From Sierra Leone Studies, No. 11, December, 1958
Freetown in 1794

By A.P. Kup

THE following description of Freetown in January, 1794, is taken from the logbook kept by Samuel Gamble, captain of the ship Sandown, a slaver trading from Gravesend to the West Indies by way of the West Coast, owned by a Mr. Cameron and chartered for £125 a month. Before she left England, the Press Gang from H.M.S. Iris—short of sailors to fight the French—relieved the Sandown of some of her crew, whilst excisemen also came aboard to seize a puncheon of rum which the remainder had broached in dock, thereby violating the excise regulations. She finally departed in April from Portsmouth with a West Indies convoy of seventy-six sail; off the Iles de Los she was attacked by a privateer, but on the 3rd January she arrived at Freetown, after all the crew save the Captain and the doctor had fallen sick whilst up the River Nunez. Somewhere in this area Gamble saw and drew a picture of an empoldered rice plantation.

Governor Zachary Macaulay—mentioned below—only assumed that office in March, 1794, succeeding Mr. William Dawes who went home in ill-health. When Gamble visited him, Macaulay’s official position was that of second in Council, but be may well have been Acting Governor if Dawes was sick.

The Venus was the Sandown’s brig, used for voyaging up the creeks and rivers to purchase slaves for the parent ship; the Mary was, presumably, her Jollyboat.

Gamble must have been hoping to make a large profit on his fresh provisions, since the York, of 850 tons, had carried food, as well as frames for houses and other building material, for the use of the recently arrived Nova Scotians. These were not at all happily settled at this time; indeed the whole Colony, from the Governor downwards, was racked with intrigue and dissatisfaction. This makes Gamble’s account of greater interest, since so many of the other contemporary reports are biased according to the writer’s prejudices. Gamble had no stake in the country and merely recorded what he saw dispassionately.

It is likely that there were not usually so many ships in the harbour at other seasons. December and January were the great slave-dealing months, as Gamble himself says :—

        " Representation of a Lott of Fullows (i.e. Fulahs) bringing

their Slaves for a Sale to the Europeans which generaly commences anually in December, or early in January, being prevented from coming down sooner by the rivers being ôverflow’d.... They sometimes come upwards of one Thousand Miles out of the interior part of the Country... Their Principal Places of trade are Gambia, Rio Nunez and the Mandingo Country. Fifteen hundred of them have been brought here in one Season. They are of (i.e. off) in May as the rains set in in June. . . . Their darling Comodity that they get from the Whites is salt which they feed their Cattle with to prevent them from certain disorders.... Tobacco and Beads are next in demand. Guns, Powder and Cloth not so great.”

Significantly it was at this time that Messrs. Watt and Winterbottom, Sierra Leone Company servants, were sent by the Governor and Council to Timbo, capital of the Fulah kingdom, to undertake the Colony’s first negotiations for reciprocal trade. Paradoxically, they must have travelled with the returning slave dealers.

The Freetown which Gamble describes at this time had some 1,400 inhabitants

Fri. 3rd Jan ‘94. Light baffling winds, at 4 P.M. the highlands of Sierra Leone in sight. At 9 came too off Free Town the New Settlement.

...Sat 4th Do. At 10 A.M. went on shore was introduced by the Surgeon of the Settlement to H.E. Governor Z. Mc.Cauley... who informed me of the disagreable news (of the Brig Venus being cut of at Cape Mount with 105 slaves on board) staid and din’d with the governor. I find their factory ship the York is lately burn’d by the Carelesness of the Cook and their loss estimated at near Twenty Thousand Pounds. Vessels here the Harpy of London and 7 Craft of different sizes. At 5 P.M. Capt. Treefall of the Harpy went on board the Mary and examined some of the Beef and Pork. They seem’d not to like it either (or the Price) so got under way for Bance Island.

Sunday 5th Jan. 1794.

...went on shore to the Agent Mr. Tilley, found here (i.e. Bunce Island) the Eleanor and Eliza Capt. Hallsa of New York, the Morning Star of Bristol, a French Prize Brig and several other craft.

Monday 6th Do. Mr. Tilley inform’d me that owing to taking the American up which was to sail with 150 Slaves on the 14th Inst.

it did not lay in his power to let Mr. Walker have any slaves. Tuesday 7th to Friday 10th Do. Receiv’d a Letter from Mr. McCauley intimating that if I would bring or send the Provisions down he would take them at the before mentioned price. Receiv’d from Mr. Tilley 2 Puneheons Rum 5 Empty water Puncheons, 10 Prs. Leg Irons, and 10 Handcuffs; went down to the Settlement landed the Beef and Pork. Sold 14 Casks and left three in the Stores till call’d for.

....the Principall Buildings are the Governor’s House which is very neat and compact well situated on a rising imminence having  both the sea and land wind in their greatest purity. Protected by a Platform of 4 Nine Pounders and two 5 ½ pounder Howisers. The Court House is a large commodious building, when finish’d will surpass any of the others, very much built in the West India Stile with Gallerys all round. The Church is a plain neat structure large enough for a Congregation of 1,000 people with a Copula and bell in it. In the inside are seats instead of Pews (owing to the heat of the Country), the Schoolmaster is their Divine, and his Usher Clerk. They appear very Religious attending Service by 3 o’clock in the Morning and till Eleven at night, four, or five, times per week. . . there is likewise a range of Buildings occupied by the Physician, Doctors, Clerks etc. with several other neat little Houses that the Commercial Agent, Engineers, Cashiers, Storekeeper and their Clerks lives in (there is only one White Lady of Consequence, the Storekeeper’s Wife amongst them). There is two tollerable good Hospitals but as for the rest they are by far worse than the meanest Negro hutts I ever saw in Africa.

....the Planters complain that the Buggabug or large black Ant destroys all their Sugar Canes and other plants so that there is nothing likely to come to perfection except the Cotton or Indigo plants, by which means Ivory, Camwood, Gum, Pepper, Rice, Indigo and Cotton are their staple commodities for remittance for such enormous expenses they have been and are daily at which I am informed, is not less than two hundred pounds per day and sixty two Thousand and six hundred pounds per year exclusive of accidental losses. Nor is the land half clear’d or their Warehouses scarcely the foundations laid, they are imploy’d building forts around the confines of their Libertys to keep King Jimmy and people in awe who were very riotous on Christmas day last, some of whom struck the Lieutenant Governor for refusing them

Liquor. In fact nothing but the great guns and vessels keep them under any degree of subjection. They are . . . not under much subordination to their Chiefs. Live chiefly by hunting, fishing, or plunder which they sell to the settlers at an exhorbitant price for their (? ancient) coin. 1 penny pieces 10 Cents, or 6d. 20 Cents, or 1s. 50 Cents, or 2/6 100 Cents, or 5/— Currency.

The Meckanics imploy’d have 3/— per day and have a lot of land1 to build upon, with priviledge of Church and Hospital. The Labourers appear a wretched set, have 18d. per day with a lot of land, they go to work at Sunrise by the tolling of a large Bell. They go to Breakfast at 8 o’Clock, at 9 the Bell tolls they go to work again, break at 11 and go again at 2 till sun set. They fire a morning and evening gun.

Provisions here is very dear, Vennison or Mutton 7d. per lb. Salt Pork 8d., Eggs 2/— per dozen. Vegetables in proportion. Here is two Charity Schools, one for Boys, the other for Girls. The Boys are learn’d to Read, Write, Arithmetic and Churchmusic. Girls Reading, Singing, and Needlework are about 50 in number. In the Centre of the Town is a Platform and Flagstaff defended by twelve 12 Pounders and at the West end or landing place is another platform of 9 12 pounders all kept in excellent order. This place is subject to Violent gusts of Wind Thunder Lightning and heavy rain throughout the year attracted by the very high Mountains contigious to it.” 2

But all this enterprise, in spite of the fine guns, was to fall a prey to the French before the end of the year. On 28th September, with English built vessels, flying the English flag, and with sailors on deck disguised as British tars, a French fleet sailed openly into Freetown harbour. Suspecting nothing, the Colonists were caught in the open by the enemy’s guns. The town was sacked and the buildings, including the Church, were burnt. All livestock, even domestic cats, were slaughtered. The Harpy, an armed Sierra Leone Company vessel, which had sailed to England soon after Gamble saw her in the River, returned at the end of September to fall into French hands and was lost with all her cargo of foodstuffs. In fact the Colonists would have starved had not the French Admiral sent ashore provisions, before sailing away to the South on the 13th October, after sacking Bunce Island.

1 I.e. a plot of land, allotted to them.
2 Greenwich Library MS. 53/O35