History of Sierra Leone (Part – 1)

Map of Bunce Island from 1727

Sierra Leone is a nation in West Africa, on the Atlantic Ocean. It is recognized for the white-sand beaches facing the Freetown Peninsula. The first settlers of Sierra Leone were the indigenous African people dating back to around 2,800 years ago. The thick tropical rainforest separated the region from other West African cultures, and it became a shelter for peoples escaping violence and jihads. Sierra Leone was named by Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra, who outlined the region in 1462. The Freetown estuary presented an excellent natural harbor for ships to shelter and supply drinking water. 

Ancient History

Archaeological discoveries confirm that Sierra Leone has been resided continuously for at least 2,800 years, populated by the successive movements of peoples from other parts of Africa. The use of Iron started in around the 7th Century in Sierra Leone, and by the dawn of the 10th Century, agriculture was being exercised by the coastal tribes. 

European contact

Portuguese ships started regularly visiting in the late 15th Century, and for a while, they managed a fort in the Freetown estuary. This estuary is one of the largest natural deep-water harbors in the world. It soon became a favorite address of European mariners, to shelter and replenish drinking water. Some of the Portuguese sailors lingered permanently, trading and intermarrying with the local settlers.


Slavery, and in particular the Atlantic slave trade, had a significant effect on the region—socially, economically, and politically—from the late 15th to the mid-19th centuries.

There had been trans-Saharan trade of slaves in West Africa from the 6th Century. At its peak (c. 1350), the Mali Empire encircled the region of modern-day Sierra Leone and Liberia, though the slave trade may not have significantly infiltrated the coastal rainforest. From this time, the peoples who migrated into Sierra Leone would have had more excellent contact with the domestic slave trade, either exercising it or escaping it.

When Europeans first arrived at Sierra Leone, slavery among the African peoples of the area was believed to be rare. 

According to historian Walter Rodney, the Portuguese sailors kept detailed reports. So it is likely if slavery had been an important local institution that the stories would have described it. There was mention of a very particular kind of slavery in the region, which was:

“…a person in trouble in one kingdom could go to another and place himself under the protection of its king, after which he became a “slave” of that king, obliged to provide free labor and liable for sale.”

If the Africans were not much involved in acquiring slaves, the Portuguese—as well as the Dutch, French, and English who arrived later—indeed were. Initially, their method was to navigate the coast, conducting active kidnapping raids when occasions presented themselves. Soon, however, they found locals willing to collaborate with them in these affairs: some chiefs were willing to part with a few of the less-desirable members of their families for a price; others went into the war business—a large crowd of battle captives could be sold for a fortune in European rum, cloth, beads, copper, or muskets.

This early slaving was mainly an export business. The use of slaves as laborers by the local Africans appears to have developed only later. It may first have occurred under coastal chiefs in the late 18th Century.

Mane Invasion

The Mane invasions of the mid-16th Century had a profound impact on Sierra Leone. The Mane (also called Mani), southern members of the Mande language group, were a warrior people, well-armed and well-organized, who lived east and possibly somewhat north of present-day Sierra Leone, occupying a belt north of the coastal peoples. Sometime in the early 16th Century, they began moving south. According to some Mane who spoke to a Portuguese (Dornelas) in the late 16th Century, their travels had started as a result of the expulsion of their chief, a woman named Macario, from the imperial city in Mandimansa, their homeland. 

Their first arrival at the coast was east of Sierra Leone, at least as far away as River Cess and likely farther. They drove northwest along the coast toward Sierra Leone, conquering as they went. They incorporated large numbers of the people they conquered into their army. With the result that by the time they reached Sierra Leone, the rank and file of their army consisted mostly of coastal peoples; the Mane was its commanding group.

By 1545, the Mane had reached Cape Mount, near the south-eastern corner of present-day Sierra Leone. Their triumph of Sierra Leone occupied the ensuing 15 to 20 years. It resulted in the subjugation of all or nearly all of the indigenous coastal peoples—who were known collectively as the Sapes—as far north as the Scarcies. The current demographics of Sierra Leone are primarily a reflection of these two decades. The degree to which the Mane replaced the original inhabitants varied from place to place. The Temne partly withstood the Mane onslaught, and kept their language, but became ruled by a line of Mane kings. The present-day Loko and Mende are the result of a complete submersion of the aboriginal culture: their languages are similar, and both essentially Mande.

The Mane invasions militarised Sierra Leone. The Sapes had been un-warlike, but after the intrusions, right until the late 19th Century, bows, shields, and knives of the Mane type had become ubiquitous in Sierra Leone, as had the Mane battle technique of using squadrons of archers fighting in formation, carrying the large-style shields. Villages became fortified. The usual method of erecting two or three concentric palisades, each 4–7 meters (12–20 ft) high, created a challenging obstacle to attackers—particularly since, as some of the English observed in the 19th Century, the thigh-thick logs planted into the earth to make the fortifications often took root at the bottom. They grew foliage at the top so that the defenders occupied a living wall of wood. 


In the 17th Century, Portuguese imperialism declined, and, in Sierra Leone, the most significant European group became the British. By 1628, they had a “factory” (trading post) in the proximity of Sherbro Island, about 50 km (30 mi) south-east from present-day Freetown.

A company called the Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa hosted a charter from Charles II of England in 1663. Consequently, it built a fort in the Sherbro and on Tasso Island in the Freetown estuary. The Dutch plundered them in 1664, the French in 1704, and pirates in 1719 and 1720. After the Dutch raid, the Tasso Island fort was transferred to nearby Bunce Island, which was more defensible.

The Europeans made payments, called Cole, for rent, tribute, and trading rights, to the king of an area. At this time, the regional military advantage was still on the side of the Africans, and there is a 1714 report of a king seizing Company goods in retaliation for a breach of protocol. Local Afro-Portuguese often acted as middlemen, the Europeans advancing them products to trade to the local people, most often for ivory. In 1728, an overly aggressive Company governor united the Africans and Afro-Portuguese in hostility to him; they burnt down the Bunce Island fort, and it was not reconstructed until about 1750. The French destroyed it again in 1779.

During the 17th Century, the Temne ethnolinguistic group was growing. Around 1600, a Mani still managed the Loko kingdom (the north of Port Loko Creek), and another ruled the upper part of the south shore of the Freetown estuary. The north shore of the estuary was under a Bullom king, and the area just east of Freetown on the land was held by a non-Mani with a European name, Dom Phillip de Leon (who may have been a subordinate to his Mani neighbor). By the mid-17th Century, this situation had changed: Temne, not Bullom, was spoken on the south shore, and ships stopping for water and firewood had to pay customs to the Temne king of Bureh. He lived at Bagos town on the point between the Rokel River and Port Loko Creek. (The king may have considered himself a Mani—to this day, Temne chiefs have Mani-derived titles—but his people were Temne. The Bureh king in place in 1690 was called Bai Tura, Bai being a Mani form.) The Temne had thus expanded in a wedge toward the sea at Freetown and now grouped the Bulom to the north from the Mani and other Mande-speakers to the south and east.

Colonial-era (1808–1961)

In 1808, the British Crown Colony of Sierra Leone was established, with Freetown toiling as the capital of British West Africa. The city’s population expanded rapidly with freed slaves, who found suburbs on the Freetown Peninsula. They were joined by West Indian and African soldiers who lived in Sierra Leone after fighting for Britain in the Napoleonic Wars.

Part 1 ends. In Part 2, we will explore Modern history


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