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Freetown remembers

A large group of young schoolchildren faces the camera. They are wearing in blue and white checked uniform shirts and dresses.
The history of Sierra Leone's role during the slave trade and post-abolition is remembered in the nation's schools

Freetown remembers


"Slavery lasted for years", it was written on the cover of exercise books for primary school children in Sierra Leone, "but freedom lasts forever."

In the 1550s, a plantation was opened in the Americas. Its owners needed people to work on it, hence the start of the transatlantic slave trade. In 1562, an English slaver, John Hawkins, came to Sierra Leone and captured some 300 slaves. His second trip was repelled by locals. But that did not end the quest for Sierra Leonean slaves, and the country provided thousands.

Bicentenary celebrations

As part of its celebrations of the bicentenary of abolition of the trade, the Freetown municipality plans to rename some streets in the town. Already there is Wilberforce Street - named after one of Britain's foremost abolitionists. The country's capital, Freetown, is so named because it was a 'Mecca' for freed British slaves. Bathurst Street is to become Adjai Crowther Street after a Nigerian Recaptive (slaves who regained their freedom and were brought to Freetown) and Charlotte Street becomes Sengbeh Pieh Street after a Sierra Leonean slave who rebelled, as depicted in the movie Amistad.

Freetown retains many vestiges of its slave trade history: the largest government hospital is housed in what used to be the registration centre for Recaptives, and the headquarters of the postal services were once the court where British slave traders were tried after abolition. But few Sierra Leoneans know much about these buildings' history.

The country was popular among slave traders because of its fine natural harbour, and Sierra Leoneans were highly skilled in rice cultivation
Sierra Leone was at the forefront of the transatlantic slave trade. According to Dr Joe Allie, head of the History and African Studies departments at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, the country was popular among slave traders because of its fine natural harbour. Also, Sierra Leoneans were highly skilled in rice cultivation, so plantation owners would pay higher prices for them.

Dr Allie says he still feels bitter today but adds: "We must forge ahead and stop blaming the slave trade for everything." He shrugs off British Premier Tony Blair's recent refusal to apologise for the slave trade, and expresses disgust at the idea of paying reparation to Africa, believing it would be impossible to determine who gets what and why. He'd prefer the focus to be on the "modern-day slave trade and the bad governance in Africa that has led to the youth streaming out of the continent for greener pastures in Europe".

Umaru Fofana
Umaru Fofana has reported for various radio stations and edited newspapers in his country, Sierra Leone, and abroad. He currently reports for BBC World Service.

A major documentary series Free At Last - The Beginning of the End of Slavery will be broadcast in March

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