Curious incarnations of charity and exploitation
“upon enquiry I found that the greatest part of the People who had given in their names, had not done it with the Idea of bettering their own conditions, but for the sake of their Children, whom they wished to see established (as they express’d it) upon a better and more certain foundation”. John Clarkson’s journal
This is the third of a four part series that unpacks the founding of Freetown — now the capital of Sierra Leone. Around 3,000 former slaves fled as refugees from the American Revolutionary War. While the vast majority sailed north to Nova Scotia, not everyone did. Many had found work serving on British warships, and simply returned to Britain with the fleet. The welcome they received was hard and cold. Poverty and destitution awaited, and, resulting from what was potentially a perfect storm of business, altruism and nimbyism, many set sail again, this time south to Sierra Leone. Now for some un-kept promises.
On the 10th May, 1787, The Nautilus arrived at the mouth of the Sierra Leone river. A local Chief, King Tom, was welcomed aboard and a deal was quickly done for a 400 square mile plot of land, stretching from the harbour and the hill south, going east inland. By the 15th of that month the crew had landed. Such speedy negotiation! They cleared some land, felled a tree, and raised the Union Jack. Welcome to Granville Town (named after Granville Sharp), the heart of the Province of Freedom.
This was already a very busy place. The mouth of the Sierra Leone river was the only natural harbour in West Africa without a barrier of high surf. Many ships passed every day, with a steady bustle of canoes shuttling trade between them. The export of slaves from Bunce Island was big business. And where there is one big business, a string of other trades will build up around it.
The idea of letting some whites use a piece of land wouldn’t have been foreign to King Tom. This was exactly what was going on at Bunce Island and both the whites and the local Chiefs were getting very rich off that.
But the timing was bad. A May arrival was later than had been planned, and the rains arrived before they had been able to set up proper shelter. With the rains came the mould, the rot and the fever.
In July, with the rains entering full strength, Abraham Elliott Griffith, a beneficiary of Granville Sharp, wrote back to him: “I am sorry … Sir, that this country does not agree with at us at all and without a very sudden change, I do not think there will be one of us left at the end of twelve month… There is not a thing put into the ground, will grow more than a foot of it… Quite a plague seems to reign here among us.”
By the 16th September, just four months after raising the flag, over 120 of the new settlers had died (leaving only 268) — mainly of fevers, probably malaria. Tools were rusting, supplies were down, and bellies were empty. Granville Town’s survivors had to find food and shelter where it was available. This meant the slave depots up at Bunce Island.
Patrick Fraser had been selected by Granville Sharp to ensure Christianity flourished in the Province of Freedom. But he could not build the planned chapel in these conditions, and ended up moving to Bunce Island, preaching to the slavers and slaves instead. The surgeons followed him. And it was not just the whites. Without hope of survival in Granville Town, some freed blacks began moving up river too, getting a little work as slavers to make ends meet.
To add to the troubles, at one point it transpired that the correct hierarchy had not been followed when agreeing the original land deal. King Nambaner, senior to King Tom, was really the person to have negotiated with.
And so a new deal was made. And for this, the original parchment is laminated in a folder in the National Archives up at the University of Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College.
It starts “Know all men, by these presents that I King Nambaner, Chief of Sierra Leona on the Grain Coast…” and ends with “A list of the Presents given in consideration for completing the purchase of land”. It is interesting to see what these were: one embroidered coat, waistcoat and breeches; one satin coat, waist coat and breeches; one mock diamond ring; two pairs of pistols; one telescope; two pairs of gold earrings with necklaces and drops; eight dozen bottles of wine and one puncheon of rum; a twice three hundred weight of pork; one box of smoking pipes; seven muskets; twenty pounds of tobacco; some cotton, beads, cheese; two hundred gun flints and a dozen bottles of port. Not bad for a good-sized plot of land by the busiest harbour this side of the continent.
But Granville Town was not popular among Bunce Island’s managers, who are reported to have warned local kings that its success threatened their lucrative business. The idea of a society of free, self-ruling, Christian, black former slaves sowed a seed contrary to the heart of the slavers’ living. When, in 1789, a British Navy ship monitoring the transport of slaves got into an altercation with another local King (King Jimmy) and burnt all the thatched rooves in his village, he responded by burning down Granville Town.
And so, in the blink of an eye, ended the first attempt to create a society of repatriated freed former slaves in Africa.
Back in England
Could there still be hope for the Province of Freedom? As an idea, it remained attractive to many either side of the Atlantic. One such person had recently arrived in London, from Nova Scotia, previously a Sergeant in the British Army, previously a fighter of the Black Pioneers, previously a slave. Thomas Peters had come to England to complain about what had happened to the nearly 3,000 freed blacks who had sailed North out of New York, promised freedom and land by the British. Remember them?
Not only had they not yet received the land they had been promised, but, in many instances, the whites were refusing to end their uncoupling from bondage. Through being made landless, cold and hungry, free blacks were being forced into labour agreements so punitive as to resemble the slavery from which they came.
Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had more than 26 million acres of land up for grabs, half of which had been set aside for distribution among the refugee loyalists. The plan was to give 1,000 acres to Officers and 100 acres to Privates. Those who had not served in the army would also get 100 acres, plus fifty more per family member.
But a caveat; adjustments would be made according to land lost in the Colonies, and it would be distributed in a corresponding order. First in line were the Loyalist plantation and farm owners, then the urban well-to-do, then the ordinary soldiers, then, at the bottom of the barrel, the escaped slaves. After all, what had they lost but their chains? They should be grateful. A similar attitude to that shown in London.
In total, by the early 1790s, fewer than 1,500 freed blacks had been allocated any land at all. They were told the delay was due to a lack of surveyors. Interesting, then, that by 1784, just one year after leaving New York, 20,000 of the white loyalists had been allocated their plots.
Through campaigning on issues such as this, charity schools, taxes and wages for blacks, Thomas Peters had been appointed as delegate to seek redress for their afflictions. He crossed the Atlantic to London to bring these messages to William Grenville (then the British Secretary of State). On this trip he met with Granville Sharp, who asked him if he had heard of the Province of Freedom? Yes, he had. As, apparently, had many of the other blacks also struggling to make ends meet back in Nova Scotia.
This all fell under the influence of another huge political upheaval. In 1789 the French Revolution rocked the world of the landed gentry right across Europe, America and the Caribbean. For the most part, if you had land or capital, you desperately wanted to contain this. God forbid the ignorant masses could just up and topple the established order, stripping you of your power, and even your head!
The British sugar lobby saw this fear and used it. They argued that abolishing the slave trade was tantamount to revolutionism (of the French kind!) Moreover, anything that weakened Britain’s Caribbean money tree would strengthen a now terrifyingly fanatical France — and who knew where that would lead? In 1791, when William Wilberforce brought the first bill to Parliament for the abolition of the slave trade, it lost. Those lobbying for abolition needed a new strategy. They decided on a boycott of West Indian sugar. But then where would their sugar could come from? They still liked a little something sweet in their tea. Perhaps, they thought again, West Africa?
The idea that the free blacks of Nova Scotia may be willing to move to Sierra Leone suddenly made the business prospects of the Province of Freedom a little brighter. About this time there was a shift towards thinking that the Province may have more success as a commercial interest than a political one. A busy harbour, unrivalled in size, next to many small farms cultivating melons, beans and rice for domestic consumption; and cotton, gum, pepper, dyewood, coffee and, of course, sugar for export. It all sounded, as Smeathman had earlier thought, profitable. It could be a focus of all West African export and import, even linking up with the caravan trade across the Sahara for gold and ivory (which I have written about in a previous post here). Not only this; 64 of the original settlers were still together, a little up-river from the original Granville Town, and keen to pursue their ambitions of a free black, Christian land.
Parliament agreed (although not without opposition). Everyone please put your hands together and welcome The Sierra Leone Company into the world (established by parliament). An attractive investment for all concerned with slavery and also in love with sugar! The Company raised an initial fund of £42,000 from private investors. In no time, it was optimistically touted, millions of Africans would be trading with Britain.
But the venture needed that fresh blood. It relied on those coming over from Nova Scotia; and no one new quite how many would really want to come.
Nova Scotia and New Brunswick
A team was put together, led by Thomas Peters and John Clarkson (the younger brother of abolitionist Thomas Clarkson). Their job was to travel back to Nova Scotia, to spread the word about Sierra Leone, see who might take up the new offer of transport to West Africa with a plot of land at the other end, and then get them there. The promise was for 20 acres each, plus 10 more for a wife and five each for children. Plus, a system of justice that would include black juries, rules against discrimination between blacks and whites in appointment of jobs and, of course, slavery would be banned.
They arrived at the Island’s capital, Halifax, in early October 1791. Clarkson’s journal (a copy of which is also in Sierra Leone’s National Archive’s at Fourah Bay College) suggests that the whites there were not particularly keen on his mission. They were pushing stories of Granville Town’s failure and the mistreatment people would face upon arrival. But he was also hearing accounts of the systematic mistreatment and indignities endured by the free blacks in Nova Scotia — many had been reduced to sharecropping, labouring for a paltry subsistence, over-extended indentures (up to 35 years!), essentially turned into debt slaves. He concluded that the white aversion to his mission was mostly fear for the loss of their fittest and ablest cheap (or de facto free) labour.
While out spreading the word about the Sierra Leone Company’s offer, Clarkson met with one of our old friends, Boston King. Now a Methodist Pastor, he was preaching in the small, but apparently, tightly knit community of Preston. Clarkson was so impressed with what he saw there that he became nervous about uprooting them. Who knew what Sierra Leone would really offer? Fertile soil? Maybe. Harsh rains and fever? Definitely. But, to Preston’s black community, the offer was attractive. 79 people signed up instantly (with more to come).
He then travelled along the coast to Shelburne and Birchtown — where the majority of the free blacks lived. Upon reaching Shelburne, Clarkson bumped into our other old friend, the Baptist David George. George had heard of the Sierra Leone offer, and, for his congregation, intended to find out more. He was nervous. Apparently the whites of Shelburne had launched a similar campaign to those in Halifax. They spread the word that the blacks would be sold as slaves, would likely die, and would have to pay a large quit rent for their land. Simultaneously, movements to open Shelburne and Birchtown to American trade were terrifying the blacks, who foresaw the return of the slave hunters. The general mood, according to George, was fearful to stay, apprehensive to go.
Clarkson presented the Sierra Leone offer at an open general meeting. George had warned that it would be popular, but Clarkson hadn’t appreciated quite how popular. The Moses Wilkinson Methodist Chapel overflowed with people to hear him. He explained that, should any wish to serve in the army in the West Indies, their liberty would be protected, and, on discharge, they would still be entitled to a plot of land. Should they wish to go to Sierra Leone, the government would offer them free transport, and land when they arrived. There would be no quit rent and they would be in charge, but there would be a general tax for common defence and public institutions. Or, should they wish to stay where they were, in Nova Scotia, he would ensure they received their land.
Ultimately, more than 500 people travelled from Shelburne and Birchtown to sign up in Halifax for the Sierra Leone offer. 250 from Preston. More than 90 all the way from Annapolis and New Brunswick (where Thomas Peters had canvassed). These are incredible journeys to have done on foot, through wild paths and in rough weather. According to google maps, Shelburne or Birchtown to Halifax is a 47 hour hike across 231 km of coast. Back in 1791 this was sparsely populated land, and the 500 people would have been walking on rough track at very best. Moreover, they were doing it at around the same time of year as I am writing this (late October). This week’s weather in Shelburne includes rain and snow, with temperatures getting below 0 degrees Celsius. New Brunswick is a 97 hour trek, going into what is now Canadian mainland!
In the end well over 1,000 of the black Loyalist refugees signed up for the Sierra Leone offer. While many were now second or third generation, some were actually returning home. Lucy Banbury was born in West Africa, captured when she was an adolescent. John Kizell, captured when he was just twelve, was the son of a Sherbro chief (along the southern coast of modern day Sierra Leone). Frank Peters was abducted as a young child from what was already then considered Sierra Leone and, amazingly, would later be reunited with his mother! For them, this was going home.
1,000 people was many more than had been expected, and the mission’s cost rose far above budget. At £16,000, it was now three times the annual cost of Nova Scotia’s civil government. But news that the number of recruits was so high had also, back in London, sent investors wild. The Sierra Leone Company’s original stock of £42,000 quickly rose to £235,000. The venture, people thought, was going to be a great success. Total British central government expenditure in 1790 was about £17 million, so the company was had raised private assets of nearly 1.5% of this. Not bad.
After months of canvassing, recruiting, negotiating and mediating, John Clarkson was able to write back to Henry Thornton (Chairman of the Sierra Leone Company) “Dear Sir, I am now under sail, with a fair wind and fine weather having on board 1192 souls in 15 ships, all in good spirits, properly equipped and I hope destined to be happy.” Across the 15 ships were forty black captains, including our old friends Tomas Peters, David George and Boston King.
In part four this second, larger, better funded mission will arrive — and survive (mostly). It is time for Freetown to really get going. But who will get what they want? The Granville Sharp camp, desirous of a free, Christian black mini state? The Sierra Leone Company, hoping for profit through investment in a new supply route for raw goods? Or the free blacks, looking for a plot of land to finally call their own?
 (Schama, 2009) page 247
 There is now a statue of Thomas Peters in Freetown (which will be mentioned in part 4). I also looked for a portrait but, ashamedly, it seems there is confusion between Peters and Equiano. Google image both and you will find the same two paintings. Based on this source, one of the paintings may be someone else altogether, and the black and white image is Equiano.
 (Schama, 2009) page 360