mani form.)

The Temne had thus expanded in a wedge toward the sea at Freetown, and now separated the Bulom to the North from the Mani and other Mande speakers to the South and East.

In this period there are several reports of women occupying high positions. The king of the South shore used to leave one of his wives to rule when he was absent, and in the Sherbro there were woman chiefs. In the early 1700s a Bulom named Seniora Maria had her own town near Cape Sierra Leone.

During the 1600s, Muslim Fula from the Upper Niger and Senegal rivers moved into an area called Futa Jalon in the mountainous region North of present-day Sierra Leone. They were to have an important impact on the peoples of Sierra Leone because they increased trade and also produced secondary population movements into Sierra Leone. The Muslim Fula at first cohabited peaceably with the Sussa, Yalunka, and non-Muslim Fula already at Futa Jalon, but around 1725 embarked on a war of domination over them. As a result many Susu and Yalunka migrated.

Susu — some already converted to Islam — came South into Sierra Leone, in turn displacing Limba from North-West Sierra Leone and driving them into North-central Sierra Leone where they now are. Some Susu moved as far South as the Temne town of Port Loko, only 60 km upriver from the Atlantic. Eventually a Muslim Susu family called Senko supplanted the town's Temne rulers. Other Susu moved Westward from Futa Jalon, eventually dominating the Baga, Bulom, and Temne North of the Scarcies.

As for the Yalunka in Futa Jalon, they at first accepted Islam, then rejected it and were driven out. They went into North-central Sierra Leone and founded their capital at Falaba in the mountains near the source of the Rokel. It is still an important town, about 20 km South of the Guinea border. Other Yalunka went somewhat farther South and settled amongst the Koranko, Kisi, and Limba.

Besides these groups, who were more-or-less unwilling emigrants, a considerable variety of Muslim adventurers went forth from Futa Jalon. A Fula called Fula Mansa (Mansa = King) became ruler of the Yoni country 100 km East of present-day Freetown. Some of his Temne subjects there fled South to the Banta country between the middle reaches of the Bagu and Jong rivers, where they became known as the Mabanta Temne.

In 1652 the first slaves in North America were brought from Sierra Leone to the Sea Islands off the coast of the southern United States. During the 1700s there was a thriving trade bringing slaves from Sierra Leone to the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia where their rice-farming skills made them particularly valuable.

Britain and British seafarers – including Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Frobisher and Captain Brown — played a major role in the transatlantic trade in captured Africans between 1530 and 1810. Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, which ended the Spanish War of Succession (1701 - 1714), had an additional clause (the Asiento) that granted Britain (among other things) the exclusive rights over the shipment of captured Africans across the Atlantic. Over 10 million captured Africans were shipped to the Caribbean Islands and the Americas and many more died during the raids, the long marches to the coast and on the infamous middle passage due to the inhumane conditions in slave ships. Britain outlawed the slave trade on 29 March 1807 with the Slave Trade Act 1807 and the British Navy operating from Freetown took active measures to stop the Atlantic slave trade.

An 1835 illustration of liberated slaves arriving in Sierra Leone.

In 1787 a plan was implemented to settle some of London's "Black Poor" in Sierra Leone in what was called the "Province of Freedom." A number of Black poor and White women arrived off the shore of Sierra Leone on 15 May 1787. They were accompanied by some English tradesmen. This was organised by the St George's Bay Company, composed of British philanthropists who preferred it as a solution to continuing to financially support them in London. Many of the Black poor were Loyalists, enslaved Africans who had been promised their freedom for joining the British Army during the American Revolution, though they also included other African and Asian inhabitants of London. Disease and hostility from the indigenous people nearly eliminated the first group of colonists. Through the intervention of Thomas Peters, the Sierra Leone Company was established to relocate another group of nearly 2,000 Black Loyalists, originally settled in Nova Scotia. Given the most barren land in Nova Scotia, many had died from the harsh winters there. They established a settlement at Freetown in 1792. This settlement was joined by other groups of freed slaves and became one of Britain's first colonies in West Africa.

Originally planned as utopian community by Granville Sharp, the English abolitionist, the directors of the Sierra Leone Company refused to allow the settlers to take freehold of the land. Aware of how Highland Clearances benefited the landlord but not the tenant, the settlers revolted in 1799. The revolt was only put down by the arrival of over 500 Jamaican Maroons, who also arrived via Nova Scotia.

Thousands of slaves were returned to or liberated in Freetown. Most chose to remain in Sierra Leone. These returned Africans were from all areas of Africa. They joined the previous settlers and together became known as Creole or Krio people. Cut off from their homes and traditions by the experience of slavery, they assimilated some aspects of British styles of life and built a flourishing trade on the West African coast. The lingua franca of the colony was Krio, a creole language rooted in eighteenth century African American English, which quickly spread across the region as a common language of trade and Christian proselytizing. British and American abolitionist movements envisioned Freetown as embodying the possibilities of a post-slave trade Africa.

Colonial era (1800s)

The colony of Freetown in 1856.

In 1800 Sierra Leone was still only a small Colony extending a few miles (a few km) up the peninsula from Freetown. The bulk of the territory that makes up present-day Sierra Leone was still the sovereign territory of indigenous peoples such as the Mende and Temne, and was little affected by the tiny population of the Colony. Over the course of the 1800s that gradually changed: the British and Creoles in the Freetown area increased their involvement in — and their control over — the surrounding territory by engaging in trade, treaty making, and military expeditions. Trade was the driving force; the treaties and military expeditions were undertaken primarily to promote and increase it.

In their treaties with the native chiefs the British were largely concerned with securing local peace so that commerce would not be interrupted. Typically, the British government agreed to pay a chief a stipend in return for a commitment from him to keep the peace with his neighbours; other specific commitments extracted from a chief might include keeping roads open, allowing the British to collect customs duties, and submitting disputes with his neighbours to British adjudication. In the decades following Britain's outlawry of the slave trade in 1807, the treaties sometimes also required chiefs to desist from slave trading. Suppression of slave trading and suppression of inter-chifdom war went hand-in-hand because the trade thrived on the wars (and caused them). Thus, to the commercial reasons for pacification could be added anti-slavery ones.

When friendly persuasion failed to secure their interests, the British were not above (to borrow Clausewitz's phrase) "continuing diplomacy by other means". At least by the mid 1820s, the army and navy were going out from the Colony to attack chiefs whose behaviour did not conform to British dictates. In 1826, Governor Turner led troops to the Bum-Kittam area, captured two stockaded towns, burnt others, and declared a blockade on the coast as far as Cape Mount. This was partly an anti-slaving exercise and partly to punish the chief for refusing territory to the British. Later that year acting-Governor Macaulay sent out an expedition which went up the Jong river and burned Commenda, a town belonging to a related chief. These excursions were typical of those that continued throughout the century: army or frontier police, with naval support if possible, would bombard a town and then usually torch it after the defenders had fled or been defeated. Where possible, local enemies of the party being attacked were invited by the British to accompany them as allies. A list of British treaty and military activities in the area is given in a separate article.

Timeline of riot and resistance in the high colonial period

1884. Mechanics Alliance, a trade union (possibly the first) is formed.[31]

1885. Carpenters Defensive Union (trade union) formed.[32]

1893. There is a strike of army barracks workers in Freetown. Other workers stage sympathy strike. Governor Fleming swears in 200 citizens as special constables and suppresses it.[33]

1919. Strike and riot. Railway and Public Works department strikes, "inter alia, on account of the nonpayment of War Bonus gratuities to African workers, although these had been paid to other government employees, especially European personnel." Major riots occur in Freetown. The Creole intelligentsia remain neutral.[34]

1920, September. Sierra Leone Railway Skilled Workmen Mutual Aid Union formed.

1923-1924. Moyamba riot.[35]

1925. The 1920 union is renamed the Railway Workers' Union.[36]

1926. Strike and riot. Railway Workers' Union strikes January 13 to February 26. Rioting erupts in Freetown. Creole intelligentsia supports the strikers. According to Wyse this is the first time workers and intelligentsia acted in harmony. The strike was viewed as a threat to stability by the government, and suppressed by troops and police.[37]

1930. Kambia riot.[38]

1930-1931. Haidara Kontorfilli rebellion. Named after its charismatic Moslem leader. Wyse gives the causes as "heavy handedness af chiefly rule and the deteriorating social and economic conditions, as well as the erosive nature of colonial rule." Ended after Kontorfilli was killed by British forces.[39]

1931. Pujehun riot.[40]

1934. Kenema riot.[41]

1938-39. Series of strikes and civil disobedience. W.A.Y.L. blamed.[42]

1939, January. Army mutiny in Freetown over low wages. Led by a Creole gunner, Emmanuel Cole.[43]

1948, November. Riot at Baoma Chiefdom of Bo District. One hundred people committed for trial before supreme court for their part in it.[44]

1950, October. African United Mine Workers' Union (Secretary-General was Siaka Stevens) strikes in Marampa and Pepel, Northern province. Strikers riot and burn the house of the African personnel officer.[45]

1950, 30 October, Kailahun. 5,000 people riot. Cause was rumour that the Paramount Chief of Luawa Chiefdom would be upheld and reinstated by the government.[46]

1951. Pujehun, South Eastern Province.
3 March: Armed attack at night on Chief's house repelled by police.
15 March: Several villages refuse to pay house tax to government unless chief deposed. Intimidation practised on government sympathisers.
2 June: About 300 "rioters" from outlying villages attack the town of Bandejuma. 101 people committed for Supreme Court trial. Others dealt with summarily.[47]

1955, February. Freetown General Strike over rising cost of living and low pay. Lasted several days: looting, property damage, including residences of government ministers. Leader: Marcus Grant.[48]

1955-56 riots. From the Northern province district of Kambia to the South Eastern Pujehun district. "It involved 'many tens of thousands' of peasants and hinterland town dwellers."[49]

In the 1880s, Britain's intervention in the hinterland received added impetus because of the "Scramble for Africa": an intense competition between the European powers for territory in Africa. In this case the rival was France. To forestall French incursion into what they had come to consider as their own sphere, the British government renewed efforts to finalise a boundary agreement with France and on 1 January 1890 instructed Governor Hay in Sierra Leone to get from chiefs in the boundary area friendship treaties containing a clause forbidding them to treat with another European power without British consent.[50] Consequently, in 1890 and '91 Hay and two travelling Commissioners, Garrett and Alldridge, went on extensive tours of what is now Sierra Leone obtaining treaties from chiefs. Most of these were not, however, treaties of cession; they were in the form of cooperative agreements between two sovereign powers.

In January 1895 a boundary agreement was signed in Paris, roughly fixing the line between French Guinea and Sierra Leone. The exact line was to be determined by surveyors later. As Christopher Fyfe notes, "The delimitation was made almost entirely in geographical terms — rivers, watersheds, parallels — not political. Samu chiefdom, for instance, was divided; the people on the frontier had to opt for farms on one side or villages on the other."[51] More generally it may be noted that the arbitrary lumping together of disparate native peoples into geographical units decided on by the colonial powers has been an ongoing source of trouble throughout Africa. These geographical units are now attempting to function as nations but are not naturally nations, being composed in many cases of peoples who are traditional enemies. In Sierra Leone, for example, the Mende, Temne, and Creoles remain as rival power blocs between whom lines of fission easily emerge.

In August 1895 an Order-in-Council was issued in Britain authorising the Colony to make laws for the territory around it, extending out to the agreed-upon boundary (which corresponds closely to that of present-day Sierra Leone). On 31 August 1896 a Proclamation was issued in the Colony declaring that territory to be a British "Protectorate". The Colony remained a distinct political entity; the Protectorate was governed from it.

The "Protectorate" had not been voluntarily entered into by most of the Chiefs whose territories it subsumed. Many had signed treaties of friendship with Britain, but these were expressed as being between sovereign powers contracting with each other; there was no subordination. Only a handful of Chiefs had signed treaties of cession, and in some of those cases it is doubtful whether they had understood the terms. In remote areas no treaties had been obtained at all.[52] Strictly speaking, a Protectorate does not exist unless the people in it have agreed to be protected. The Sierra Leone Protectorate was more in the nature of a unilateral acquisition of territory by Britain.[53]

Almost every Chieftaincy in Sierra Leone responded to the British arrogation of power with armed resistance. The Protectorate Ordinances (passed in the Colony in 1896 and 1897) abolished the title of King and replaced it with "Paramount Chief"; Chiefs and Kings had formerly been selected by the leading members of their own communities, now all Chiefs, even Paramount ones, could be deposed or installed at the will of the Governor; most of the judicial powers of the Chiefs were removed and given to courts presided over by British "District Commissioners"; the Governor decreed that a house tax of 5s to 10s was to be levied annually on every dwelling in the Protectorate. To the Chiefs, these reductions in their power and prestige were unbearable. When, in 1898, attempts were made to actually collect the tax, they rose up, first in the North, led by a dominant Temne Chief called Bai Bureh, and then in Mende country to the South. The two struggles took on quite different characteristics:

Bai Bureh's forces conducted a disciplined and skillfully executed guerrilla campaign which caused the British considerable difficulty. Hostilities began in February; Bureh's harassing tactics confounded the British at first but by May they were gaining ground. The rainy season interrupted hostilities until October, when the British resumed the slow process of eliminating the African's stockades. When most of these defences had been eliminated, Bureh was captured or surrendered (accounts differ) in November.

The Mende war was a mass uprising, planned somehow to commence everywhere on 27 and 28 April, in which almost all "outsiders" – whether European or Creole – were seized and summarily executed. Although more fearsome than Bai Bureh's rising, it was amorphous, lacked a definite strategy, and was suppressed in most areas in two months. Some Mende rebels in the centre of the country were not beaten until November, however; and Mende king Nyagua's son Maghi, in alliance with some Kissi, fought on in the extreme East of the Protectorate until August 1899.[54]

The two risings together are referred to as the Hut Tax War of 1898. The principals: Bai Bureh, Nyagua and Be Sherbro (Gbana Lewis), were exiled to the Gold Coast on 30 July 1899; a large number of their subordinates were executed.

In the early 19th century Freetown served as the residence of the British governor who also ruled the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the Gambia settlements. Sierra Leone served as the educational center of British West Africa as well. Fourah Bay College, established in 1827, rapidly became a magnet for English-speaking Africans on the West Coast. For more than a century, it was the only European-style university in western Sub-Saharan Africa.

After the Hut Tax War there was no more large-scale military resistance to colonialism. Resistance and dissent continued, but took other forms. Vocal political dissent came mainly from the Creoles, who had a sizeable middle and upper class of business-people and European-educated professionals such as doctors and lawyers. In the mid 1800s they had enjoyed a period of considerable political influence, but in the late 1800s the government became much less open to them.[55] They continued to press for political rights, however, and operated a variety of newspapers which Governors considered troublesome and demagogic. In 1924 a new constitution was put in place, introducing elected representation (3 out of 22 members) for the first time. Prominent among the Creoles demanding change were the bourgiose nationalist H.C. Bankole-Bright, General Secretary of the Sierra Leone Branch of the N.C.B.W.A., and the socialist I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson, founder of the W.A.Y.L..

African resistance was not limited to political discussion. For instance, Sierra Leone developed an active trade union movement whose strikes were often accompanied by sympathetic rioting among the general population.

Besides the colonial employers, one of the main targets of popular hostility was the tribal chiefs who the British had transformed into functionaries in the colonial system of indirect rule. Their role was to provide policing, collect taxes, and obtain corvee labour for the colonialists ; in return the colonialists maintained them in a privileged position over the other Africans. Chiefs not willing to play this role were replaced by more compliant ones. According to Kilson the attitude of the Africans toward their chiefs became ambivalent: frequently they respected the office but resented the exactions made bt the individual occupying it. Of course, from the chiefs' point of view, the dilemma of an honourable ruler faced with British ultimatums can not have been easy. Throughout the 1900s, there were numerous riots directed against tribal chiefs. These culminated in the Protectorate-wide riots of 1955-1956, which were suppressed only by a considerable slaughter of peasants by the army. After those riots reforms were introduced: the forced labour system was completely abolished and reductions were made in the powers of the chiefs.

One notable event during the 20th century was the giving of a monopoly on mineral mining to the De Beers run Sierra Leone Selection Trust in 1935, which was scheduled to last for 99 years. The 1951 constitution provided a framework for decolonization. Local ministerial responsibility was introduced in 1953, when Sir Milton Margai was appointed Chief Minister. He became Prime Minister after successful completion of constitutional talks in London in 1960.

Early independence (1961 - 1978)

In April 1961, Sierra Leone became politically independent of Great Britain. It retained a parliamentary system of government and was a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), led by Sir Milton Margai were victorious in the first general election under universal adult franchise in May 1962. Upon Sir Milton's death in 1964, his half-brother, Sir Albert Margai, succeeded him as Prime Minister. Sir Albert attempted to establish a single-party state but met fierce resistance from the opposition All People's Congress (APC) and ultimately abandoned the idea.

In closely contested elections in March 1967, the APC won a plurality of the parliamentary seats. Accordingly, the Governor General (representing the British Monarch) Henry Josiah Lightfoot Boston declared Siaka Stevens – APC leader and Mayor of Freetown – as the new Prime Minister. Within a few hours, Stevens and Lightfoot-Boston were placed under house arrest by Brigadier David Lansana, the Commander of the Sierra Leone Military Forces (SLMF), on grounds that the determination of office should await the election of the tribal representatives to the house. A group of senior military officers overrode this action by seizing control of the government on 23 March, arresting Brigadier Lansana, and suspending the constitution. The group constituted itself as the National Reformation Council (NRC) with Brigadier Andrew Juxon-Smith as its chairman. The NRC in turn was overthrown in April 1968 by a "sergeants' revolt," the Anti-Corruption Revolutionary Movement. NRC members were imprisoned, army and police officers were deposed, the democratic constitution was restored, and power was handed back to Stevens, who at last assumed the office of Prime Minister.

APC government

APC political rally in Kabala outside the home of supporters of the rival SLPP in 1968

After the return to civilian rule by-elections were held beginning in the fall of 1968 and an all-APC cabinet was appointed. Tranquility was not completely restored: in November 1968 a state of emergency was declared after provincial disturbances, and in March 1971 the government survived an unsuccessful military coup. In April 1971 a republican constitution was adopted under which Stevens became President. In 1972 by-elections the opposition SLPP complained of intimidation and procedural obstruction by the APC and militia. These problems became so severe that it boycotted the 1973 general election; as a result the APC won 84 of the 85 elected seats. In July 1974, the government uncovered an alleged military coup plot. As in 1971, the leaders of were tried and executed. In 1977, student demonstrations against the government disrupted Sierra Leone politics. A general election was called later that year in which corruption was again endemic; the APC won 74 seats and the SLPP 15.


One-party constitution

In 1978 Stevens' APC government won approval for the idea of one-party government (which the APC had once rejected) in a referendum. Following enactment of the 1978 constitution, SLPP members of parliament joined the APC.

The first elections under the new one-party constitution took place on 1 May 1982. Elections in about two-thirds of the constituencies were contested. Because of irregularities, the government canceled elections in 13 constituencies. By-elections took place on 4 June 1982. The new cabinet appointed after the election was balanced ethnically between Temnes and Mendes. It included as the new Finance Minister Salia Jusu-Sheriff, a former leader of the SLPP who returned to that party in late 1981. His accession to the cabinet was viewed by many as a step toward making the APC a true national party.

Siaka P. Stevens, who had been head of state of Sierra Leone for 18 years, retired from that position in November 1985, although he continued his role as chairman of the ruling APC party. In August 1985 the APC named military commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Saidu Momoh, Stevens' own choice, as the party candidate to succeed Stevens. Momoh was elected President in a referendum on 1 October 1985. A formal inauguration was held in January 1986, and new parliamentary elections were held in May 1986.

Multi-party constitution and RUF rebellion

In October 1990 President Momoh set up a constitutional review commission to review the 1978 one-party constitution with a view to broadening the existing political process, guaranteeing fundamental human rights and the rule of law, and strengthening and consolidating the democratic foundation and structure of the nation. The commission, in its report presented January 1991, recommended re-establishment of a multi-party system of government. Based on that recommendation, a constitution was approved by Parliament in July 1991 and ratified by referendum in September; it became effective on 1 October 1991. There was great suspicion that Momoh was not serious, however, and APC rule was increasingly marked by abuses of power. The rebel war in the eastern part of the country, led by Capt. Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF), posed an increasing burden on the country.

On 29 April 1992 a group of seven young military officers, led by 25 year old Capt. Valentine Strasser, launched a military coup, which sent Momoh into exile in Guinea and established the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) as Strassar as President. They were 25 year-old Captain Valentine Strasser, Sergeant Solomon Musa, Brigadier-General Julius Maada Bio, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Nyuma, Colonel Yahya Kanu, Lieutenant Colonel Komba Mondeh, and Captain Samuel Komba Kambo. But he was ousted in January 1996 and replaced by his defense minister Brig. Gen. Julius Maada Bio. Promises of a return to civilian rule were fulfilled by Bio, who handed power over to Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, of the Sierra Leone People's party, after the conclusion of elections in early 1996.

Kabbah's government reached a cease-fire in the war with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which had launched its first attacks in 1991; rebel terror attacks continued, however, apparently aided by Liberia.

The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), led by Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma, overthrew President Kabbah on 25 May 1997, and invited the RUF to join the government. After 10 months in office the junta was ousted by the Nigeria-led ECOMOG forces, and the democratically elected government of President Kabbah was reinstated in March 1998. Following the reinstatement of Kabbah's government, hundreds of civilians who had been accused of helping the AFRC government were illegally detained. Courts martial were held for soldiers accused of assisting the AFRC government. 24 of these were found guilty and were executed without appeal in October 1998. On 6 January 1999 another unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government by the AFRC resulted in massive loss of life and destruction of property in Freetown and its environs.

A school in Koindu destroyed by RUF rebel forces, in total 1,270 primary schools were destroyed in the War.[56]

In October the United Nations agreed to send peacekeepers to help restore order and disarm the rebels. The first of the 6,000-member force began arriving in December, and the Security Council voted in February 2000, to increase the UN force to 11,000 (and subsequently to 13,000). In May, when nearly all Nigerian forces had left and UN forces were attempting to disarm the RUF in E Sierra Leone, Sankoh's forces clashed with the UN troops, and some 500 peacekeepers were taken hostage as the peace accord effectively collapsed.

An 800-member British force entered the country to secure W Freetown and evacuate Europeans; some also acted in support of the forces (including Koroma's AFRC group) fighting the RUF. After Sankoh was captured in Freetown, the hostages were gradually released by the RUF, but clashes between the UN forces and the RUF continued, and in July the West Side Boys (part of the AFRC) clashed with the peacekeepers. In the same month the UN Security Council placed a ban on the sale of rough diamonds from Sierra Leone in an attempt to undermine the funding of the RUF. In late August, Issa Sesay became head of the RUF; also, British troops training the Sierra Leone army were taken hostage by the West Side Boys, but were freed by a British raid in September.

General elections scheduled for early 2001 were postponed in February 2001, due to the insecurity caused by the civil war. In May 2001 sanctions were imposed on Liberia because of its support for the rebels, and UN peacekeepers began to make headway in disarming the various factions. Although disarmament of rebel and progovernment militias proceeded slowly and fighting continued to occur, by January 2002 most of the estimated 45,000 fighters had surrendered their weapons. In a ceremony that month, government and rebel leaders declared the civil war to have ended; an estimated 50,000 persons died in the conflict.

Elections were finally held in May 2002. President Kabbah was reelected, and his Sierra Leone People's party won a majority of the parliamentary seats. In June 2003 the UN ban on the sale of Sierra Leone diamonds expired and was not renewed. The UN disarmament and rehabilitation program for Sierra Leone's fighters was completed in February 2004, by which time more 70,000 former combatants had been helped. UN forces returned primary responsibility for security in the area around the capital to Sierra Leone's police and armed forces in September 2004; it was the last part of the country to be turned over. Some UN peacekeepers remained to assist the Sierra Leone government until the end of 2005.

The 1999 Lomé Accord called for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to provide a forum for both victims and perpetrators of human rights violations during the conflict to tell their stories and facilitate genuine reconciliation. Subsequently, the Sierra Leonean Government and the UN agreed to set up the Special Court for Sierra Leone to try those who "bear the greatest responsibility for the commission of crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious violations of international humanitarian law, as well as crimes under relevant Sierra Leonean law within the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996." Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court began operating in the summer of 2002. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its Final Report to the government in October 2004. In June 2005, the Government of Sierra Leone issued a White Paper on the Commission’s final report which accepted some but not all of the Commission's recommendations. Members of civil society groups dismissed the government’s response as too vague and continued to criticize the government for its failure to follow up on the report’s recommendations.

In March 2003 the Special Court for Sierra Leone issued its first indictments. Foday Sankoh, already in custody, was indicted, along with notorious RUF field commander Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie, Johnny Paul Koroma, and Hinga Norman, the Minister of Interior and former head of the Civil Defense Force, among several others. Norman was arrested when the indictments were announced, while Bockarie and Koroma remained in hiding. On 5 May 2003 Bockarie was killed in Liberia, allegedly on orders from President Charles Taylor, who feared Bockarie’s testimony before the Special Court. Johnny Paul Koroma was also rumored to have been killed, though his death remains unconfirmed. Two of the accused, Foday Sankoh and Hinga Norman, have died while incarcerated. On 25 March 2006, with the election of Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo permitted transfer of Charles Taylor, who had been living in exile in the Nigerian coastal town of Calobar, to Sierra Leone for prosecution. Two days later, Taylor attempted to flee Nigeria, but he was apprehended by Nigerian authorities and transferred to Freetown under UN guard.

Elections held on 11 August 2007 had a good turnout and were initially judged by official observers to be "free, fair and credible".

There is an increase in the number of drug cartels, many from Colombia, who are starting to use Sierra Leone as a base to ship drugs on to Europe.[1] It is feared that this may lead to increased corruption and violence and may turn the country, like neighboring Guinea-Bissau, into a narco state.[1] In 2008, an aircraft carrying almost 700kg of cocaine was caught at Freetown’s airport and nineteen people, including customs officials, were arrested, and the minister for transport is still suspended.[1]


  • Tratado breve dos Rios de Guine (1594) by Andre Alvares de Almada; J. Boulegue; P. E. H. Hair
  • The Journal of African History, Vol. 26, No. 2/3 (1985), p. 275
  • Arthur Abraham, Mende Government and Politics under Colonial Rule. Freetown, 1978.
  • Martin Kilson. Political Change in a West African State: A Study of the Modernization Process in Sieera Leone. Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A. ; 1966.
  • Christopher Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone. London, 1962.
  • Kenneth Little, The Mende of Sierra Leone. London, 1967.
  • M. McCulloch, The Peoples of Sierra Leone Protectorate. London; n.d., but approximately 1964.
  • Walter Rodney, "African Slavery and Other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave Trade". The Journal of African History, vol 7, num 3 (1966).
  • Walter Rodney, "A Reconsideration of the Mane Invasions of Sierra Leone". The Journal of African History, vol 8, num 2 (1967).
  • Akintola J.G. Wyse. H. C. Bankole-Bright and Politics in Colonial Sierra Leone, 1919-1958. Cambridge, 1950.


  1. ^ a b c d Sierra Leone’s struggle for progress
  2. ^ Countries and Their Cultures. ""Culture of Sierra Leone"". Retrieved 2008-02-22.  
  3. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica. ""Sierra Leone History"". Retrieved 2008-02-19.  
  4. ^ Encyclopedia of the Nations. ""Sierra Leone - History"". Retrieved 2008-02-22.  
  5. ^ Utting (1931), p. 33
  6. ^ Rodney, "Slavery"
  7. ^ Rodney, "Slavery", p 439.
  8. ^ Rodney, "Slavery", p 439. The rounde report which follows is from Major A.G. Laing, Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko and Soolima Countries; London, 1825, p 221, cited in Rodney, "Slavery", p436.
  9. ^ Rodney, "Slavery", p 435.
  10. ^ On the fourth point: Abraham, Mende Government, pp 24, 29, 30, and especially 20.
  11. ^ McCulloch, p 28.
  12. ^ Abraham, Mende Government, p 24. He cites British Parliamentary Papers, vol xlvii, 1983, p 15.
  13. ^ Fyfe, p 9.
  14. ^ Abraham, Mende Government, pp 23,4.
  15. ^ Abraham, Mende Government, p 22.
  16. ^ McCulloch, p 29.
  17. ^ Fyfe, pp 11, 12. The apologist is Matthews, A Voyage to the River Sierra Leone, London, 1788.
  18. ^ Rodney, "Mane", p 224.
  19. ^ Rodney, "Mane", p 222. Based on account of the Portuguese chronicler De Almada.
  20. ^ Little, pp 25, 28. He cites F.W.H Midgeod, A View of Sierra Leone, (1926) on the Mende racial mixture.
  21. ^ Rodney, "Mane", p 238.
  22. ^ Lt. R.P.M. Davis, History of the Sierra Leone Battalion of the Royal West African Frontier Force; in Little, p 50.
  23. ^ Abraham, Mende Government, p 30. He cites British Colonial Office 267/344/60 report by Lalonde, 1881.
  24. ^ Little, p 30.
  25. ^ Abraham, Mende Government, pp 4-14.
  26. ^ Abraham, Mende Government, p 15.
  27. ^ Fyfe, p 3.
  28. ^ McCulloch, p 30.
  29. ^ Fyfe, p 11.
  30. ^ The 1714 incident, and most of the material in this and the preceding two paragraphs are from Christopher Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone, Introduction.
  31. ^ Wyse, p 22.
  32. ^ Wyse, p 22 ; Kilson, p 105 gives the date as 1895.
  33. ^ Fyfe, p 513.
  34. ^ Wyse, p 70 ; also Kilson, p 106.
  35. ^ Kilson 111.
  36. ^ Wyse, p 70.
  37. ^ Kilson, pp 106,7 ; Wyse, pp 69-76.
  38. ^ Kilson 111.
  39. ^ Wyse, p 109.
  40. ^ Kilson 111.
  41. ^ Kilson 111
  42. ^ Wyse, p 123.
  43. ^ Wyse, p 122.
  44. ^ Kilson, p 186, 7.
  45. ^ Mimeograph, Sierra Leone Government Archives: "Report of the Board of Inquiry . . . into Stoppages of Work . . . at Marampa and Pepel." In Kilson, p 186, footnote.
  46. ^ Childs, "Protectorate Report for 1949-50", pp 4-5, and " . . . Report for 1951", in Kilson, pp 186, 7.
  47. ^ Kilson
  48. ^ Wyse, p 174.
  49. ^ Kilson, pp 60, 188 ; Wyse, p 174.
  50. ^ Fyfe, p 486.
  51. ^ P 524.
  52. ^ Fyfe, p 541.
  53. ^ Fyfe, p 541; Abraham, Mende Government, Chapter III.
  54. ^ Abraham, Mende Government, p 153.
  55. ^ Wyse, pp 18, 21, 26 ; Encyclopedia of African History, p 1354 ; but Fyfe, p 261, mentions Gubernatorial unfriendliness as early as 1850.
  56. ^ "Sierra Leone". 2001 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor. Bureau of International Labor Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor (2002).

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