Reprinted from Sierra Leone Studies, NS, No 17, June 1963


A History of Sierra Leone, 1962. By Christopher Fyfe.

O.U.P.  84s

Part 1

The map on the dust cover daringly sets the challenge--Sierra Leone, that tiny blob on the rim of Africa--is its history worth relating? The book inside the dust cover runs to 700 pages, is published by the Oxford University Press, and took the author ten years to prepare. To these credentials, add one other: the work is as weighty in scholarship as in size. Mr. Christopher Fyfe, in thus forcing the world of learning to pay attention to the history of Sierra Leone and to mark, above all, the contribution of Freetown to the advancement of Africa, may well have done as much for the people of this country and their future as any other person in this generation.

A reviewer in Sierra Leone Studies must greet this work not only with gratitude and respect, but with affection. For Mr. Fyfe's earliest articles on Sierra Leone appeared in the Studies, and over the years that he has been preparing his material, his contributions to this journal did much to maintain its scholarly character. Furthermore, Mr. Fyfe has never hesitated to assist other inquirers into Sierra Leone history, and has, for instance, regularly answered queries in the pages of the Studies. The Studies preceded Mr. Fyfe in taking Sierra Leone history seriously, but he has now summed it up in a form and at a level which must influence the future direction of the Studies.

The critical comment that follows has three aims. First, to indicate to the general reader the significance of the history of Sierra Leone as now related by Mr. Fyfe. Secondly, to indicate to the local reader what he can expect to find about local history in this volume. Thirdly, to indicate to future contributors to the Studies what sources Mr. Fyfe has used and uncovered, the extent to which he has worked them out, and where the narrative suggests there is room for further research. The history will be considered in periods, and general comments will be left till the end.


An Introduction of twelve pages deals with the history of the Sierra Leone peninsula, its hinterland and neighbouring coastlands before 1780, and can be recommended as the best summary available of the little that is yet known about the earlier ethnohistory of this region. Dr. Kup's chapter on this subject was the least successful in his book: Mr. Fyfe's account is free from fanciful speculations about tribal origins and in general shows a more considered use of the sources (e.g. he quotes Dapper rather than his plagiarist Barbot). M. Person's recent sketch of tribal history was stimulating but not altogether convincing. None of these writers cites all the sources given in the bibliography published in the Studies in 1958.

It is possible, though not perhaps likely, that other major sources will ultimately become available. These may take the form of documents discovered in the archives of Europe (P. Carson, Materials for West African history in the archives of Belgium and Holland, 1962, is the first of a series of studies in European archives), or the form of a systematic and critical survey of surviving oral traditions. But whether or not other sources are uncovered, it is abundantly clear that much remains yet to be done on the known sources before the ethnohistory of this region can take firm shape. Forty years ago, Northcote Thomas entitled a pioneering article "Who were the Manes?" We still do not know who the Manes/Mani were. Mr. Fyfe makes a suggestion in the text but retracts in a footnote. One clue, Westermann's identification of a relevant seventeenth-century vocabulary as a vocabulary of Vai, has been overlooked by both Mr. Fyfe and Dr. Kup. Yet until we have discovered more about the Mani, our knowledge of Sierra Leone ethnohistory must be very, very thin.

We urgently require editions, and if necessary, translation, of all the unedited earlier accounts (and new editions of those which have been edited uncritically). It is good to know that Professor J. W. Blake is engaged on an edition of Almada (1594) for the Hakluyt Society. But we still need critical editions of Guerreiro (1611), of André da Faro (1664) of Dapper (1668) of Coelho (1669), and even of the English sixteenth-century voyages printed by Hakluyt. All these will incidentally show us which are the original texts and which plagiarisms. While awaiting these, we must be grateful for Mr. Fyfe's, Dr. Kup's and M. Person's summaries of the present state of knowledge.

We have left to the end of this section a complaint which it seemed ungracious to present in the first line. Mr. Fyfe's title is misleading. His is not a full-scale history of Sierra Leone from the day the name was coined (c. 1460). It is a full-scale history of Sierra Leone from the time of the establishment of the English settlement of that name in 1787. To this has been added, as an after thought, an introduction on a very different level of detail, covering the earlier period. Mr. Fyfe's summary of the earlier period is useful and interesting, but it should not be regarded as being of the same scholarly cut as the rest of the book. Not to multiply examples, only a rather distant viewpoint could justify the assertions on page 1 that (a) the Bullom, Temne, and Limba languages, and (b) the customs of the Susu and Fula, were "similar".


The first four chapters of the book (104 pages) cover the arrival of the various groups of Settlers before 1808. Previously the most scholarly study of this period was Kuczynski's demographic survey where the author, overcome by interest in Freetown, digressed mightily to describe in detail the early parties of Settlers. Mr. Fyfe's account is, however, an enormous advance on anything earlier, and the balance and detail is such that it is hardly likely to be superseded, within the foreseeable future, as a concise history of the early years of Freetown.

The main sources of this period--all in English--are (a) the printed accounts of the Sierra Leone Company, (b) the diaries and papers of Governor Clarkson and journals of Governor Macaulay--part in print but the greater part in MS.--and the unprinted papers of a few of the Company's servants, e.g. Ross and Afzelius, (c) MSS. in the P.R.O., London, mainly Colonial Office material relating to the Nova Scotians and Maroons. (The papers of the Sierra Leone Company itself are not mentioned by Mr. Fyfe--are they extant?)

Some of this MS. material deserves to be edited. Part of Clarkson's diary was printed in the Studies thirty years ago: another part of the MS. is in America and the remaining part was lately in Mr. Fyfe's possession. Approximately one-third of Macaulay's Journals was printed in the Memoir by Viscountess Knutsford in 1905: the other two-thirds rounds out the picture and contains much material relevant to the history of Sierra Leone. The whole of these Journals should be edited. Dr. Kup has recently been examining Afzelius' Journal which probably also deserves to be printed. The printing of part of Clarkson's Diary in the Studies in 1927 was an excellent move: had the Studies concentrated on the publishing of documentation it would have been even more useful to scholars today.

The content of this part of Mr. Fyfe's story is relatively familiar. He begins excellently with the Anglo-African litterati of the eighteenth century. The less highly thought of "Black Poor" Mr. Fyfe soon transports to Granville Sharp's Province of Freedom. Smeathman, who suggested Sierra Leone, is given a poor character by Mr. Fyfe, Sharp is vindicated. Then a page has to be spent refuting Mrs. Falconbridge's yarn that the white women on board the ships were kidnapped prostitutes:  it says little for previous historians that it had still to be refuted.

The Sierra Leone Company was the child of the Evangelical movement. Mr. Fyfe's judicious account of the company and its operations might be called for the defence when the Evangelicals undergo their next round of debunking. He accepts that the company's aims were somewhat more than money-making. (Should even the Bulama company be described as "a merely commercial enterprise" (p. 35)?) The company's operations were very far from being a financial success: its administration of Sierra Leone has been often severely, though perhaps unfairly, criticized: but Mr. Fyfe would agree that it achieved what its directors would have called a "moral success" in building up the nucleus of a Christian and civilized community. However, Mr. Fyfe also notes that Zachary Macaulay, in private operations in West Africa after the ending of the company, made a fortune of £100,000: considered merely as a splendid piece of entrepreneurship, this surely deserves more investigation than Mr. Fyfe gives it. Mr. Fyfe respects though perhaps he does not wholly like Z. Macaulay: but Kenneth Macaulay, his cousin, is one of the few characters in the account for whom Mr. Fyfe shows no sympathy at all.

If he is fair to the Company, Mr. Fyfe is decidedly friendly to the Settlers, especially the Nova Scotians. He likes their enterprise, religious, political, and economic, and he is inclined to disregard the harder things their opponents said about them. The English Evangelicals were of the governing class and their attitude to the governed was intensely paternalistic. In Sierra Leone, the eighteenth-century Utopianism of Sharp and Clarkson was soon replaced by the firm hand of Z. Macaulay, and this Discipline clashed bitterly with the Democracy of the Nova Scotians. Such at least is one interpretation of the turmoil reported so assiduously in Macaulay's Journal: and perhaps many readers will accept the invitation to argue happily for hours on the well-worn political issue of order v. liberty. However, Mr. Fyfe's eirenic approach, by toning down some of the nastiness on both sides in these years, conceals another aspect of the clash, the strain of blancophobia in the Nova Scotians, and its emerging social expression. Previously where blacks had been able to revolt against white supremacy and exploitation, the revolt had been one of instinct leading to bloody massacre and little else. But here, perhaps for the first time on either side of the Atlantic, certainly for the first time in Africa, there emerged a reasoned and cool-headed black racialism, hence a first step towards "negritude" and black "African" nationalism. Using the moralistic slogans of the whites--Christian equality, British liberty, the Rights of Man--the Nova Scotians claimed power in the Freetown community, power for themselves as civilized Africans in their own continent; and consequent on this, the ultimate exclusion of whites.

Unlike the later Liberated Africans, the Nova Scotians knew the whites only as oppressors of their race. Most of them, being born in America, had no experience of the African responsibility for the slave-trade, while on the other hand they could claim with much justification that they had liberated themselves from slavery without any white assistance. It was therefore easy for them to adapt a view of African history as simple-minded and hence as effective as that of official African nationalism today. Though often subdued by other considerations, this thread of racial hostility to whites, matching the negrophobia of many whites which is very properly stressed by Mr. Fyfe, runs through Sierra Leone history during the nineteenth century. Granted that those who cried loudest "no white men can get justice from a Sierra Leone jury" were negrophobes (e.g. the odious Burton), it is loose thinking to assume that the accusation was altogether untrue. Students of the development of African nationalism might care to take a longer look at the Nova Scotians, and the Freetown community they moulded.


The period 1808 to the 1880s marks the Rise of the Creole: Mr. Fyfe tells the story, with a mass of detail, in 300 pages which are not light reading. Generations of a few Creole families pass before our eyes: also a flickering line of governors (Mr. Fyfe apologizes on p. 112 for having to spend so much time on the governors. A tiny poverty-stricken colony remains tiny and poverty-stricken. It acquires fame in the outside world mainly as the "White-man's Grave". Does it signify anything--is it worth 300 pages?

In this part of his account, Mr. Fyfe is breaking virgin ground. There was no previous account of the Creole families worth mentioning. In gathering together scraps of information from a variety of sources (e.g. newspapers, wills, tombstones) Mr Fyfe has been a most diligent local historian, and this reviewer has no doubt that the labour will be fully appreciated by all Freetown readers. However, for the more general reader, a recent article by Mr. Fyfe (Journal of African History, 1961), in which he records only four case-histories, will illustrate the Rise of the Creoles very adequately. Again, with one eye on 1896 and recollecting his title, Mr. Fyfe finds it necessary to dart off from the Peninsula at intervals to inspect the state of affairs on the Scarcies, or in the Gallinas, or with the Yoni. The sections inserted into the history of the Creoles and the peninsula add up to a very reasonable history of the hinterland in the nineteenth century, but they break the unity of the story.

Though the account is, for the reasons given, a little grittier than it need have been, the answer to the question above is surely that the history of the Creoles in the nineteenth century is of sufficient importance to justify the efforts both of author and reader. From the point of view of comparative studies in colonial administration, or even in Imperialism, the Colony of Sierra Leone--i.e. that line of cock-hatted be-knighted governors--is of some, but probably only trifling, importance. It is the Creoles who signify, who are unique, for they represent an experiment in social development and an experiment of world-wide interest.

This social development--"from Cannibal to Churchwarden", as one of Creoledom's cooler admirers outrageously caricatured it--is implicit in Mr. Fyfe's account. The slave-ships disgorge from 1808 to 1863. The machinery of social engineering is set up--the King's Yards, the Recaptives Department, the villages and their CMS superintendents, the parishes, the churches, the schools, Fourah Bay Institution and College. Mr. Fyfe records all the events of the process, and stresses those events which prove the extent and speed of the change. By the 1880s, university degrees are being taken at Fourah Bay: the Grammar School Old Boys' Association is flourishing: Drs. Horton and Davies have retired from the British Army with the rank of Surgeon-Major (the equivalent of Lieutenant-Colonel): Sibthorpe is bringing out a second edition of his local history: Bishop Crowther with a dozen Creole assistants is converting the Niger: the first unofficial members of the first Leg. Co. in Nigeria are sons of Freetown: and the Creole press which records all this, with its advertisements for Beechams Pills and Isaac Walton's dress-suits, its measured editorials, its social column, and its subscription lists for such worthy imperial causes as the fund for widows of British sailors drowned in H.M.S. Victoria--this Creole press in content, as well as in tone and in style, is hardly as much a worthy imitation of, as a worthy member of, the British provincial press of the 1880s. That a society so integrated with that of Britain was produced in seventy years out of elements so diverse and so different from those of Britain, was indeed a cultural achievement. But it is less important to award medals for the "achievement"--for instance, to C.M.S. (and to Henry Venn in particular) for thoughtful guidance, or to the Nova Scotians for their unrelenting cultural pressure on the late arrivals, or to the Liberated Africans themselves for their speedy realization of opportunities--than to recognize in the development the demonstration of the possibility of rapid and sweeping cultural change. It is irrelevant that Victorian society of the 1880s no longer strikes most of us as the summun bonum: just as it is no reflection on the stability and integration of African traditional societies that the Creoles, torn away from these and subjected to more immediate influences, turned their faces away from their continental past and towards Charing Cross and Balmoral.

The demonstration that men are more flexible than the societies which bind them was naturally of the greatest importance to Africa.

Creoledom became the prime argument for the speedy reception of Africa into the global civilization. Mr. Fyfe deals justly with the Burton crew, of whom the most misguided was surely Blyden. These individuals, who seem to have been motivated mainly by their personal clash with Christianity (at least Victorian Christianity), disparaged the Creoles at every turn: yet their degree of resentment was in itself some testimonial to the way the Creoles stood out from the rest of Africa. In this, the Creole-baiters agreed with the Creole-lovers, the missionaries and their sentimental home-supporters. Between 1850 and 1880, a wide body of opinion in England looked to the Christian valley of Regent, and later to the black bishop of the Niger, as two of the most stirring signs of the redemption of Africa by Christianity, commerce, and civilization. If we substitute West Africa for all Africa (though at least one Creole missionary went to Kenya in the 1880s), Mr. Fyfe provides us with sufficient evidence for maintaining that the British encouragement of the Creoles was largely justified in terms of the contemporary British aims. (Or for maintaining, in twentieth-century terms, that almost every aspect of cultural development in West Africa was pioneered by Creoles.) By the 1880s, the Creoles had largely justified the claims of the missionaries and humanitarians that, freed from the trammels of the past, Africans could change into Victorians in one bound. And if to Victorians, why not--post-Victorians were to argue--to post-Victorian shapes? And if the Creoles, why not all Africans? The liberating power of the Creole achievement even operated to suggest a more sympathetic understanding of the African past--if the Creoles became Victorians so quickly, did this not suggest that the tribal past was not so degenerate, immoral, savage, lawless, heathen as supposed? Thus the greatest missionary-linguist in West Africa, S. W. Koelle, writing at Fourah Bay around 1850, reported on the one hand that his African pupils were capable of learning Greek, Hebrew, and theology, and on the other, that their tribal languages (which he was studying) displayed subtle riches in grammar and vocabulary.

A major criticism of Mr. Fyfe's book is that in this section it is difficult to see the wood for the trees. All the surface facts are noted, often for the first time, but we are left to draw our own conclusions. There is little analysis of the process of social change: we must turn to Dr. Porter's book (see A Review of Arthur Porter's Creoledom editor) for this. Almost nothing is said about the tribal societies from which the Liberated Africans came. A more rigorous examination of tribal provenance would surely have been possible. Since we are not given even a generalized picture of the traditional societies, much of the intensity of the struggle between the old gods and the new is lost. Moreover we are unable to appreciate the extent to which the Creoles were not just Victorian--the extent to which so-called Africanisms survived (and still survive), were blended or were given expression at an unofficial level. There are only two passing references to the Creole dialect (Krio), and no example of it is given: a detailed examination of its ingredients (on the lines of articles by Dr. Jones and Professor Berry in the Studies) would give a stranger to Freetown a more penetrating indication of Creole history than many pages of chronological narrative. Another aspect of social organization, the family and mating pattern, is rather primly ignored. This, to say the least, is hardly fair to the generations of commentators on Freetown who have considered it the heart of the matter.

Forward to Part 2

P. E. H. HAIR.