What was Sierra Leone like before British colonisation? 1500–1800

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Coast of Guinea and Bay of Sierra Liona, 1732. Image source:
. Author: Jan Kip. Public domain.

In 2019 the average annual income in the United Kingdom was US$40,000 and a single child’s death was an extremely rare shock (it is estimated that less than one in 200 children died before they were five). Fly south just six hours, in Sierra Leone the average annual income was US$550 and it is estimated that more than one in ten children died before they were five.

Today, April 27th 2020, as we celebrate the 59th anniversary of Sierra Leone’s independence from the British Empire, these two comparisons mark the visible edges of huge inequality.

How have we got here?

One place to look is the past.


A little over 200 years ago the United Kingdom (UK) started to occupy the area that is now Sierra Leone. For the next 150 years it remained under some form of British colonial rule. While there have been many issues with Sierra Leonean government since independence, the UK must also take some of the responsibility. To echo a point made by, among others, the Caribbean scholar Hilary Beckles: the British were running the show in many former colonies for far longer than their independent governments to date. You cannot undo 150 years of systematic destruction in just 60 years of nation building.

This is the first of a three-part story about how and why the United Kingdom colonised Sierra Leone, but each part can also be read as a stand alone piece.

Part one looks at some of the things historians tell us about life along the Sierra Leonean coast before Britain colonised.

Part two explores why Britain wanted to colonise this land in the first place.

Part three describes how colonisation spread, starting with just Freetown at the beginning of the 19th century and expanding to all of Sierra Leone by the end of the century.

This is not specifically a ‘case against colonialism’ — although I am against it. It is more an account of how Britain colonised Sierra Leone. That said, the two do overlap.

I must acknowledge that, in preparing these posts, I realised ‘the pros and cons of the British Empire’ still trigger a fiery debate, with a few British writers on one side, and a growing group of writers from almost any former British colony on the other.

The British public are divided as well. A recent YouGov poll found that 32% of Britons were proud of their imperial history, 33% felt that former colonies were better off for having been colonised and 27% wished Britain still had an empire (although these are down from 59%, 49% and 34% respectively in 2014). If you are one of these people, I would be interested in your thoughts on these posts.


Part 1: Before Britain colonised Sierra Leone

Many of the groups that make up Sierra Leone’s population today were already settled before Britain colonised. The two main groups, then and today, were the Mende, who are thought to have entered from the Liberian hinterland throughout the 1700s, and the Temne, who are thought to have come from Futa Jallon, in modern day Guinea, and were established along the north west coast before the 1400s. The Limba are the third largest group, and are thought to be one of the oldest, originating around the Wara Wara hills of the northern interior. The Krio are a new group, composed of the descendants of former slaves and people freed from slave trading ships, brought by the British as part of the drive to establish Freetown.

There are many other groups as well. Joe A. D. Alie, a Sierra Leonean historian, presents a more comprehensive outline in A New History of Sierra Leone (Alie, 1990).

There is an ignorant image of an eternal and unchanging ‘traditional-village’ pre-colonial Africa. It is important to dispel this myth. West Africa, as with everywhere else, has always been changing.

One of the most significant documented changes in the centuries up to British colonisation came with the Mane Invasions. In the early 1500s Queen Masarico was exiled from the Malian empire. She travelled south with a large group of followers. By the 1550s they had engulfed the Temne along the (now Sierra Leonean) West African coast and started moving inland. Common Sierra Leonean names such as Kamara, Bangura, Kagbo (now Kargbo) and Koroma come from this period. Alie suggests that Mane dominance spread throughout a lot of what is now western Sierra Leone, but that, ultimately, local people assimilated rather than converted. Today there is no single Mane group and the older lineages have mostly survived, but there are many signs of Mane culture throughout modern day Sierra Leonean life.

A second major change in the years before British colonisation was the advance of Islam. By the early 1700s Fula Muslim traders were making large profits in what are now Southern Guinea and North Eastern Sierra Leone. In a bid to solidify control of this they managed to overthrow the Yalunka, renaming the area Futa Jallon. Elders and sons of Chiefs within conquered areas were sent to study Islam at Futa, who in turn helped to spread both Islam and its cultural attributes more widely (such as certain charms and use of the Arabic script). Today Islam is the most common religion in Sierra Leone.

At first the main appeal of the Fula migrants is thought to have been that they brought trade, wealth and employment. Local merchants could exchange their products for goods potentially coming from North of the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean. These trade routes had been growing since at least the 11th century. Local workmen could earn a wage as a guard, porter or guide. Muslim scholars were often highly literate in Arabic, which earned them favour among the ruling elite, who would hire them as advisers, clerks and interpreters (Arabic had become a common language of court).

As time went by new benefits would be seen. Travelling caravans of traders would eventually stop and set up roots. With this they would often hire small armies to protect their stock and start building schools. Both may have been popular among local chiefs, who benefited from increased security (brought by the army) and education for their children (at the schools). Ultimately there were many intermarriages between local Chiefs and the traders — which came with significant transfers of land and power to Muslim communities, as well as a blending of cultures and practices that can still be seen today.

A network of regional and long-distance trade routes emerged. Alie describes how, by the end of the 17th century, at Falaba, a market town, you may have found locally grown agricultural products to be exchanged for country cloths, soap, iron goods and gold. Other such trading hubs, which you may know if you have spent time in Sierra Leone, included Senehun, Bumpe, Mokele, Sengbehun and Rotifunk (green pins in the map below).

Long distance trade routes in the north linked Timbo (in modern day Guinea) to Kambia, Kankan (also in Guinea) to Port Loko and Kono to Magbele. Two in the south linked Mongeri to Senehun (and then later on to Freetown), and Mofwe, Pujehun, Bonthe and then by water along the coast to Lavana and Mano Salija on the modern-day border with Liberia (blue lines in the map above). Along these routes are thought to have passed gold, cattle, ivory, hides, rubber, shea butter, beeswax, calabashes, kola nuts, ground nuts, cotton, camwood, slaves, iron goods and rice.

One of the less discussed harms of the European colonisation of Africa is the dismantling of these pre-existing trade routes that happened to get crossed by new colonial borders. Trade was often not permitted between the colonies of separate European states. How many trade routes did this gradually kill off?

Third: Europe, Christianity and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish significant trade relationships with West Africa, which they did during the second half of the 1400s. One of their early major centres was in what is now Port Loko, along the Northwest coast of Sierra Leone. European goods such as swords, household utensils and clothes were exchanged, initially for things like gold, fine ivory works and beeswax. However, from the 1550s onwards, with the growth of plantation colonies throughout the Americas, slaves became a more and more popular West African export to Europeans. There is some suggestion that the Mane Invasions led to an increase in supply of slaves to European traders, and that the invasions were in part stimulated by the European demand, but this is just speculation.

By the mid-1600s Britain had overtaken Portugal in sea faring capability and, together with the French, the Dutch and the Danish, started sailing south more regularly to break the Portuguese monopoly. The British built forts on Bunce, Tasso and Sherbro Islands, from which they traded manufactured products for slaves. As with the Muslim/Fula trade routes, this brought local recognition, wealth and power. Several of the British families involved married into local Chieftaincies, which is thought to be where names such as Caulker, Tucker, Cleveland and Rogers entered the Sierra Leonean family tree.

At this point Europeans were not allowed to enter the West African interior — just to build forts along the coast. This was a move by the local rulers to ensure they benefited from the slave trade. The European traders (termed ‘strangers’) paid rents to local authorities (termed ‘landlords’) for rights to use the land and to trade. Meanwhile, the landlord was responsible for the stranger’s safety and actions.

After some British slavers started kidnapping people for export rather than trading through the proper routes landlords began to demand hostages from strangers’ trading ships as deposits in lieu of good behaviour. Instead, slaves should either be kidnapped by local ruling groups from neighbouring peoples or those who had committed a crime deemed worthy of such punishment.

A somewhat anomalous turn of events towards the end of the 1700s, but one that has a significant bearing on Sierra Leone’s history, saw the establishment of the Province of Freedom and Freetown (now the capital of Sierra Leone). This was a settlement of former slaves, either from North America (in some cases via Britain) or Jamaica. This is an intriguing story in its own right.

As for Christianity, the first Christian missionary to Sierra Leone (on record) arrived in 1605. Father Balthasar Barreira, an elderly Catholic Priest from the Jesuits of Portugal with prior missionary experience in the Congo, managed to baptise some people across the Sierra Leone peninsular. He lamented, however, that there were already ‘Africans from other parts, who take upon themselves to spread the teaching of Mohammed’ (Alie, 1990, pg 102). He was joined by another Jesuit missionary, and together they established a small congregation in what is now north western Sierra Leone. The two were followed by a group of Spanish missionaries, but by 1680 it is thought that they had all died out. It was not until the establishment of Freetown that the next wave of Christianity came, this time largely Protestant.

But what of Britain?

By the beginning of the 1800s Britain had grown into manufacturing machine that relied on international markets to import resources from and export manufactured goods to. At this point most of the imports came from West Indian slave plantations and three major trading posts in East India — Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Manufactured exports mainly went to Europe and the newly independent United States.

The West Indian colonies were (for the time being) the most valuable part of Britain’s overseas’ empire. Cities such as Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow had become exceptionally rich by contemporary standards through hosting the shipping and financial infrastructure needed to lead the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff hosted factories that would refine the imported sugar, weave the imported cotton and mould the imported metals. The historian Eric Williams, who went on to lead Trinidad and Tobago to independence from the British Empire, wrote a pioneering account of how, in this way, British capitalism and the Industrial Revolution grew out of British investment in West Indian plantations and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (Williams, 1944).

One of Britain’s major strengths was its growing financial services sector. Landed families owned the vast colonial plantations, for example, and were able to use their profits to buy government bonds, essentially loaning the government the money it needed to invest back in public works like sewers, hospitals, roads and new colonial exploits. With this, a lot of the major public infrastructure that is still functioning today (sometimes…) was started.

And what of the people?

Of the common 1800’s person however, in either the UK or what is now Sierra Leone, we do not know very much at all. David Cannedine, a British historian, highlights that the first census of Great Britain was done in 1801 (but it excluded Ireland and was/is considered inaccurate). At this point no one was sure whether populations were growing, stagnant, or even shrinking. We don’t confidently know the numbers of people living in the different countries, tribes, counties, cities, towns or villages. In the UK, the late 18th century saw growing talk of a ‘middle class’, but who they were or what they were worth is another question.

It is thought that, in Britain, most people died before they were forty and death during childbirth was common (much like Sierra Leone today and probably then as well). Literacy rates were probably low in both places. In the UK education would be limited, for most, to a couple of years at a Church school. In what would become Sierra Leone a lucky few would have access to an Islamic education. Great Britain was already more industrialised than Sierra Leone, but Ireland probably was not. The common city person’s life in Britain was, by accounts, overcrowded, cold, dark and damp (some may say that not much has changed?) At least smoke pollution, open sewers and animal excrement are now less common (Cannadine, 2017).


There is a concept in moral and political philosophy called the ‘veil of ignorance’. This is a hypothetical tool to help identify what ‘just’ social structures or distributions may look like. The broad idea is that an individual (you or me) is asked to comment on a social scenario or outcome without knowing who in that scenario they will end up being (but on the understanding that they will be randomly assigned as someone in it). You will then go on living as that person, with all their strengths and weaknesses as well as all their opportunities and constraints. The more you are content to be allocated to any role, the more ‘just’ the scenario is. The more you clearly want one role over another, the more ‘unjust’ the scenario is.

Personally, if I were to be transported back to 1801 and told I could either be a random person in the UK, or a random person in what will become Sierra Leone (not knowing anything about the future), I honestly don’t know which I would choose. Life expectancy in both places was probably similarly low. Education and opportunity were not common or extensive. Both places where part of regional and international trade networks, and the lucky few became very wealthy. Fast forward 150 years, however, towards Sierra Leone’s Independence from the British Empire, and I would definitely pick the UK. Following the start of the Britain’s colonisation of Sierra Leone, the unjust inequality between the two places seems to have only increased.

Was there a different possible path for the land that became Sierra Leone, where it did not get colonised by Britain, and where less than one in ten children die before they are five today?

Part two of this series will ask why Britain started to colonise the land that became Sierra Leone in the first place? It was, after all, an expensive and risky venture to embark on.

References (in addition to those linked in text):

Alie, J. A. (1990). A New History of Sierra Leone. Oxford: Macmillan Education.

Cannadine, D. (2017). Victorious Century. Milton Keynes: Penguin.

James, L. (2008). The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. Abacus History.

Pakenham, T. (2011). The Scramble For Africa. Abacus History.

Tharoor, S. (2017). Inglorious Empire. Penguin Random House UK.

Williams, E. (1944). Capitalism & Slavery. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.

History, economics and health

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