All  
Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, West Africa         Source: robertonencini/Adobe Stock

Bunce Island and the Gate of No Return

Print

One of the greatest atrocities committed against humanity throughout history was the slave trade which involved the enslavement of millions of men, women, and children. Many monuments have been erected to mark this dark period and one of the most striking is the former slave fort on Bunce Island in Sierra Leone as it once played a major role in the Atlantic slave trade.

The Savagery History of Bunce Island

Bunce Island was first settled by English slave traders in the 1670s who chose the island because of its strategic position. They built a small fort on the island to protect them from their bitter rivals, the Portuguese.

The Royal African Company controlled the fort and purchased slaves from mainly African middlemen. Although the initial settlement was not successful, it was an important symbol of British power in this part of Africa and was rebuilt several times after attacks by the French, as well as pirates.  

When local Africans involved in the slave trade attacked the island in the 1740s, the British withdrew from Bunce Island. The slave trade, however, was very lucrative and a new British slave company was able to establish a fortified outpost on the island, which eventually became a slave fort. From this period on thousands of slaves were sent to the West Indies and the American colonies where many were eventually sold in Georgia and South Carolina. By the 1790s the island was one of the major slave entrepôts on the coast of West Africa.

A British abolitionist campaign had started in the 1780s. They helped to establish a colony of freed slaves that would become Freetown, the capital of modern Sierra Leone. The slavers from Bunce Island tried to destroy the fledging settlement but failed.

View of Freetown on the way to Bunce Island, Sierra Leone (Joelle/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

View of Freetown on the way to Bunce Island, Sierra Leone (Joelle/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

When the British Parliament banned slavery in 1833, the island went into rapid decline and was abandoned a decade later. The fort was forgotten for more than a century. The former slave station became Sierra Leone’s first protected heritage site and the US government has helped to finance its restoration and preservation. Many of the ruins were badly damaged by a hurricane in the 1970s.

Although the island is now uninhabited, many African Americans visit the island every year in order to learn more about their ancestors and their heritage.

The Remains of Bunce Island

The island lies at the mouth of the Rokel River and is not far from the city of Freetown. Bunce Island is small, measuring only 1650 by 350 feet (500 by 100m) and mostly covered with vegetation. The remains of the British fort are situated on the northern side of the island and overlooks the sea.

The entrance to the fort, which is still standing but largely overgrown, is locally known as the ‘gate of no return’. In the center of the fort is Bunce Island House, the headquarters of the British and home to the chief officer who oversaw the slave trade in the region. Originally it was a two-story building, but it is now roofless and parts of it have collapsed.

A cannon bearing the coat of arms of George III (robertonencini/Adobe Stock)

A cannon bearing the coat of arms of George III ( robertonencini/Adobe Stock)

Near the headquarters is the open-air slave yard. Men and women were kept separate until they were loaded onto slave ships and taken across the Atlantic Ocean.

Some of the fortifications of the old British fort can still be seen such as the original powder magazine and the rampart with eight cannons that bear the coat of arms of King George III. To the south of the fort is a graveyard that has many headstones belonging to slave traders.

Visiting Bunce Castle, Sierra Leone

The island can only be visited as part of a tour group and there are several who organize day trips from Freetown and nearby resorts. Boats dock at the island and tour guides provide information on the dark history of the slave trade. Visitors usually spend an hour or two here.

A museum in Freetown holds many artifacts dating back to Bunce Island’s role in the brutal trade of human beings.

Top image: Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, West Africa          Source: robertonencini/Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

References

Basu, P. (2008). Confronting the past? Negotiating a heritage of conflict in Sierra Leone. Journal of material culture, 13(2), 233-247

Available at:    https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1359183508090896

Kup, A. P. (1972). John Clarkson and the Sierra Leone Company. The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 5(2), 203-220

Available at:    https://www.jstor.org/stable/217514?seq=1

Lovejoy, P. E., & Schwarz, S. (2015). Sierra Leone in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Slavery, abolition and the transition to colonialism in Sierra Leone, 1-28

Available at:   https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=bunce+island+sierra+leone&btnG=

Next article