Reprinted from Sierra Leone Studies, NS, No 2

 View of the New Burial Ground

By C.H. Fyfe


The “View of the New Burial Ground” illustrated here is taken from a coloured lithograph of a drawing made in 1860. The artists’ initials are in the corner-J.E.S.-Miss Julia E. Sass, the first principal of the Annie Walsh Memorial School (to give it the name it now bears), where she presided from 1849 to 1869. She drew it from the rising ground in the middle of the Circular Road Cemetery, looking east over what was then still empty but is now covered with tombstones, up to Heddle’s Farm, the roof of which is just distinguishable at the top of the hill in the middle of the picture.

In the foreground are two memorial crosses--still standing today--to the Right Reverend John Bowen, third Bishop of Sierra Leone, and to his wife, the daughter of a Dean of Peterborough, and their still-born child. He died in May, 1859, she in childbirth eight months earlier. To the right of their enclosure appears a stone (no longer there) to the Reverend John Millward, an English missionary, Principal of the C.M.S. Grammar School from 1855-59, who, with his wife, died two months after the bishop. In front is a stone, which is still there, to the Reverend Christian Ehemann, a German missionary who died in January 1860 after 14 years’ service, chiefly at York and Regent.

Miss Sass’s picture was printed at the end of The Memorials of John Bowen which appeared in 1862. It serves as a memorial to one of the unhealthiest years that Freetown has ever known, 1859, when over 500 (including 42 of about 90 European inhabitants) perished of malarial, or of yellow, fever and many more of smallpox. If you walk through the burial ground you can see many memorials of that year. Perhaps the most terrible is the large stone vault, not far from Bishop Bowen’s cross, where a Roman Catholic bishop and all the members of his mission are buried. They came out in 1859 and all died within a few months.

Circular Rd. Cemetery Freetown, circa 1860 Nearer Circular Road is a monument to R.A.K. Oldfield, another European who died then. He accompanied Macgregor Laird as surgeon on his expedition to explore the Niger in 1833, and helped to write the published account of it. On his return he settled in Freetown and started a small factory in Water Street for making ground-nut oil. The site of his country house along Kissy Road, Kissy Hall, was bought by government in 1889 for another cemetery, for by then this one where he lies was too congested.

There are stones to two Americans, one from New York, the other from Boston, who died of yellow fever in that fatal year 1859. The Bostonian has a verse from Gray’s Elegy on his. Two other monuments to victims of the epidemic, Nathaniel Salomon and Leo Levi of Liverpool, have verses in Hebrew.

Such stones remind us how cosmopolitan Freetown has always been. Americans were trading on the Coast even before the Colony was founded, and when, a hundred years ago, a flourishing export trade in ground-nuts and palm-oil grew up here, almost as much was exported to the United Sates as to Great Britain. But another stone, to Frank M. Gates, an American missionary who died in 1890, shows that they did not only come to trade-and if you look up from his stone, there is another tangible reminder of American interest in the near-by Albert Academy.

The Hebrew inscriptions testify to the great part Jews played in opening up trade all along the coast of Sierra Leone during the last century. H. B. Levi, for instance, whom the epidemic also swept away, and his brother John, whom it spared, were well established in business in Freetown by 1859. Nathaniel Isaacs, a Jew from Canterbury, had a large trading establishment on Matacong Island-now part of French Guinea-with an agent, Emmanuel Lyons, in Wilberforce Street. Nathaniel Nathan settled in what was still the Sherbro village of Bonthe in the early 1850s; there is still a monument to his little daughter in the old cemetery in Claffin Lane, Bonthe. Further south two Jewish brothers, John and Nathan Harris, started trading at Sulima; it was largely their efforts that prevented the British government from giving all the land south of the Sherbro to Liberia.

So a walk through this New Burial Ground reveals much of the history of Sierra Leone to the observant eye. It was called “New” to distinguish it from the old burial ground laid out in 1801 at the south end of Howe Street, then still outside the town walls which ran from Fort Thornton along what later became Garrison Street to Susan’s Bay. A wall was built round this old burial ground in 1816 and the C.M.S. presented an ornamental gate for it. But mortality was high in the 1820s, and the burial ground small. As the town had expanded beyond the old walls by then, and houses surrounded it, it could not be enlarged. So in 1827 a new burial ground was laid out just east of Circular Road. The old cemetery was reserved for descendants of the original Nova Scotian and Maroon settlers: anyone else was buried in the new. But the memorials of these settler families are now lost, for their resting place has been leveled to make a playground, and its ornamental gate guards the Colonial Treasury in Oxford Street.

One of the first stones put up in the New Burial Ground still survives, a well-preserved memorial slab to Christopher Chadwick who died in February 1828, aged 27. I do not know who he was. There was a Doctor Chadwick working in Freetown in 1801: perhaps this was his son. Near it is a stone nearly as old to James Johnstone, who died six months later. He came out from England in business but entered government service. When York village was started in 1819 for a group of disbanded soldiers he was put in charge. The enormous official house he built at York is in ruins today. His tombstone has lasted better.

At least three governors-Sir Neil Campbell, Major Temple and Sir John Jeremie-and at least one governor’s wife, Mrs Blackall, were buried there, but only one of their tombs survives. Inside a railing, overgrown by weeds and shrubs, which have cracked the lid in half, stands the sarcophagus of Octavius Temple, father and grandfather of archbishops of Canterbury, who died after only eight months as governor, in 1834. He is commemorated in the Cathedral too, though the original marble tablet to him was presumably broken at some time, for the present tablet is of wood.

Many of the tombs have been built of laterite, with a memorial stone of marble or basalt, ordered out from Europe, inset. As the laterite has crumbled with age the harder stone has fallen out and broken. That is why so many tombs are mere nameless mounds of shapeless stone. Two years ago I found lying on the ground a handsome black slab engraved to the memory of the Reverend William Peck, a young Methodist missionary who died here in 1829. By kind consent of the Mayor, it has now been moved to a safer place inside St. John’s Maroon Church, Westmoreland Street. Only this single stone has survived in the burial ground to commemorate the Methodist missionaries, although William Fox’s account of the Mission describes how Peck was laid to rest beside several other deceased colleagues in the shade of “a large African plum tree”.

The West African Methodist church is better commemorated. In 1844 a group of Liberated Africans in Freetown, led by Anthony O’Connor, the head clerk in the colonial Surveyor’s office, broke away and formed their church, separate from the European mission and from the other Methodist churches in Freetown. One of their churches, Tabernacle, built in 1846, stands near the cemetery. After O’Connor’s death in 1855 the congregations decided to affiliate themselves to the United Methodist Free Church in England, get a European missionary out to help them. No monument survives to O’Connor, the founding father of a church which, now separate again, still flourishes today (though the Secretariat records show he imported a tombstone from England for his wife’s grave in 1852), but stones are still standing to several of the European missionaries who came out to his church-Potts, New, Truscott, and the families of others.

One handsome, locally made monument dated 1846 and still in good condition commemorates the daughter of Peter Hughes, master mason, who perhaps worked the stone himself. Another of Hughes’ achievements is more conspicuous, Holy Trinity Church, Kissy Road, which he built in 1839 under the supervision of a German missionary, and then enlarged, supervising the work himself in 1854. By then there were many in Freetown wealthy enough to import stones more durable than the local laterite, more easily workable than the local granite; their tombs provide the historian with a repository of family history. Such family vaults as the Taylors’, which enshrines the patriarchal figure of John Taylor who died in 1876 “at the good old age of about 107 years”, and his descendants, exemplify the rise of a notable family. But some families have not recorded on the outside who is buried within, so their names are as unknown as those whose tombs have crumbled away.

Despite neglect and decay memorials still stand to many, now barely remembered, who helped to transform Freetown from the village of wooden huts it was at the beginning of the last century, into the thriving commercial centre it became by the middle of it. Such is the stone to John French who died in 1847 aged 70. An Ashantee, liberated in the Colony in 1810, he was apprenticed to a carpenter. When he had learnt his trade and saved a little money he began making frame houses to sell ready made, to be mounted on a stone foundation, at from 10 to 50 apiece. Soon he was employing other carpenters and had opened a shop to sell spirits. As has always been usual in Freetown, he put his profits into land. His large property on the west side of Liverpool Street was mortgaged in the year of his death for 400. He was headman for the Ashantees in Freetown, and in 1820 Chief Justice Fitzgerald mentioned him particularly as a responsible and reliable juryman.

Not far off is a monument to Thomas Will, the headman of the Freetown “Akus”, as the Yorubas were popularly called. A recaptive, like French, starting without capital or education (he could not read or write) he built up a flourishing trading business, so that when he died in 1840 he left 2,000 and a good corner house in Walpole Street, which he had bought two years earlier for 305.

A stone still stands to John Langley, merchant, a “native of the Ebu country” who died in 1843 aged 40. Liberated in 1816, he was educated at Regent in the C.M.S. institution which, moved to Fourah Bay in 1827, was the seed from which the present Fourah Bay College has grown. There he was named Langley after a clergyman in England, a benefactor of the C.M.S. He taught at the village school at Bathurst and then at Kent where the manager (equivalent of a modern district commissioner) found fault with him and had him flogged. He brought and won an action against the manager for illegal assault, but the governor refused to reinstate him, so he went into business and traded up-country. In 1834 government had to intervene to protect him from the Alikali of Port Loko who was at war with the Mendes and had put him in prison for selling them gunpowder.

Three years later a more lenient governor decided to take Langley back into government service, this time not as a teacher, but as manager at Charlotte. This was a bold experiment, for no liberated African had held such a post before. Langley was a poor choice for such an experiment. Much of the village manager’s time was occupied by filling in forms for the office in Freetown: at least a dozen separate forms with full information about the village had to go in every month. The simple education he had received made this a difficult task which he often neglected. Memories of his early unjust treatment embittered him against government and made him unco-operative, while even his friends admitted that “the assumption of consequence for which he was conspicuous” made him an arrogant and unkind superior. In 1839 he was removed from office again, and returned to Freetown to retail spirits.

Two years later he fell ill and had a sudden religious conversion, gave up selling spirits, made friends with the missionaries, with whom he had long ago quarreled, and contributed liberally to their funds. It was the year of Fowell Buxton’s ill-fated Niger expedition. Langley did all he could to arouse interest towards it in Freetown, called a public meeting, where he gave an address of thanks to the promoters, and raised money to send them. Then he died, still a young man, and was buried in our New Burial Ground.

    Many memorials survive to famous Sierra Leoneans of the next generation. Here lie Dr. G.V.T. Manley, one of the first to qualify as a doctor, and the Reverend James Quaker, who died in 1882 after 20 years as principal of the Grammar School. An imposing sarcophagus covers the remains of Isaac Fitzjohn, postmaster of Freetown for 24 years, great-grandfather of a Legislative Councillor of today; a gothic obelisk commemorates Mrs. M.P. Horton, mother-in-law of Sir Samuel Lewis.

Such a cemetery is worth studying, and it is sad to see it so little cared for. The neglect is nothing new. Poor Bishop Bowen, planting lilies on his wife’s grave, beside which he was to lie so soon, called it “a wild, neglected cemetery”. There has indeed been some improvement since his day, for pigs no longer roam there as they did then; nor are cattle tethered there to graze as I have seen them in one of the four cemeteries of Bonthe. But it is overgrown and unprotected, the tombs crumble and break. Many are no more than nameless heaps of rubble. If they are neglected for another generation that is what all will become, and these irreplaceable monuments to the distinguished dead will have been lost to posterity.