Bunce Island in Sierra Leone, 20 miles up the Sierra Leone River, and a few miles north of the capital Freetown, was home to one of the most profitable slave trading operations in West Africa. Established in 1670 by English slave traders, it was the largest British slave castle on the Rice Coast where tens of thousands of African slaves were shipped to North America and the West Indies.
It was part of the over sixty slave-trading forts on the West African coast. The island was majorly operated by two companies one after the other — the Gambia Adventurers and the Royal African Company of England — from 1670 to 1728. It flourished during private management by a consortium of London firms from 1744 to 1807. Slave trading ceased on the island in 1808 after the slave trade was abolished but the trading fort was totally abandoned in 1840 and has been uninhabited since.
The selection of slaves from the Rice Coast, which stretches from Senegal right to Liberia through Bunce Island, was not random. In fact, Africans were particularly targeted on account of their skills – rice cultivation.
South Carolina, which became one of the wealthiest states in North America with an economy based on rice cultivation, benefited the most from these enslaved Africans from the Rice Coast. Nearby Georgia also insisted on using slaves from this region. At the time, during slave auctions in Charlestown (now Charleston), South Carolina, Savana and Georgia, slave selling advertisements specifically mentioned slaves from the Rice Coast or Bunce Island to assure buyers that they would get experienced hands. Buyers would then be willing to pay more for them.
Rice cultivation in America saw an uplift as more and more African captives were shipped from Bunce Island to work on rice farms.
Naturally, tracing descendants of enslaved Africans in the diaspora is quite cumbersome. However, slaves from Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island who are indigenes of the West African country can directly be traced to the Gullah people in the United States.
According to UNESCO, the Gullah community in South Carolina and Georgia still retain traditions in food, names and stories that draw heavily from their Sierra Leonean roots.
What makes the story of Bunce Island different from the likes of Goree Island in Senegal and The Elmina Castle in Ghana is that it became “the only instance where Africans were particularly targeted for buying and selling on account of their skills,” according to UNESCO.
Also, US Independence was negotiated, in part, between Bunce Island’s British owner, Richard Oswald and an affluent rice farmer and slave dealer in South Carolina called Henry Laurens.
Laurens served as the business agent for Bunce Island in Charlestown right before the American war of independence. When the war began, Laurens was made President of the Continental Congress. He was then captured by the British and bailed by his friend Oswald.
When the war ended, Laurens was one of the American Peace Commissioners who negotiated the United States’ independence under the Treaty of Paris. His British counterpart and friend Oswald headed the British negotiating team that led to the independence of the U.S.
Today, remains of the once very busy port that can be seen are the bastions, walls of the merchants’ quarters, the gunpowder magazine, and the gate to the slave house.
The remoteness of the island has helped in its preservation as there is no human interference. Nonetheless, a severe local climate has contributed to the degradation of the elements. Lastly, wild growth of vegetation in and around the ruins and coastal erosion are the biggest threats to the preservation of the site.