How the British cheated the Black Poor




Paul Conton



The struggle between Krios and the earlier occupants of the Western Area for control of the Sierra Leone peninsula is well known and much discussed ( www.natinpasadvantage.com/essays/WHO OWNS FREETOWN.htm ). Less well known is the battle between the Settlers and the Sierra Leone Company in the early years, a struggle whose outcome still lives with us today. Indeed a close reading of the early Colony days indicates that notwithstanding King Jimmy’s attack on Granville Town, the Colony was on reasonably friendly terms with Naimbana, the overall ruler, whereas the contest for land between the Settlers and the Sierra Leone Company was much more bitter

1787-1789 The Black Poor rule in their land


The Black Poor were the first group of Settlers to arrive in the new colony. They came from England and were a disparate group, without much leadership or survival skills. They were championed by Granville Sharp, whose dream was to establish an independent, self-governing, democratic entity on the west coast of Africa. THE BLACK POOR WERE PROMISED THEY WOULD OWN THE LAND AND WOULD GOVERN THEMSELVES. Indeed Granville Sharp’s great experiment was started. Indeed the land was purchased for them (apart from money Sharp raised, funds were provided by the British government, which supported the project at least in part to get rid of undesirables from Britain), and indeed they operated a self-governing community for a while (1787-1789), in which they made their own laws and elected their own leaders. The land was theirs, to do as they pleased. Unfortunately the great experiment was cut short by a dispute with King Jimmy, who destroyed the town and scattered the Black Poor.


1791 Falconbridge rescues the Black Poor


Anna Maria Falconbridge (http://www.natinpasadvantage.com/essays/Two_Voyages_to_Sierra_Leone,_Part_1.htm) provides us with a fascinating picture of the early days of the colony. A young, Englishwoman, she made two trips with her husband, in 1791 and 1792, to rescue and reestablish the fledgling colony, after the original Granville Town had been destroyed by King Jimmy. Mrs Falconbridge was privy to the protracted negotiations with King Naimbana (which included paying for the land for a third time), that led finally to the establishment of Freetown. She witnessed the landing of the Nova Scotians, the group that were the backbone of the early city. And she was intimately acquainted with all the hardships, tensions and disputes of that event filled first year. Her book provides invaluable insights into what went on in this critical period, as of course does the doyen of Sierra Leone history, Christopher Fyfe.


1791: Freetown handed over to the Sierra Leone Company


By the time Granville Sharp’s dream was revived, in 1791, the great man, Sharp, was running out of money and had to turn to investors for substantial assistance. Commercial interests took over. The British government declined further assistance. WHEREAS BEFORE THE LAND WAS OWNED BY THE BLACK POOR, NOW THE LAND WAS HANDED OVER BY ACT OF BRITISH PARLIAMENT TO A NEW COMPANY, THE SIERRA LEONE COMPANY, CONTROLLED BY BRITISH INVESTORS (IN PARTICULAR THE BANKER, THORNTON), LOOKING FOR A PROFIT. These people saw in Africa agricultural profits to rival those that were being made in the West Indies (where slaves were planting sugar) and America (where slaves were planting cotton). Although the company certainly banned slave labour, it also, equally, was not willing to give up its newly acquired control of the Sierra Leone peninsula. From the very beginning the Company factored a cash value for land into its economic projections (Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone, p30 “Land was to be subject to 2s an acre quit-rent for two years, then to an annual tax. The Company would market goods and produce, taking 10 per cent on sales, 2 1/2 per cent on purchases. These charges,with the profit from land reserved for the Company to plant or let, and an extensive trade to the interior, would, it was hoped, yield the shareholders a return for their investment.”) In addition to the agricultural potential, it was thought the peninsula might be rich in minerals, and a mineralogist was sent out to do exploratory work.


1792 The Nova Scotians rescue the Colony


Around the time the British government handed the Sierra Leone peninsula over to the Company, the Nova Scotians were accepted as the second set of settlers for the colony. These people had been slaves in America, had fought on the side of the defeated British government in the American war of independence, and THEY WERE ENTITLED TO COMPENSATION FOR THEIR SERVICES FROM THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT. They had been shunted off to Canada with a promise of freehold land for them there and had waited in vain for it for several years. When the Sierra Leone proposal was put forward,  the British government responded with alacrity to an opportunity to relieve itself of its commitments. The Nova Scotians were promised the long awaited land in Sierra Leone, which they were assured was a welcoming and hospitable place. At this point the Colony was failing. The Black Poor had been dispersed all over the coast and the settlement had been destroyed. The Sierra Leone Company well understood that they needed a strong group of settlers to secure their project in Sierra Leone. Without a strong group on the ground in Sierra Leone the Company could not hope to hold on to its possession. The Nova Scotians were in many respects ideal candidates for settlers. They had been plantation slaves and thus knew farming. Some were carpenters and they had acquired valuable building and construction skills in America. They had fought with the British in the American revolution and knew how to defend themselves. And they had survived the bitter cold and hardship of exile in Canada. Perhaps just as important, they were deeply religious and used their faith in the Almighty to sustain them during trial.  


Granville Sharp, the visionary, John Clarkson, the implementor


The Nova Scotians in Canada were offered a minimum of 30 acres of land per family (20 for the husband, 10 for the wife and five for each child) if they agreed to resettle in Sierra Leone. The British government readily supported the project IN SETTLEMENT OF THEIR OBLIGATION TO THEIR EX-SERVICEMEN. The offer of land was made by John Clarkson, who had been hired by the Sierra Leone Company to supervise the process of transporting the Nova Scotians to Sierra Leone, and who later became the first substantive governor of the new colony. The transportation of the 1200 or so Nova Scotians was fully funded by the British government, and the fleet of vessels arrived in Sierra Leone in February/March 1792, after an arduous Atlantic crossing in which 67 fell ill and died. The Nova Scotians arrived to find the Sierra Leone Company already in control of the land. John Clarkson was trusted by the Settlers and is generally thought to have been a champion of their interests. However, by the end of that year, 1792, when he left Sierra Leone on leave to England, the Settlers still had not been allotted their 30 acres, although he promised them faithfully that he had made all necessary arrangements for this to be done before his return from leave. He never did return to Sierra Leone, though – he was dismissed from his position as governor by the Sierra Leone Company during his leave.


The Sierra Leone Company reneges on land promise, triumphs over the Settlers


With the dismissal of Clarkson and the eclipse of Granville Sharp within the Sierra Leone Company, the Settlers lost their two champions. The Sierra Leone Company, with a management structure that stretched from directors in London to a Governor and subordinates in Freetown, reneged on the promise to give the Settlers 30 acres of land, providing instead much smaller allotments. Land that had been intended for the benefit of freed slaves to build an independent, self-sustaining democratic community in West Africa became the property of a group of investors in Britain. This was the source of much grievance and bitterness among the Settlers for many years. These people had been plantation workers in the USA and they well knew the value of tracts of agricultural land put to productive use. They would have well understood that they could make a good living planting on 30 acres of land, but that working on just one or two acres would consign them to subsistence agriculture.


Ultimately, Granville Sharp’s dream of a productive, self-sustaining agricultural community was abandoned completely. Most of the new immigrants were allotted, and settled on, small town lots that form the basis of central Freetown today. The Settlers turned their attention to trading and building homes for rent. Freetown became more or less what it is today – a trading center dependent on customs tariffs on goods flowing to the hinterland. This dependence affected political decision making throughout the turmoil of colonization, the declaration of the Protectorate, and Independence. The shift, from production to trading, started more than two hundred years ago, continues in this trader-saturated city to haunt us till this day.