• Nicky, Digital Researcher, Africa Analyst

Sierra Leone (A brief history)

Updated: Jan 24, 2021



Sierra Leone, officially called the Republic of Sierra Leone and also informally referred to as Salono, is a country located on the Southwest Coast of West Africa. The country is bordered by Liberia to its southeast and Guinea to itst northeast. The largest city in Sierra Leone, Freetown, is equally the capital city of the country.


Ethnic groups


There are sixteen recognizable ethnic groups in Sierra Leone; each with its own unique language and customs. The largest groups include the Temne and the Mende.


Another prominent group in Sierra Leone is the Krio group These are descendants of freed African-Americans slaves and West Indians. Even though they form only about 2% of the Sierra Leone's population, their language, Krio, is the most widely spoken national language across the length and breadth of Sierra Leone. The official language of the country is English, and recognised national languages include Mende, Temne, Krio and Limba.


Early History


Archaeological findings suggest that the area presently known as Sierra Leone had always been inhabited since about 2500 years ago. The country is characterized by dense tropical rain forest, and this worked to isolate it from interactions with the outside world. The earliest migrants that entered the region of Sierra Leone were people escaping subjugation, violence and Jihad. Therefore, during the pre-colonial days the country was inhabited by several independent native groups speaking diverse dialects.


In the coastal rain forest belt dwell the Bulom-speakers, to the north of the Freetown estuaries are the Loko-speakers, the Temne-speakers at the mouth of the Scarcies River, and further up the Scarcies are the Limba-speakers. Towards the North of Sierra Leone are the Susu and Fula tribes dwelling in the Savannah. The coastal dwellers and those living at the Savannah traded salt, clothes, iron work and gold.


During the 17th century, Muslim Fula from Upper Niger and Senegal moved into the region of Fouta djalon, north of the present-day Sierra Leone. Around 1725 the group embarked on a war of domination and displaced some indigenous groups and non-muslims out of Fouta djalon.


Also, in the mid-16th century the Mani people, members of a Mande-speaking group invaded Sierra Leone. They subjugated nearly all the indigenous coastal peoples. The the Mani invasions militarized Sierra Leone and introduced conflict between the different kingdoms.


Arrival of Europeans


Sierra Leone is among the first African countries to establish contact with the Europeans. In 1462, a Portuguese explorer, Pedro de Sintra, mapped the territory of the Freetown harbor. He named it Serra da Leia, which means Lioness Mountain, because of the shape of the map that resembles a lion.


By 1495 the Portuguese traders had established a trading post on the Coast of Sierra Leone. Dutch and French merchants also used the coast as a trading point for slaves they purchased from the hinterlands of the West African Coast.


British Colonization


From the late 15th century to the middle of the 19th century, Transatlantic slave trade was a major business in Sierra Leone. By the 17 century Portuguese influence had waned in Sierra Leone and the British had come to become the most influential European group in the territory. The British merchants established trading posts in the country, and traded in slaves, Ivory and camwood.


The British bought land from a local chief, King Tom, and would later make it a settlement for freed African-Americans slaves. As at 1787, about 500 of these freed slaves entered and settled in the Province of Freedom, as the settlement was called. The group comprised mainly of blacks, few whites, and some West Indians of African descent. This first set of settlers faced hostility and resistance from the Temne people, and in 1789 King Jimmy (who succeeded King Tom) burnt the settlement to the ground.


With the help of the slave trade abolitionists and some London investors, Britain established the Sierra Leone Company which relocated another set of about 1,200 persons from Nova Scotia to settle in the colony of Sierra Leone. And so Freetown was re-built by the new settlers, and they formed a well-defined socio-political group.


The British investors, however, prevented the settlers from taking full control of Freetown and did everything to keep them subdued and under control. In 1799, when the settlers revolted against Britain, armed forces (Jamaican Maroons) were brought in from the British Colony of Jamaica to stop the revolt. The Jamaican Maroons used this opportunity to secure farms and nice houses for themselves in Sierra Leone.


The Sierra Leone Company would stop administering the colony in 1808, and the Britain established the African Institution to continue where the Sierra Leone Company stopped.


With the final abolition of the slave trade in 1807, thousands of liberated slaves were further moved to Freetown. Some of them ended as apprentices to the whites and the Jamaican Maroons, while some were enlisted into the Navy. The settlers, although from different regions of West Africa, formed a greatly diversified group known as the Krio (formerly called Creole) and spoke one language. By the early 19th century, the population of Sierra Leone was composed of the original indigenous groups and the Krio group that came into the colony and became significantly numerous after the abolition of slave trade.


Freetown was also home to the British administrators, and from there the colonial governor administered the Gold Coast (Ghana) and the Gambian colonies. The British developed Sierra Leone as the Educational Eentre of British West Africa, and in 1827 established the Fourah Bay College which stood alone for close to a hundred years as the only European-style university in Western Africa.


As expected, the British related more with the Krios in Freetown, using them as go-between in their interactions with the indigenous people. The educated among the Krios were given a better social standing and were appointed to numerous positions of leadership in the colonial government.


In 1896, the United Kingdom in order to consolidate their effective occupation of the colony, as prescribed by the Berlin Conference, annexed Sierra Leone and declared it the Sierra Leone Protectorate. Consequently, Britain displaced the Krios from desirable residential areas in Freetown and stopped them from holding positions in government and recruited British citizens to fill up their offices.


Britain established a new tax policy in 1898 on dwellings and required the local chiefs to use the natives to maintain roads. The indigenous chiefs kicked against the exorbitant taxation, and resisted payment of taxes. These tensions between the British administrators and the indigenous chiefs eventually led to the Hut Tax war of 1898 ( also called the Temne-Mende War) to which hundreds of lives were lost. With the defeat of the indigenes and unjust hanging of 96 local chiefs, the Hut Tax war came to an end.


In 1924, Sierra Leone was divided into a Colony and a Protectorate, with each running a different constitution and political system. Freetown and its coastal area constituted the colony while the hinterlands ruled by the local chiefs were established as the Protectorate. Relationship between the protectorate and the colony was cold and quite thin.


In 1951, prominent local chiefs joined league with some educated leaders from within the protectorate to form the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP). The nationalists, under the leadership of Sir Milton Margai, began to negotiate with the colony to drive the independence of Sierra Leone.


In 1951, a new constitution unifying the Colonial and Protectorate legislatures was drafted. Subsequently, Britain granted Sierra Leone local ministerial powers in 1953, with Sir Margai elected as the Chief Minister of Sierra Leone. Following several negotiations with Britain, Sierra Leone finally achieved independence on 27 April 1961. Sir Milton Margai became the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Sierra Leone.

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