Why Freetown, why not Bonthe?




Paul Conton


The 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 da Cintra ‘discovered’ Serra Lyoa 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 ivory carving

The 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 Serra Lyoa, 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 America, 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 Bullom were a highly skilled, highly intelligent people.


Today 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 peninsula.


The 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 Sherbro Island 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.


So 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?).


Freetown Peninsula Mountains

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.”


Was 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.


Was 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?


Was 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?


Was it some combination of the above?


How was Freetown 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 and entourage

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 east?


Was 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.


Was 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 grew.


Was 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 neighbours stagnated.


Was 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?


Was it some combination of the above?


In 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.


The 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 (read Oakland 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 on.


For 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 the  Western 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.