Bullom have an interesting history. They could be regarded
as the lost tribe of Sierra
Leone. Historians agree that they were the
earliest recorded inhabitants of the area we now call Freetown. This, despite competing claims to
Freetown from the Temne
and Krio (read Who
owns Freetown, Temne or Krio).
When Pedro daCintra
in 1462 over three hundred years before the first Settlers arrived, it was Bullom that he found living here. This is all well
documented, not by us but by our European visitors – there is extensive
documentation detailing the Portuguese’ progressive exploration of the coast
of Africa as they competed with the Spanish to find a sea route to India.
Fyfe, the doyen of Sierra
Leone history, is conclusive that, “On and
round the peninsula, as far south as the Sherbro
estuary were Bullom” (p1, A History of Sierra Leone).
Fifteenth century Bullom
Bullom were apparently highly skilled craftsmen,
producing fine ivory carvings (according to Fyfe, Sherbro
island had an abundance of elephants). Their work was highly valued in Europe and they were commissioned by European traders
to produce ivory carvings to European specifications. Their work still exists
today, in Western art houses and museums; it is valued beyond the wildest
dreams of the original creators and displayed for the pleasure and
enlightenment of wealthy art lovers in Europe and America. (A fifteenth century Bullom ivory carving by a master carver known as the
Foliage Master is described with the accompanying quote from a traveler of
that time, "In SerraLyoa, the men are very skillful and very ingenious; they
make all the things we ask them to out of ivory and these objects are
marvelous to see--like spoons or saltcellars or the handles of daggers and other
subtleties; and [they] can carve any work one draws for them." Read
a fascinating description of this carving, held by a leading museum in
here – Bullom
Ivory Carving. Along with commissioned work purchased from the people of
those times, there is a collection of stone art and other artifacts from this
period recovered from archaeological investigations and held in Western
museums. As ever, our friends in the West know more about us than we know
about ourselves!) But I digress. Clearly, the fifteenth century Bullomwere a highly skilled,
highly intelligent people.
hardly any one in Sierra Leone
identifies himself or herself as Bullom, and the
name survives in Freetown
mainly as a reference to the Lunghi coastline.
Clarke, (A Geography of Sierra Leone)
lists Bullom as a language group but not as a tribe
of Sierra Leone.
The Bullom were overrun by invaders from the South
(the forerunner of the Mende) and intruders from
the North (the Temne). Their lands were occupied
and the tribe eventually lost its identity. The highly skilled ivory
craftsmen disappeared; delicate ivory carvings no longer came forth from this
area. A portion of the Bullom, allegedly under the
rule of an invader from the south called Serebola,
metamorphosed into the Sherbro (J.A.D Alie, p12, A New
History of Sierra Leone), concentrated well to the south of the Freetown
Sherbro continued to have extensive contacts with
Europeans in the 1600s and 1700s, long before the first Settlers arrived at Freetown. There was
extensive trade with visiting merchant ships, and European traders settled in
the area, under the protection of local chiefs. ‘Factories’ or trading
centers were established, on SherbroIsland
and on the Bonthe mainland. The history of the
Caulkers, Tuckers, Rogers and Clevelands, Sherbro families that arose out of intermarriage between
European traders and Sherbro women is well
documented (Imodale Caulker-Burnett, The Caulkers of Sierra Leone). Sherbro children, of these unions and also of local
chiefs, were sent to Europe to be educated.
these people had extensive contacts with Europeans for hundreds of years
before the first Settlers arrived in Freetown
in 1787. Today, Bonthe is a rural backwater, and Freetown is, with all its own problems, well, Freetown. Why is this
so? Little evidence of the hundreds of years of Bullom
and Sherbro civilization survives today in these
areas. How was it that Freetown,
just thirty or forty miles to the north rose to prominence whilst Bonthe was (and still is) unable to escape poverty? How was it that Freetown came
to dominate the Sierra
Leone coast, whilst Bonthe,
with all its natural assets slipped into obscurity? Why Freetown, why not Bonthe?
Why was Freetown
able to grow whilst all around it foundered (this article could just as
easily have been entitled WHY FREETOWN, WHY NOT PORT LOKO?).
Before 1787 it was Freetown (or the
area that subsequently became Freetown)
that was the backwater. Cut off by the high peninsula mountains, unlike Bonthe and Port Loko without riverine or easy land access to the interior, it was
sparsely populated and at the time of the Settler arrival ruled by a subchief, King Tom answerable to Naimbana,
King of Sierra Leone. Outside Freetown
there were slaves aplenty to trade, and flat land with timber, palm kernels,
ivory and gold. Trade caravans from the interior moved in and out of these
areas, but couldn’t easily reach Freetown
because of the high mountains. When Falconbridge and his wife, Anna, arrived
in 1791 to negotiate for the restoration of Freetown (the Province of
Freedom) they journeyed to a place called Robana,
nine miles from Bunce Island to negotiate with Naimbana and his council of chiefs (See Anna Maria Falconbridge, Two
Voyages to Sierra Leone) To the north of the peninsula, beyond Bunce Island, there was action aplenty. To the south the Bonthe area was the dominant area of trade. Freetown’s only
real attraction was the watering place, which provided fresh water for
passing ships and thus revenue for King Tom In an earlier time according to
Fyfe (p3), the watering place was under the control of “the King of Bureh, whose town Bagos was up
the river on the point between Rokel and Port Loko Creek”. Robana, Robaga, Bagos, York Island in
the Sherbro area, where the Royal African Company
had its headquarters for many years in the 1600s and 1700s, what happened to
all these places? Why does so little exist of them today?Why did they not achieve permanency? Why
were they unable to accumulate capital? As Fyfe puts it (p12), “…those who
prospered could not build up capital. Their riches, European manufactures,
were unproductive consumer goods, soon worn out, drunk, or given away to
their subjects, who looked to them for maintenance.”
the impermanence of these areas perhaps due to a lack of technology to
construct permanent structures, such as stone houses? But this technology
became available in Freetown
after 1787 and could easily have been copied.
it perhaps due to a lack of incoming funds? According to Fyfe, p12, “About
500,000 pounds of British manufactures were imported annually, chiefly for
slaves” This is quite a considerable sum, even at today’s prices. Where did
it all go?
it the socio economic environment, including the inability to unequivocally
own land and property and to pass this on unequivocally to the person or
persons of one’s choice?
it some combination of the above?
able to spring up so quickly, to become preeminent on the coast in just
twenty or thirty years, ahead of civilizations that had been in existence for
hundreds of years?
Mayor of Freetown
How was Freetown able to achieve
preeminence even along the entire coast of west Africa
despite the fact that the population centers in west Africa were much further
it the presence of the Sierra Leone Company in Freetown? But, as I have shown, this was by
no means the first European entity to do business along the coast. Europeans,
trading firms and individual traders had been operating there for centuries.
The Sierra Leone Company in Freetown was a
commercial entity, in business as much or more to take money out of Freetown as to put money
in (read How the British
cheated the Black Poor). The Settlers themselves did not feel they were
getting a good deal from the Company; they quarreled unceasingly with the
Company’s administrators, and eventually a rebellion had to be put down with
the help of British troops.
it the unique abilities of the Settlers, who, albeit poor, largely illiterate
ex-slaves, had brought with them skills, knowledge
and survival instincts from the New World?
Well, this certainly contributed at the start, but the Settlers were soon
dominated numerically by the /recaptives, who were
ordinary Africans. Still Freetown
it the active assistance of the British government? Was it that the British
government poured money into Freetown
to spur its growth? Certainly some money was spent for various reasons,
including the resettlement of the recaptives. But
the British treasury, notoriously parsimonious, also insisted on revenue
being raised in Freetown
to run the colonial government there. And after 1896 when the protectorate
was declared, the British government became responsible for all parts of the
country, and tended to favour the Protectorate in
many of the Krio/Provincial arguments. Still, Freetown grew whilst its
it the socio-economic environment, including the ability to unequivocally own
land and property and to pass this investment on unequivocally to the person
or persons of one’s choice?
it some combination of the above?
1961 Sierra Leone
became independent, with a government dominated by Southeasterners.
Succeeding governments since have drawn their core support from either the
North or the South/East. Still Freetown
has continued to grow relative to its neighbours.
pattern is unchanging over the centuries. A revelation to contemplate. DELCO
poured tens of millions of dollars into iron ore mining in the Lunsar area in its heyday. Yet Lunsar
became virtually a ghost town when DELCO left. SLST and DIMINCO invested tens
of millions of dollars in diamond mining in Kono,
yet Kono people complain today they have little to
show for it.Today, Addax Bioenergy is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in
Bombali and Tonkolili districts for sugarcane plantations and an ethanol
plant (See Addax investment
in Sierra Leone). Socfin, part of France’s Bollore group, is investing scores of millions of dollars
in oil palm production in the Pujehun district
Institute on Socfin in Sierra Leone and Socfin
responds to Oakland Institute criticism). Almost no one believes these
investments are going to lead to long-term prosperity for these areas or
indeed are even going to leave them ultimately better off than they were
prior to the investments. Already, loud protests have emanated from residents
of these areas (read 39 arrested in oil
palm land lease and Action Aid on Addax Bioenergy in Sierra Leone). The list could go on and
well over two hundred years through a variety of regimes, Freetown has grown relative to its neighbours to the north and the south and indeed relative
to the rest of the country. Today theWestern Area approaches thirty
percent of the national population. From something close to zero in 1787 and
five or six percent at Independence
in 1961. Something fundamental must be underlying this growth.