‘Our Statue of Liberty is gone’: Why the fallen 400-yr-old cotton tree in Sierra Leone is a national treasure

Sierra Leone's cotton tree is believed to be 100 years old. Photo via YouTube/SN Radio

In Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, is a giant kapok tree residents call the “Cotton Tree”. Described as a symbol of freedom, the majestic tree sits where formerly enslaved men and women are said to have founded the city of Freetown.  

Legend says that enslaved men and women who won their freedom fighting on the British side of the American War of Independence offered prayers under the tree when they arrived in West Africa before going on to make Freetown their home. History shows that after the British surrendered to the American Patriots (members of the Thirteen Colonies who rejected British rule during the American War of Independence) at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, the British agreed to return property to the Americans, including slaves.

However, British General Sir Guy Carlton declared that all of the Blacks who had joined the British before 1782 would be freed. Thanks to this, thousands of Black Loyalists were evacuated and resettled in Nova Scotia (Canada), along with white Loyalists in 1783. The Black Loyalists were people of African descent who sided with the Loyalists during the American Revolutionary War or War of Independence. They were the largest group of people of African birth and of African descent to come to Nova Scotia at any one time. 

Later, the British offered the Black Loyalists an opportunity to have their own colony. Over a thousand Black and White passengers subsequently boarded a fleet of ships bound for Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leone Company was a British organization that managed the development of the new settlement. Some 4,000 ex-slaves were resettled in Sierra Leone by 1787. It is said that when the first boat arrived in the late 1700s, they organized a Thanksgiving service under the iconic cotton tree in Sierra Leone before moving into their new home.

The tree would appear on Sierra Leone’s banknotes and stamps and be mentioned in nursery rhymes as one of the country’s most important landmarks. Sadly, the tree, which has stood for centuries in the middle of a roundabout in central Freetown, was felled by a heavy storm Wednesday night. There were no injuries but some vehicles and buildings nearby were destroyed.

“All Sierra Leoneans will pause for thought at the loss of such a prestigious national symbol as Cotton Tree,” President Julius Maada Bio said of the tree believed to be 400 years old. “For centuries it has been a proud emblem of our nation, a symbol of a nation that has grown to provide shelter for many.”

Scores of residents gathered around the site of the tree on Thursday morning to mourn its loss. Currently, only part of the trunk of the 70m-high cotton tree is still standing and there are talks as to what to do next with it.

“We have to see what we are going to do to make sure that we keep the history of this tree here. I want to have a piece of this history wherever I find myself – at the state house, the museum, or city hall,” Bio told Reuters.

A poem by Sierra Leone poet Oumar Farouk Sesay cited by BBC describes the tree as the country’s Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and other huge landmarks.

The Cotton Tree is Gone

Our Eiffel Tower is gone

Our Statue of Liberty is gone

Our Big Ben tower is gone

Our Christ the Redeemer statue is gone

Our ancient coliseum is gone

Our Taj Mahal is gone

Our cotton tree is gone

A chunk of our heritage is gone

Our city is left in the nude.

Last Edited by:Editor Updated: June 11, 2023


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