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"I am an American…but today, I am something more. I am an African too. I feel my roots here in this continent"
Colin Powell - After visiting Bunce Island, April 1992



By David J. Saunders


Bunce Island, which was established as a major slave trading fortress and castle in 1670, is locate approximately twenty miles upriver in the Freetown Harbor on the Sierra Leone River. Bunce Island is a small piece of land measuring just 1700 feet long and 300 feet wide. Its strategic importance was that it was the last navigable point for Ocean going ships of the slave trade which made it advantageous for trade and defensive purposes. Today Bunce Island is in ruins, and it is very difficult to see the fort from a distance. Vines and other tropical vegetation have grown over the ruins and in crevices in the halls of the stone buildings.

Cannons dating to the reign of King Richard the Third (1795-1796) are still lying along the fortification wall and on the beach below. However, the walls of the building that used to house the slaves and the slave traders are still standing. One can also see the remains of the various towers on which guards posted kept watch by day and night. In addition, the well from which slave traders fetched water, and which is the oldest feature on the island is still present today. Tombstones marking the burial sites of both Europeans and Africans in the cemeteries are also still clearly visible.

Bunce Island's early history dates from 1670 to 1728. During this period, two companies operated the fort one after the other. The Gambia Adventurers and the Royal African Company of England. This period did not witness a boom in commercial activity, but the fort was kept mainly as a symbol of England's presence in this particular region of Africa, than for commercial purposes. As a result, both companies were heavily subsidized by the government of Britain. The fort's early period ended in 1728, when in addition to the economic problems being faced by the slave traders, it was attacked and plundered by an Afro-Portuguese leader Don Jose Lopez da Moura. During the period 1744 to 1807, the fort became financially successful when it came under private management. The London based firms of Grants, Oswald and Sargent, and the firm of John and Alexander Anderson were the companies that turned the Bunce Island into an economic success story.

Did You Know?, This story by David Saunders anked in the Top 3 out of 198.000 entries in a Google Search, August 2006, second only to Sierra Leone's own website. How's that for performance? Click on search sample below for more information on the country. Continued below.


Bunce Island was not intended to function as a major source of slaves but nevertheless thousands passed through its fort. The island attained importance in the 1750s when rice cultivation skyrocketed in South Carolina and Georgia in the American colonies. European settlers had little experience with rice cultivation and were not suited for the climate. The demand for slaves with rice growing skills increased and Bunce Island became a center specializing in procuring slaves with this unique skill. Thus, the volume of slaves from the "windward coast" or "rice coast' of West Africa increased. Slaves taken from the Sene-Gambia, Sierra Leone and Liberia found their way through Bunce Island before being transported to the rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia.

Bunce Island did have a rich and varied military history. During its entire existence, it was attacked six times, four times by French Naval Forces and twice by pirates. During these attacks the island was always vandalized and sometimes burnt down. It was rebuilt after each attack and the present fort is the fourth one on the same site, and was rebuilt in 1795-1796 after the 1794 attack by the French Naval Forces during the Revolutionary wars. Bunce Island was, together with the Province of Freedom, a settlement established in 1787 for freed slaves, destroyed in 1794. Freetown was subsequently established in 1807 and soon thereafter slavery was prohibited. Interestingly, when the Bill prohibiting the slave trade was being debated, the owners at that time, John and Alexander Anderson, were among those who petitioned Parliament not to end the slave trade. But the Bill was finally passed in 1807, thus rendering it illegal for the slave traders to continue their nefarious operations on the island.

From 1807 to 1845, after the prohibition was passed, the owners of Bunce Island tried to sell their fort to the Crown Colony, but their effort was refused. They also attempted to establish a cotton plantation but that too did not thrive. In fact, in 1809, Bunce Island's large African workforce, now out of jobs, rioted and the authorities in Freetown had to send troops to quell the rebellion. Other attempts at transforming Bunce Island into a recruiting station for Africans into the West African regiments, and later into a sawmill and trading post did not succeed. Bunce Island was finally abandoned around 1830 and was declared Sierra Leone's first officially protected historic site in 1848, under the Monuments and Relics Act of 1947.

The recent history of Bunce Island dates from 1948 to the present. The expressed purpose of the historic site designation was to preserve the island's legacy and to educate Sierra Leoneans of its importance in the Atlantic Slave Trade era. However, public awareness of Bunce Island heightened only in 1989, when thirteen Gullahs came to Sierra Leone for a "Home Coming Visit". A film "Family Across The Sea' was made soon thereafter. It was also in 1989 that the attention of U.S. National Park Service was drawn to Bunce Island. They sent a three man team to survey and give detailed recommendations for the preservation of Bunce Island. The team completed its mission and in 1992, the Deputy Director of the Park Service came to Sierra Leone, and announced a five million dollar restoration package for the Bunce Island Preservation Programme. This project unfortunately collapsed because there was a change in the government of Sierra Leone and the new leadership didn't make the necessary follow-up.

In February-March 1997, Mary Moran an African-American and her family came to Sierra Leone to be reunited with Baindu Jabati, their long lost relative whose family used to bury their dead with a song that Mary Moran's family have retained in America for three generations. A film, "The Language You Cry In" has been made as a result of that visit. In 1995, the European Union through the National Authorizing Office provided funds to an indigenous group to sensitize Sierra Leoneans and other nationals about the importance of Bunce Island and the "Gullah Connection" in the history of Sierra Leone.

The project has now been put under the trusteeship of the National Tourist Board of Sierra Leone to continue what the association started. Visitors are encouraged to donate generously to the Bunce Island Fund, jointly operated by the Monuments and Relics Commission and the National Tourist Board. Proceeds from the fund would be used for preservation and conservation efforts on the island. For more information about Bunce Island in Sierra Leone and how you can contribute to the restoration and conservation fund please write an e-mail message to