Curious incarnations of charity and exploitation
“[W]e are all willing to be governed by the laws of England in full but we do not Consent to give it in to your hand with out haven aney of our own Culler in it.” Letter from Henry Beverhout to John Clarkson, 1792
This is the fourth and final part of a series that unpacks the founding of Freetown — now the capital of Sierra Leone. At the story’s core are a group of people who first fled plantation captivity and slavery, then they fled the newly formed United States of America as Loyalist Refugees, then they fled the cold poverty of London and Nova Scotia, and now they are trying to set up home in the hot and wet tropical west coast of Africa. The first settlement, Granville Town, did not survive — burnt down by King Jimmy after the British Navy did the same to his village. Now for the arrival of a new, much larger group of people, who had not been given what they needed (and had been promised) to start a life in Nova Scotia, but were hoping for something better here.
At 7am on the 7th of March, 1792, after what sounds like a horrendous passage through stormy seas, Clarkson caught sight of Cape Sierra Leone. Almost simultaneously, guns and cheers sounded from two of the neighbouring ships, filtering rapidly throughout the rest of the squadron. By noon the 15 ships that had set sail from Nova Scotia nearly three months earlier were within clear sight of their new home. David George later wrote that “There was a great joy to see the land. The mountains, at some distance from Freetown, where we now live, appeared like clouds to us”.
Waiting for them up river was a small squadron with the flag bearing the green face of a lion and clasped black and white hands — the device of the Sierra Leone Company.
However, some controversial administrative adjustments from the Company awaited Clarkson on his arrival. There would be a quit rent after all. One shilling for the first year, rising to 4% after three years (4% of what, I am not sure). A quit rent is a payment made by a freeholder in lieu of something else. I am also not sure what that something else was — perhaps to gain full rights to cultivate on the land? The Company wrote to Clarkson to explain that they preferred this means of recovering “all our huge expenses” to a customs duty on produce. “I trust the Blacks will not consider it a grievance”, the letter ended. Also, the blacks would not be in charge, except for local policing. The company would instate a superintendent (Clarkson) and an all-white council to support him.
Clarkson was very critical of this, and deplored his brother’s (Thomas Clarkson) role in establishing such a “ridiculous form of government”. A clear tension was mounting between a free black society (the initial vision of the abolitionists and central to the expectations of the free blacks) and a commercial enterprise that would profitably link Britain and Africa in trade (the Sierra Leone Company’s vision). To make matters worse, Clarkson was not enamoured with the people on his new Council. They demonstrated “nothing but extravagance, idleness, quarrelling, waste, irregularity in accounts, insubordination and everything that is contrary to what is good and right”.
Again, the start was hard. Within a week forty of the blacks had died, including Boston King’s wife, Violet. Within a month many more died, including the one doctor sent by the Company, whose replacement would not arrive until July. The experience must have been like that of the original Granville Town settlers three years earlier, but in this case, was relayed by Clarkson in more detail. Rotting food attracting rodents. Malaria. Worm eaten bread. Ominous rain clouds. And then the actual rain. Rust. Mould. Cockroaches. Red and black striped beetles. Snakes: mambas, cobras, kraits, pythons and constrictors. Ants: black, white and red. Apparently A swarm of red ants could take on something the size of a goat. Families were known to burn down their house attempting to rid themselves of these ants. And the prowling leopards and baboons, taking people in the night.
At an early meeting, Clarkson was invited to meet with King Jimmy. King Nambaner (remember him from the second treaty?) was also there with his French educated son (he had sent two of his sons to get European educations; one to France, the other Britain). Also at the meeting was the Bullom Queen Yamacouba and the Afro-Portuguese chief Signor Domingo. Discussions over the land ensued. While Clarkson aimed to make clear he had no intentions of colonial expansion, he may have been aware that the Company directors back in London could be thinking differently — with eyes already looking up and down the coast, as well as upriver. This was not going unnoticed. Clarkson records in his journal one instance of a woman entering his settlement, complaining that the whites meant to make her country and the people their dependents. When he denies this, she pointed to a gun lying in the sand and said “those great guns… you white men bring here to take my poor country”.
To add to this, the new black settlers were becoming nervous that, once again, the British were going to renegade on their promises. By June Thomas Peters, still the spokesperson, raised the concern that this was not becoming the free society of blacks that Granville Sharp had described to him, able to police and judge themselves. Instead it was starting to look like Nova Scotia all over again, just hotter. Many had not yet received their land and news of the quit rent to be imposed was spreading. People did not like having to spend their hard-earned low wages on provisions from the Company stores when they had expected to have their own plots on which to garden.
On the 15th June Peters and Griffith (now one of King Nambaner’s staff, remember his letter back to Sharp during the first months of Granville Town) co-signed a new letter, presented to Clarkson, proposing a 12-man council be established to settle internal disputes among the black settlers. On the 25th of June a second letter, this time from Henry Beverhout, a Methodist preacher, explained that “we are all willing to be governed by the laws of England in full but we do not Consent to give it in to your hand with out haven aney of our own Culler in it.”
It seems that, after this, the settlers and the Company were somehow able to settle down together, if only to some degree. The Company Directors gave Clarkson more liberty to run the colony as he saw fit, which meant paying more consideration to the demands of the settlers and abolishing the old council. The original settlers from Granville Town were eventually welcomed into Freetown and representatives of every ten households were elected, as were representatives of every 10 representatives (called tithingmen and hundredors), forming some sort of democratic accountability. According to Schama (the author of the book that I am repeatedly referencing) these are the first political elections on record anywhere in the world where women could vote.
By October 1792 Freetown was an established entity. There was a hundred-foot-long hospital, built from prefabricated parts shipped over on the increasingly regular supply vessels. There were twelve streets, nine of them running at right angles to the shore, lined with small timber frame houses. The remaining three intersected these like avenues, and housed the public buildings. There were two open spaces and a tower with a bell that rang at sunrise to call people to work. There was a school, a church, a retail store and a fishing port. And they were just getting started on those cultivatable lots that would enable people to grow their own food — melons, beans and corn from America; pumpkins squashes and cabbages from Nova Scotia; and mangoes, papaya and cassava from the surrounding area. But this transformation had taken its toll. Less than a year in, and 14% of the black settlers from Nova Scotia had died, as had closer to 70% of the whites.
On the 29th of December Clarkson departed for home. The whole venture was only ever meant to be a temporary vocation for him, and he had a fiancée waiting back in England.
His replacements initially seemed less keen to balance the interests of the settlers and the Company, viewing Clarkson as too soft. The French Revolution continued to petrify the British well-to-do, and this business of promoting free rule for black former slaves struck a nervous chord — wealth was still reaping large returns in the Caribbean slave plantations over on the other side of the Atlantic.
Trade and the spread of puritan Christianity was another story. Some of the first moves made by the Company after Clarkson left were aimed at regulating the Methodist and Baptist churches and halting the allocation of land for personal food cultivation by the settlers. Instead produce was to be bought from the Company store: here prices could be set high enough that the only way to afford them was to work for the Company — for instance in the construction of their new fort.
The years went on and the tension between the interests of the settlers and the interests of the Company continued. Some of the settlers’ initial demands did, in effect, become standard practice. The quit rent and the church interference were largely set aside. Black juries were established, black men could vote (women no longer could — I am not sure what led to this change), they had schools and a dispensary, they could farm and trade.
But towards the end of the century the balance tipped once more. In 1799 the settlers were pushing for such measures as the election of judges and magistrates as well as a redefinition of who could vote, hold office and make laws in Freetown. The black leaders wanted to include the original Granville Town folk and those who came from Nova Scotia… no one else. The whites representing the Company should not be able to influence legislature and should concern themselves with trade alone. In addition to this, they were making moves to re-negotiate the lease on the land, cutting out the Company. Wilberforce was horrified! Exclaiming it was as though “they had been trained and educated in Paris”.
The Company’s response was to send in reinforcements. This was the last of the first three big resettlement waves that established Freetown. In 1796 a group of Jamaican slaves had escaped and waged war on the British colonial government. Invoking a sense of deja vu, these people (known as Maroons) were deported to Nova Scotia, temporarily refilling towns such as Preston (where Boston King had previously led his congregation). But the cold and harsh conditions were again unbearable, and they agreed to come and serve the Sierra Leone Company instead. They had a reputation as strong fighters. Perhaps they could enforce company policy over an increasingly headstrong settled population?
News of this pushed the more militant arm of Freetown’s settlers one step further. On the 3rd September 1799 a group declared that the governor no longer had authority. From this moment forward, law and enforcement would be the exclusive role of an elected body of settlers. A new constitution was posted on the 25th September. All were advised to live under this law, quit this place, or be fined £20 per transgression. A whole new Rebel vs. Loyalist battle had begun.
The place was so small that the active fighting had only between 40 to 80 people on each side. So when, on the 30th September, the HMS Asia docked, carrying 550 Maroons, things clearly tipped in favour of the new loyalists (the Company). The leading rebels were executed, others tried and deported (who knows where to?), others fled into the surrounding forests, and out of history’s records.
The Maroons were rewarded with some of Freetown’s best houses, and ultimately combined with the other settlers from England and Nova Scotia to form, over time, the basis of the Krio. The Krio are now often referred to as a group distinct from the major ethnic or tribal lineages of the area such as the Temne and the Mende, and, following this story, went on to become a very powerful force in Sierra Leonean politics and the civil service.
For those of you who know Freetown today, that white church near the cotton tree end of Siaka Steven’s street is St John’s Maroon Church — built by the Maroons in 1822. By the end of the 18th century David George had established the first Baptist Church in Freetown and Boston King had become the first Methodist missionary to African indigenous people.
But in the early 1800s something new was brewing. The Company’s controversial decision to try and recoup its investment through a quit rent rather than duties on exports had backfired. They had never been able to impose it, and it had left most of the profit from trade within Freetown’s private hands. What with all the resistance from the settlers, the Company was ultimately unable to raise enough money to profitably cover the administration and defence.
And then, in 1807, the British slave trade was abolished. Many, including the Company directors, saw the tide turning against slavery, and envisaged Freetown becoming the global headquarters of this emancipation. This was too much for the already financially struggling Company — it would need the protection of the Crown. In 1808 the Company flag came down, and, as with the launch of Granville Town 20 years previous, up went the Union Jack.
Times had changed since the American Revolution. This would no longer be a fringe investment in a fringe idea. 18th Century international trade had been big, but the 19th Century would see globalisation go wild. In 1806 the British acquired the Cape Colony from the Dutch (in modern day South Africa). Freetown was their second colony in Africa.
This was the start of the European colonisation of the African interior. A whole different story.
There is a tendency, when this story is occasionally referred to or quickly summarised, to romanticise the role of the British in the establishment of Freetown — a free town for self-ruling freed slaves. It is sometimes held up as a flickering light, ahead of its time. An example of self-righteous British morality, paving the way for the rest of Europe and the Americas to follow. But this is a dangerous interpretation.
If we buy into an interpretation such as this, not only do we congratulate Britain for something which didn’t really happen, but we fail to learn from what really did happen. We think of the British as saviours, without reflecting on the damage that has been done or the real underlying drivers of what happened. Granville Sharp, Sir Guy Carleton and John Clarkson do appear to have done things which worked in the interest of the freed slaves and changed the course of history. This may have been intentional (as based on what was later written down). Or it may not have been, with retrospective accounts heavily biased in their favour working in an admirable storyline. We simply do not know.
In any case, these are isolated instances within a system that was much more powerful and much less humane. At each stage of the story, the mechanism that actually drove action had little to do with right and wrong, and much to do with profit and loss. This is an overused cliché; but perfectly embodied in this story. It teaches us about how powerful market impulses can be, and what they can push us to do and stop doing.
A major driver in the movement to establish Freetown was actually the interests of those with capital looking for a way to get the labour they needed to work it — exactly the same interests that had fired the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the first place.
The story also has another message of some relevance to the world today. It illustrates how hard it can be for a group of refugees to establish themselves in a new land if they are not welcomed and have nothing from which to start — no family, no home, no capital, no job. Institutionalised racism in both England and Nova Scotia meant that it was much harder for the black refugees to create a viable life and future for themselves, so many had to leave.
It is also important not to forget the biases that we cannot avoid when telling this story. John Clarkson was a major player for only 18 months. But because of his journal, power, money and colour history has given him a leading role. What of the others? David George and Boston King, through leading their congregations, must have held desperately hard communities together for over 30 years. That we only have a few pages from them relegates both to, at best, Oscars for supporting actors. What would Thomas Peters have thought of the account I have given? Apparently, he had fallen out with Clarkson by the time that Freetown was becoming more established, and he died of malaria in 1792 so did not see it grow into the major colonial station it became. Even so, he has since been praised as one of Sierra Leone’s founding fathers. In 2007, as part of their celebrations to mark the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, Freetown’s city planning committee decided to rename Percival Street after him. They also decided to rename Waterloo Street after Oluadah Equiano. But these name changes never actually happened, and they remain in the background of history.
And then what of the voices we only hear of, rather than from. What was King Jimmy’s perspective on all this? King Nambaner? The lady who appears only for a second, to prophesise the violent colonisation of her land and people? And, finally, what of those who are not featured at all, but were there throughout? This story is based on such a narrow range of accounts, massively overrepresented by just one side.
With this in mind, maybe none of this ever really happened? Maybe it actually went down quite differently? Maybe we will never know?
There are two people in particular that I need to credit for a lot of the background work that made writing this short historical story possible.
Simon Schama’s book Rough Crossings heavily influenced both the content and the structure of this series of posts. Schama is a University Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, New York. He has done a lot of work to gather many of the primary sources and present his version of this historical puzzle.
Abu Koroma maintains the National Archives at Fourah Bay College in Freetown. In doing this, he is protecting an important body of primary sources that would otherwise fall into a complete state of disrepair with wet and the heat. Documents like original signed treaties, Clarkson’s journal, colonial accounts and letters and Sierra Leonean Government records are vital to understanding how modern-day Sierra Leone came to be what it is.
 (Schama, 2009) page 343
 (Schama, 2009) page 375
 (Schama, 2009) page 376
 (Schama, 2009), page 382
 (Schama, 2009), page 400
 (Schama, 2009), page 449