Why did Britain colonise Freetown? 1803–1815

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Modern Freetown. Photo by Abdul Karim Jalloh on Unsplash

When Britain began to colonise the land that became India, the area’s aggregated economy accounted for more than a quarter of the world’s economy. When India declared independence nearly 200 years later, it accounted for just 3% (Tharoor, 2017).

Shashi Tharoor, a sitting Indian MP and former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, argues that the British colonial administration’s policies systematically dismantled the previously strong agriculture, steel work, textiles and shipbuilding industries for the purposes of moulding the area into something which better suited the British economy — a supply of resources. To add to that, the administration imposed up to 90% taxes on any remaining profit.

Ultimately, over 200 years, the Indian economy shrank (relatively) and untold resources which could have been invested in India’s future went instead into palaces, offices, ports, sewers, railways, hospitals, schools and much much more, right across the United Kingdom (UK).

As far as I have seen, a similar analysis of Sierra Leone’s economic history has not been done, but I’m sure it would be enlightening.

Today, Sierra Leone’s economy does not work. It does not produce enough of the basic things its own citizens need or anything substantial that other countries want. Most of its exports are raw materials, extracted without significant value addition in Sierra Leone.

How much of Sierra Leone’s economic dysfunction today is a legacy of policies implemented by the British colonial administration between 1808 and 1961?

Unfortunately, this question will have to remain unanswered for now; until someone does the accounts.


This post is the second of a three part series 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 what historians tell us about the area that is now Sierra Leone before it was colonised.

Part two (this one) looks at how the colonisation began: the point of colonial infection, from which so much changed.

Part three looks at how the colonisation spread; from just Freetown at the beginning of the 1800s, to all of Sierra Leone one hundred years later.

A good place to start part two is The Napoleonic Wars. But this story has many back stories, so be ready to travel in time.

The Napoleonic Wars

In 1803, fearful of Napoleon’s republican expansion in Europe, Britain attacked France. The two countries had been fighting on an off for hundreds of years already; but this would be different. Owing to their growing empires, the harsh tentacles of war would lash against Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

Over the next 12 years a series of coalitions fought on land and sea, with Napoleon’s France only just losing.

At the start of the Napoleonic Wars Britain and Sierra Leone (as a coastline) were linked through two seemingly contradictory ventures. Bunce Island, a short journey up the Sierra Leone river, was a British slave trading post. It was a key cog in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Freetown, on the other hand, was a British funded settlement of freed slaves from North America and the Caribbean. From Leicester Peak on a clear day (for those who know Freetown) the two places are literally within eyesight.

Map created by the author. The green star marks the cotton tree at the heart of Freetown. The red square marks Bunce Island, a former British slave trading post. The purple mountain marks Leicester Peak, from where you can see both the centre of Freetown and Bunce Island on a clear day.

But by the end of the Napoleonic Wars things were very different. Britain had established a navy base in Freetown, banned its subjects from trading slaves, started using the Sierra Leone coast to resettle people freed from slave trading ships and brought Freetown (the pre-existing settlement of freed slaves) under Crown Government protection. This was the start of Britain’s colonisation of what would become Sierra Leone.

1. The Navy Base

Napoleon was a military mastermind — now famous for being able to outmanoeuvre opponents on many flanks at once. In 1805 his defeated the larger Russian and Austrian Imperial Armies. In 1806 they defeated the Prussians, and in 1807 they defeated the Russians again; all the while expanding their realm of authority. By 1812 Napoleon was master of almost the entire Western and Central European mainland (see the red line in the map below).

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France and its allies. Europe in 1812, before Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Map created by Alexander Altenhof, available from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Europe_1812_map_en.png

Britain’s strategy was to try and take charge of the seas and pay European allies (such as Russia, Austria and Prussia) to fight on land. Other than the maritime victory in the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), things had not started well. Napoleon’s success and strength on land only emphasised Britain’s focus on naval expansion (Cannadine, 2017).

In a separate strand of foreign policy the British government had been transferring about £10,000 per year to the Sierra Leone Company (not a particularly large sum, even after taking inflation into account), to help with the establishment of the West African trading hub (Freetown).

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Some sites suggest this painting is by James Rowe, others suggest it is by John Beckett. View of the Colony of Sierra Leone Previous to the Transports Being Discharged, March 16, 1792. This painting is a view of the ships that carried people from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, anchored along Sierra Leone’s coast.

One of the unique things about Freetown is that it has a naturally large and deep harbour — perfect for stationing vessels and restocking with crucial supplies (Alie, 1990). It may be a coincidence, but in 1803, right at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, the British government decided it wanted a new West African navy base. For an extra £4,000 per year the government was permitted to use Freetown . This was officially for the protection of shipping in West Africa, but also likely, as part of a strategy to secure British dominance of the Eastern Atlantic against Napoleon.

2. A Napoleon-imposed Brexit (The Continental System)

For this we need a little more detail.

Overall, the Napoleonic Wars were hugely expensive for Britain — almost six times as expensive as the American Revolutionary War 30 years earlier. For Britain’s economy this was both good and bad. Bad because the government had to borrow and tax more. Before the wars started the government took about 14% of national income in tax. Just three years into the wars this had risen to 19%. National debt quadrupled to three times the annual national income and, by the end of the wars, 25% of government expenditure was going on interest payments alone.

But, much of this extra government spending went on things produced by private sector British businesses. For example, more than three quarters of the Navy’s new ships were built by individual contractors (rather than the Royal Dockyards) — and this was just part of a wider increase in production. To enable the output of manufactured goods to increase, imports also had to increase. The value of imported raw cotton rose from £32.5 million in 1789 to £132.4 million in 1810, and by 1815 manufactured cotton goods were the UK’s major export.

Exporting to foreign markets was crucial for at least two reasons. First, it was a significant source of income. Second, it ensured the supply of foreign currency the government needed to pay off its allies in Europe as they fought Napoleon.

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A View of the East India Docks, London. / Drawn, Engraved & Published Octr 1st 1808, by William Daniell. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/a-view-of-the-east-india-docks

I am going into this much detail because, in order to understand why the UK wanted to take control of a plot of land in West Africa, we need to understand the import-manufacture-export economy it was building.

To cater for all these extra imports and exports there was significant investment in dock infrastructure. In 1802 the West India docks were opened, followed by the East India Docks (1803), the London Docks (1805) and the Surrey Commercial Docks (1807). And, of course, the banks loved every minute. Nathan Rothschild, a quintessential caricature of a banker and rumoured wealthiest man of his generation, described lending to the British Government during the Napoleonic Wars as ‘the best business [he] ever did’ (Cannadine, 2017, pg. 85).

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Nathan Rothschild. Image taken from https://seasaltercross.com/2015/01/25/trading-in-dark-pools-the-strange-life-of-a-georgian-bullion-banker/

For the economy, the start of this war was like filling your car’s tank and then pushing hard on the accelerator.

Napoleon, however, could see what was happening. A French quip at the time went that Britain had become ‘’. Britain’s strength was its economy, and, rather than one big state, its economy was dominated by many smaller companies and the roots of a strong finance sector.

In mid 1806 the British Navy blockaded the French coast. In response, Napoleon banned any country over which he ruled from trading with Britain (known as The Continental System, or Continental Blockade). For a short while even the United States obliged (during the UK US War of 1812).

Cannadine argues that this was a disaster for Britain, which had become reliant on the European and American markets (as well as the Caribbean and Asian markets they controlled). They were Britain’s major export destinations. Stocks of manufactured goods quickly piled up in British warehouses, ready for export but with nowhere to go.

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Jacques-Louis David: The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacques-Louis_David_-_The_Emperor_Napoleon_in_His_Study_at_the_Tuileries_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

With reduced ability to export manufactured products, demand for imports also fell. Raw cotton imports through Liverpool fell from 143,000 sacks in 1807 to just 23,000 sacks in 1808. At the same time wages fell and the price of grain skyrocketed. National debt further ballooned as the government was forced to borrow even more in place of lost taxes.

Napoleon had blocked the road and forced the car to crash.

With hindsight, it is unclear whether this was worse for Britain or France. No trade meant both country’s economies suffered. While the UK was more advanced industrially, France was more advanced agriculturally. They both needed some of what the other had. In any case, over the coming years Britain’s international trade rose and fell with extreme volatility.

But how does all this relate to Britain’s colonisation of Sierra Leone?

The rest of the 19th century saw colossal expansion of the British Empire, especially in India and Africa. Why did the UK want this global empire? On the face of it, expanding an empire is a dangerous and expensive venture.

Arguably, the answer to this lies in a combination of the economy that the UK had built (heavily reliant on international markets) and the experience of being cut off from Europe and the United States. After seeing how much the UK needed international markets to import from and export to, the argument goes, the imperial drive to expand The Empire was about building an international import-export system over which it had complete control; ensuring no one would be able to cut off supply or demand again. Expansion in Sierra Leone was just a small a part of this process.

Of course there were probably other factors behind Britain’s Imperial expansion as well, but this was plausibly significant among them.

As a quick side note, care is needed when reading British authors writing about British Imperialism. When Lawrence James, a popular British author who has written many well received books about the British Empire, writes about the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars he sounds as if he is praising his football team after they have won the world cup: “a” (James, 2008, pg 160).

So many British mainstream history narratives are still just gung-ho propaganda, nostalgic for the successes of war and the spoils of Empire. When James makes his argument that the Napoleonic Wars caused an increase in Britain’s expansion of its Empire his description is basically up-beat. He recounts how the list of countries added to Britain’s Empire “” (James, pg 155). I understand that he has tried to get into the British mindset of the time, but there is no equivalent attempt to get into any other mindset, or to look back on that mindset critically. The end result, not just from James but from a litany of similar authors as well, is pages upon pages of words that are both self-congratulatory to the British reader and empathetic to an abusive and exploitative culture.

3. The abolition of the British slave trade

A third way in which the Napoleonic Wars influenced Britain’s colonisation of Sierra Leone was by completely changing the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.

For this, we need to travel in time again.

In 1944 Eric Williams (who went on to lead Trinidad and Tobago to independence from the British Empire) published . This is a historical account of the integral role of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade in the rise of British capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.

At the beginning of the 1800s Britain controlled a series of Caribbean Islands and a piece of land on the South American mainland. These were split into plantations and used to grow some of the materials Britain needed: sugar, coffee, dyewood, cotton etc. The slave trade was about supplying the labour needed to work these plantations.

The main competitors for Britain’s plantation colonies were the French islands, Cuba (Spanish) and Brazil (Portuguese). However, with Barbados and Jamaica, for much of the early 1700s Britain made the most profit. Then France cultivated Saint Domingue (the western half of Hispaniola in the map below) and overtook everyone.

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A NEW MAPP OF the WEST-INDIES, or the ISLANDS of AMERICA in the NORTH SEA : Together with the adjacent DOMINIOS; Explaining what belongs to SPAIN, ENGLAND, FRANCE, HOLLAND &c. by Robert Morden. 1740. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/a-map-of-the-west-indies?mobile=off

By the second half of the 1700s British plantations had overused the soil in both Jamaica and Barbados — yields were significantly falling. Saint Domingue, on the other hand, was large and, so far, unexploited. This meant big yields, low cost and more profit.

By the 1780s 40% of all the sugar and 60% of all the coffee consumed in Europe was coming out of this single French colony. It was producing more sugar and coffee than all of the British West Indian islands combined, and generating enormous revenue for the French government. It was the pinnacle of prosperity.

Coincidentally, exactly as French profits were increasing, William Wilberforce was encouraged by the British political establishment to bring the first Abolition of the Slave Trade bill to Parliament. Williams argues that this was more about hurting France than concern for slaves. Barbados and Jamaica (Britain’s major plantation islands at the time) were fully stocked with slaves already. A ban on the trade would not significantly hurt them. Saint Domingue, on the other hand, was still growing and importing over 40,000 slaves a year. Cutting off their supply would be devastating.

But then, in the same year, to add to an already complex affair, the french masses revolted and beheaded their monarchy. At this point there were around 32,000 plantation owners in Saint Domingue and around 500,000 slaves. The plantation owners feared that the new french administration would free the slaves. They turned to Britain and offered to support a take-over of the colony.

Major slave revolts saw independent communities of escaped slaves start to grow. The British took up the plantation owner’s offer; momentarily dropping the priority of Abolitionist talks back in London, increasing the traffic of slaves and even acquiring two new sugar colonies fresh for the import of new slaves (Trinidad and British Guyana).

Years of battle ensued between the British, the French and the revolutionary slaves (led by Toussaint Louverture). This culminated in the first declaration of independence by a Caribbean plantation colony, the only modern country to have been established by slave revolt and the first modern country to abolish slavery — Haiti (Williams, 1944).

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Toussaint Louverture — Leader of the Haitian Revolution. 19th century. Unknown author. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:G%C3%A9n%C3%A9ral_Toussaint_Louverture.jpg

Williams’ narrative highlights two important underlying dynamics of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade which may have influenced the start of Britain’s colonisation of Sierra Leone. First, at any one time, the slave trade was good for owners of growing plantations and (by comparison) bad for owners of well-established plantations. Second, the strength of the abolitionist movement in Britain was linked to the Britain’s conflict with France.

So, in 1807, when Napoleon imposed his blockade against European trade with Britain, plantation owners in the well-established (but heavily exploited) British sugar islands stepped in to support the Abolition of the British Slave Trade. This way they could stop the supply of slaves to the newer but more fertile plantations (Trinidad and British Guyana). This would protect them from being undercut by cheaper sugar in the British market. The Jamaican and Barbadian plantation owners were a strong lobby in Parliament, and their switching of sides was enough to tip the balance (Williams, 1944).

The irony, that the British slave trade was abolished in part because slave plantation owners in Barbados and Jamaica, who already had all the slaves they wanted (the slave’s children ensured a steady supply), were scared that plantation owners in Trinidad and British Guyana may be able to undercut them if they were allowed to import more slaves. Note this BBC bitesize account of Abolition. All of the dates align, but Williams’ more critical perspective is nowhere to be seen.

And so, in 1807, Britain passed its Abolition Act. This made it illegal for a British subject to trade in slaves anywhere in the world. As punishment, any British subject caught trading would be fined £100 per slave. In addition, anyone who could liberate a slave would be rewarded: £40 for a man, £30 for a woman, £10 for a child.

At the same time, a Vice Admiralty Court was established for the trial of slave captains and the release of slaves. Where do you think this was located? You guessed it: Freetown. Captured slavers and liberated slaves were brought to Freetown where the new court would decide their fate. After the trial the liberated slaves were left to their own devices (no one was offering transport back to where they actually came from).

In 1807 Freetown’s population was around 2,000 (mainly composed of the initial rounds of settlers from North America and the Caribbean). By 1825, mainly through resettlement of people liberated from the slave trading ships, it had reached 11,000; and by 1840 it had reached 40,000 (Alie, 1990).

4. The Crown Protection

And finally, why did Britain bring Freetown under Crown Protection?

In 1807, just as Napoleon declared his Brexit on the UK and the UK abolished its slave trade, Henry Thornton, the director of the Sierra Leone Company, requested that the British Government assume full responsibility of the colony. He was concerned that, as a private sector venture, it was not financially viable, and it would not be able to subdue the increasing pressure for self-rule from the new settlers. Britain obliged Thornton’s request. On 1st January 1808, the small settlement of people that had started as a private sector venture 15 years earlier, was nationalised into a Crown Colony.

With everything that was going on, it made sense for the Government to oblige Thornton’s request. It had recently established its new navy base and was in the process of setting up the new Court for the enforcement its abolition of the slave trade. There were also long-standing aspirations for increased trade with West Africa (which had been a key driver of the private sector enterprise to develop Freetown in the first place). It was seen as a potential competitor/alternative to the Caribbean as a source of imported materials for Britain. Given what was happening in Europe, it was in Britain’s interest to establish and maintain firm links with markets elsewhere around the world, whether in The Americas, Africa, India, China, Australia or the Pacific. Wherever the market, a safe haven in Freetown with a deep harbour would always be a useful stopping point from which to venture further.

And so, colonial infection happened, and the unstoppable colonial creep began. It would not stop at Freetown. Over the next hundred years the British foothold would expand, almost uncontrollably, into what we now know as Sierra Leone.

This is part three of the story.


On June 18th 1815, Napoleon and his military took on a coalition of British, Dutch and German troops for the final time — at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon was beaten and exiled to the mid-Atlantic island of St Helena. Britain and Russia emerged the major victors.

This story (the start of Britain’s colonisation of Sierra Leone) is a particular case of something bigger that was going on across the world. During the years in which Napoleon ruled France, Britain added the Ionian Islands, Malta, Heligoland, Trinidad, Tobago, St Lucia, Guyana, Ceylon, Mauritius and the Cape Colony to its empire. It added trading posts in West Africa (such as Freetown), and came to boast some of the world’s best harbours — Gibraltar, Sydney, Cape Town, Halifax (Nova Scotia) and Kingston (Jamaica) (Cannadine, 2017). By 1815, Cannadine claims, the number of people living in the United Kingdom or its empire was approaching 200 million, at a time when the global population was about 1 billion. British colonialism was becoming a global pandemic.

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The British Empire in 1815. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/BritishEmpire1815.png, https://nations.fandom.com/wiki/British_Empire

Sources not linked to in the text:

Alie, J. A. (1990). Oxford: Macmillan Education.

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

James, L. (2008). Abacus History.

Pakenham, T. (2011). Abacus History.

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

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

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History, economics and health

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