Colonial expansion from Freetown to Sierra Leone. 1800–1900

Regent Town, Freetown, 1821
Church Missionary Paper.

This is a story about how, like a line of dominoes or a chain reaction, the British colonisation of Freetown spread throughout what we now know as Sierra Leone.

The story of Britain and Sierra Leone is just one chapter within the wider European colonisation of Africa. In 1800 a few sections of the African coast were under European control. Fast forward to 1914, however, and European countries had colonised 90% of the continent— interior and all. The major exceptions were the areas that are now Ethiopia, a portion of Somalia and Liberia.

With each new step of territorial expansion, colonisation happened in a slightly different way.

European colonisation of Africa. Image created by the author using separate images form

This post unpacks two underlying processes that were important to Britain’s colonisation of Sierra Leone.

First, and particularly in the first half of the 19th century, incentive structures meant that the colonial office in Freetown always wanted to increase trade with the interior. This encouraged Governors of the colony to expand their realm of access and control beyond the borders of Freetown.

Second, and more during the second half of the century, the British government entered into a speculative race with the other European powers, in which the finish line was on-the-ground-occupation.

This is the third 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 looked at the area that is now Sierra Leone before it was colonised.

Part two looked at how the colonisation of Sierra Leone started, along the coast of Freetown.

The profit of a colonial office

British colonies were generally expected to pay for their own administration (rather than imposing a cost on the UK treasury, or so the treasury hoped), and so they were run as revenue raising machines. Working in the administration of a successful colony could be a very financially rewarding venture.

Colonial offices could raise revenue by collecting duties on the trade that passed through them. This meant there was always the incentive to funnel more trade into and out of a colony.

But at the beginning of the 1800s Freetown was just a couple of thousand people on a relatively small plot of land. From the perspective of a colonial officer, what can be done with this? A single outbreak of disease, a war or rebellion, a storm or a bad year of trade could end the whole enterprise (as had previously happened to the Province of Freedom on this very spot).

If Freetown was going to turn a profit, it would need more people and more land.

The United Kingdom had just established a Vice Admiralty Court in Freetown for the trial of slaver captains and the release of slaves. Many ships carrying slaves across the Atlantic were commandeered, either by the British Navy or by private individuals looking for the financial reward offered for every slave freed. These ships were brought to Freetown where, at this court, a trial would determine the fate of the slave and the slaver. Freed slaves were given their freedom, but not passage home. Left to their own devices, all they could do was establish a new home right where they were.

Here, it turned out, were the people the colonial officers needed.

Supplied with freed slaves, by 1825 Freetown’s population had grown to 11,000. By 1840 it had grown to 40,000 (Alie, 1990).

But what about the land?

Freetown’s successive Governors in Chief, on behalf the British Monarchy, started to sign treaties with the local Kings to establish rights to more local land. Records of some of these treaties are now kept in the National Archives at Fourah Bay College in Freetown.

Many of the treaties signed in the first half of the 19th Century were about expanding the land on which the British could authorise development, creating space for the settlement of freed slaves and the expansion of the Colony of Freetown.

The clauses of the early treaties specified that natives would not be deprived of any land that they were already cultivating or occupying and that social structures already existing may continue. But, while slavery would be permitted locally, slaves could no longer be exported. The British government was keen to restrict the supply of slave labour to the new plantation colonies of European competitors (Williams, 1944).

In return, the UK would pay between 100 and 500 ‘bars’ a year to each treaty’s corresponding party. One bar was valued at about one shilling, which was worth about £2.90 in today’s money. Rent was cheap, it seems.

But for Freetown to really work as a trading station, it could never be limited just to the export of goods produced within Freetown (even with its growing population and acreage). It would need to be linked to a steady and reliable supply of resources from further afield; from the deeper hinterland.

For this, a new treaty would be needed.

The Sierra Leonean historian Joe A. D. Alie has described a lot of what we know of the colony at this time. Freetown’s first major export was timber. The trade started around 1816 along the banks of the Sierra Leone river, but quickly spread elsewhere. In 1825 it is reported that 22,000 logs passed down the Sierra Leone River for export through Freetown, with a value of £60,000 (£3.5 million in today’s money). The commodity was the most valuable Sierra Leonean export for most of the first half of the 19th century.

If these numbers are right, they show extreme contrasts. In the same year, it appears that local Chiefs were agreeing to payments of 500 bars (worth about £25 at the time) for use of land, when up to £60,000 worth of wood was passing through that land.

As ever, trade brought costs as well as benefits. The felled trees were not replaced, leading to extensive deforestation. By the 1850s the tsetse fly (which does not breed in highly forested areas) had spread, in turn spreading trypanosomiasis among the region’s horses. Today river blindness, a strand of trypanosomiasis which is chronic and fatal in humans, is endemic in Sierra Leone. It is also spread by tsetse flies.

The drive to trade with Freetown also kindled war in many parts of the hinterland. Alie suggests that this was often about those who had become wealthy through their role in the slave trade trying to reposition themselves to meet the new demands of the international market (i.e to switch from supplying slaves to supplying timber).

In one example, through acting as agents for slave traders along the Rokel river, a particular family had established themselves in Rokon, an important post along the Futa-Freetown trade route. With the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade heavily restricted, they struggled to maintain their foothold and war broke out.

In another outbreak of fighting, the Masimera-Loko wars (1820s to 1840s) significantly blocked the timber and gold trade routes to Freetown.

A third example, the Caulker Wars (1830s to 1850s) were between two communities who had become very powerful through their ownership of Banana and Plantain Islands. These were important slave trading centres. But with the export market shifting to timber, those that were strong on the islands needed to establish a foothold on the mainland. Doing this was an affront to those already strong on the mainland, and fighting broke out.

These conflicts were bad for the Freetown colony because they slowed the supply of resources for export. The colonial office started paying stipends to the local Chiefs to encourage them to maintain peace. New treaties were drafted, with added stipulations about preventing war and allowing free passage of people in the interest of merchants. Again, the price was around three hundred bars per treaty.

But merely paying for peace will only get you so far. The next type of treaty may have been encouraged by things like the events of the Yoni wars (1860s to 1880s). The Yoni Temne were the most southerly of the Temne people, and they did not have access to any key trading posts. Throughout the 1860s and 70s they are reported to have fought, particularly with the Masimere, for a foothold on the Rokel which would give them access to the trade in timber. This fighting was ultimately unsuccessful and hugely destructive to local commercial towns. As the timber trade finally slowed down, in the late 1870s the Yoni shifted their hopes even further south, this time towards the Bumpe and Ribbi rivers, in the hope of gaining access to the palm trade with the Colony.

Again, they were denied access and war broke out. However, Bumpe was by this point under the Colony’s ‘influence’ — that is, they had signed a treaty with the Colony’s Governor, and police reinforcements were sent. The violence escalated further, and several Krio traders were killed, triggering a 200-soldier strong military expedition (supplemented with others along the way) from the Colony into the interior to stop the wars (all of the above interpretation of local trade wars taken from Alie, 1990).

Perhaps because of experiences like this, treaties signed in the second half of the century, as well as stipulating that roads and rivers be kept open and in good order, stipulated that disputes arising, where they cannot be settled locally, be referred to the Governor of Sierra Leone (or nearest representative) for arbitration. By this point payment had shifted to something like 50 dollars per year.

Also note clause III of the 1889 treaty — the requirement not to enter into any unauthorised Treaty or Agreement with another foreign nation. We will come back to this later.

These three types of treaty reflect three slightly different policies on the ground. Each were intended to increase trade and the export of resources from Sierra Leone through Freetown, and in turn increase the revenue and profit of the colonial office. One after the other, as a by product of this, they created an expanding realm of interest over which the colonial office first acquired land, then trading rights further afield, then finally mediation authority over domestic conflicts and resources outside the colony.

This was an expansion of Britain’s informal empire, and the context into which the second half of the century’s European diplomacy crash landed.

When Europe’s nations race each other

For Britain, Freetown was becoming more and more important. For much of the 19th century it was the administrative head of the British West African block. This unit had two periods of life, first from 1821 to 1850, then from 1866 to 1888, and included various parts of the colonies that became The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria.

But, important as Freetown was, the British government in London was often against formal expansion into the Sierra Leonean interior. Even as early as the mid-1820s, when Governor Turner tried to formerly annex more land, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies is reported to have said that he would not ‘consent to any arrangement which might be construed into a desire for territorial aggrandisement’ ( (Alie, 1990), pg. 114).

Perhaps he was backing off following a recent military loss in the first of the Anglo-Ashanti Wars along the Gold Coast (now Ghana) (1824–1831). The previous Governor of Sierra Leone, Charles MacCarthey, had just invaded the Ashanti region with 500 soldiers. It is reported that only 20 of MacCarthey’s men escaped; the rest were killed, including MacCarthey.

Subsequent Governors did complete some annexation (formerly expanding the colony), but then a government select committee was established in 1865 to determine whether the British colonies in West Africa were worth keeping at all. Britain had just lost more soldiers in a second invasion against the Ashanti (1863–1864), increasing demand among the British public to withdraw from West Africa entirely. The select committee recommended that no more territories be acquired, no more protection offered, and the West African people be prepared for self-government, other than in Freetown, which was too important because of its navy base (Alie, 1990).

If this is already seeming too complicated, it is about to get even more so.

Other groups were also looking to lay claim to the same neighbourhood — most notably the French and Wassoulou empires.

Remember that line in the 1889 treaty about agreements with other foreign nations? This was likely because of what comes next.

The Wassoulou Empire was built under the leadership of Samori Toure. It was a short lived but comparably vast commercial empire across the West African interior. It included parts of modern Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. Toure led an army known as the Sofa Warriors, and this army got the majority of their weapons through trade routes coming out of Freetown. So, when they started to expand into areas covered under Britain’s informal empire (based on the treaties), the Sierra Leone Colonial Office had the edge in resisting them (through cutting off the supply of weapons). However, Toure’s people then turned north, and successfully absorbed much of what is now Northern Sierra Leone.

But Toure was also resisting French colonial expansion. Alie reports that Toure offered his empire to the British, on the condition that they stop France from annexing it. But, he had recently signed a treaty with France, and so for Britain to accept his offer would create a diplomatic or military entanglement with another European power. Britain was not keen to risk this for Toure’s deal, and did not accept his proposal.

The French were simultaneously claiming large areas of land, including where the Sierra Leone Colonial Office had already signed treaties. Freetown relied on its relationship with the interior for its financial sustainability, particularly because of the timber trade and then later the palm trade. If the French were to take control of the interior, the British Government would have to shoulder the cost of Freetown — which it needed because its port was the only suitable place to coal British navy vessels in West Africa.

Ultimately, Toure and his army were defeated by a third enemy in Sikasso (an area in northern Cote D’Ivoire today) and France took most of the land.

The Berlin Conference and the ‘Scramble for Africa’

In amongst all this came the Berlin Conference. In late 1884 Otto Van Bismark, the first Chancellor of Germany, called representatives of 13 nations of Europe and the United States together to agree a joint policy on African colonisation. The mess Britain and France were getting themselves into in Sierra Leone was just one example of many European diplomatic tangles going on throughout the African continent.

The General Act of the Berlin Conference is often considered the formalisation of the Scramble for Africa (although, as we have seen, the European scramble had been gaining pace for nearly 100 years already). The attending representatives agreed on ‘spheres of influence’ for each other. These defined which nations could colonise which areas. But ‘The Act’ also established a Principle of Effective Occupation, which stated that powers could only acquire rights over lands if they had treaties with the local leaders, flew their flags and had an administration in the territory to govern it with a police force.

Following the conference there was a rush by European powers to ensure they met the effective occupation principal. Even though ‘The Act’ only really applied to coastal lands, by 1914, as mentioned above, 90% of African land was under European control — including Sierra Leone.

What did the rush look like in Sierra Leone?

Shortly after the conference, in 1885, many members of the African Association (apparently not the one you will get if you google ‘African Association’; this one was formed in Freetown, composed of the wealthier Krio and European businessmen), along with the Sierra Leone Colonial Office, advocated that unless a protectorate was declared over the interior, with officers posted throughout to deal with disturbances, there would not be peace in the region. Sir Samuel Lewis (commemorated with a statue in Freetown), lead his colleagues in petitioning the British Government to enlarge the Colony through peaceful annexation. This was backed by the Governor, who said the request should be taken seriously, if the colony was to continue to be economically viable (Alie, 1990).

In 1890 the British established the Frontier Police Force — a bid to ensure stability along trade routes into Freetown, and, presumably, to demonstrate ‘effective occupation’ of the area.

By 1894, when Frederic Cardew came in as the new Governor of Sierra Leone, he was tasked with declaring a Protectorate over the British sphere of influence.

Cardew’s plan involved the declaration of the Protectorate, taxation and the construction of a railway network. On the 24th of August, 1895, an Order of the Queen-in-Council gave the Legislature of Sierra Leone the authority to make laws for the Protectorate (a power it already had for the Colony of Freetown). Then a series of Ordinances were passed by the Legislative Council (1896 and 1897) establishing British jurisdiction over the Protectorate.

If this seems like a hazy way to finally establish power to you, especially after 100 years of signing treaties, Samuel Lewis would have agreed with you. He argued, from within the Legislative Council, that the legislations were improper. The Protectorate had not been acquired by conquest, and there was not adequate evidence that the chiefs had willingly ceded their lands. But Lewis’ arguments fell on deaf ears, and the Protectorate was declared.

Note that, while Freetown had ‘colony’ status, the Sierra Leonean interior only ever had ‘protectorate’ status. This had implications over the next 65 years, until, in 1961, Sierra Leone finally came to life as an independent nation.


While the British colonisation of Sierra Leone started as treaties with local Chiefs and Kings, it ended as a fundamentally European agreement with the African counterparts sidelined. This 100-year creep was not a cohesive or centralised plan. It was the consequence of one marginal decision after the next, each building on the last in a way that was beneficial at the time to the powers that be.

The example illustrates that colonisation can be a subtle and slow expansion, perhaps almost imperceptible from within. It is only when we look back with a bird’s eye view over the 19th century that we can see what was happening in Sierra Leone. Would we have spotted it happening at the time? Would we have wanted to stop it? Who knows?

But, no matter what you think about what happened or how it happened, the end results speak for themselves. The areas over which this process happened, and the countries it created, are now some of the poorest areas on the the planet.

Sierra Leonean life expectancy is 54, mean years of schooling is 3.6 and the country’s total annual income per person is just $1,400 (2011 PPP $). The Human Development Index (HDI) is a quantification and ranking of development that tries to capture ‘people and their capabilities [as] the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone’. Using the above three measures, the HDI ranks Sierra Leone 181 out of 189. The bottom third of this list (classified as ‘low human development’) is littered with former colonies of the British Empire.

Now, as the UK is leaving the EU and our Prime Minister is alluding to our potential to ‘rediscover muscles we have not used for decades’, we must be on our guard. It may not happen in exactly the same way as it did before, but, if we are not careful, we could be a part of something similar which could create or perpetuate the same inequalities and injustices all over again.

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The way we flexed those muscles before turned out so badly for so much of the world. We must learn from our mistakes, be aware of the risks we pose to others and temper ourselves. As Maya Angelou said: ‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again’.


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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