Tracing the Trade in Enslaved Africans back to Bunce Island, Sierra Leone

The story of what some have called "the most important historic site in Africa for the United States”

Satellite imagery of the Sierra Leone River estuary (2016) by European Space AgencyWorld Monuments Fund

“Bance Island,” wrote Joseph Corry in his 1807 travelog Observations Upon the Windward Coast of Africa, “is little more than a barren rock, of about three-quarters of a mile in extent.”

Contemporary readers might have recognized the outcropping in the estuary of the Sierra Leone River by a different name: George Island, Bense Island, and a slew of spellings besides.

View of Bunce Island and Fortress (1747-50)World Monuments Fund

Not until after the British outlawed the trade in enslaved people did the island receive the moniker by which it is known today: Bunce. Whatever the name, the island had long since earned for itself a degree of international infamy belied by Corry’s unassuming description.

View of Bunce Island and Fortress (1747-50)World Monuments Fund

Dominating one side of the island was a slave fort through whose walls thousands of Africans would be forced to pass before enduring the Middle Passage. As such, the site is of immense historical importance for communities on both sides of the Atlantic.

World Monuments Fund (WMF) has worked to preserve the fort and tell its story to people around the globe.

Prospect of Bense Island and Fort (1745-7)World Monuments Fund

Origins of the Slave Fort

Bunce’s connection to slavery began in 1670, when its fort was operated by crown-chartered firms with unfettered control of the trade in enslaved people along certain parts of the coast.

Diagram of the ship the Marie Seraphique (1770) by René LhermitteWorld Monuments Fund

Trade at the fort ratcheted up greatly in the hands of private owners (first Grant, Oswald & Company and then by the Company of John & Alexander Anderson). Corry calculated that some 3,200 Africans were sold into slavery every year from the Sierra Leone River area alone.

Watercolor painting of Bunce Island from Observations upon the Windward Coast of Africa (circa 1805) by Joseph CorryWorld Monuments Fund

Once at the fort, kidnapped Africans were tightly controlled and surveilled. Men were confined to an open-air prison yard that offered no shelter; the small area for women and children had a couple rooms to give a bare minimum of privacy.

A Plan of the Fort and Factory on George Island in the River Sierraleon or Sierra Leona (1748) by Joseph WadeWorld Monuments Fund

The yards were likely ringed by a raised walkway from which guards could look in. Likewise, it is believed that certain openings in the wall of the men’s yard were intended to accommodate firearms so that the guards could quash dissent with violence.

“The entrance into the fort is through a folding door or gate, over which, through the night, a watch is constantly placed.”

Joseph Corry
Observations Upon the Windward Coast of Africa, 1807

Remains of a wall on Bunce Island (2015) by Pierre ChrzanowskiWorld Monuments Fund

Immediately adjoining the yards was a manor sometimes called the “factory house” that served as the residence of the fort’s commander and senior officers.

Visitors were entertained there, and from the upper story traders could peer into the yards and observe their prisoners.

Ruined interior walls of the main house on Bunce Island (2015)World Monuments Fund

The existence of a stately home cheek-by-jowl with a place of profound human suffering, writes historian Joseph Opala, is what creates the site’s “strange and unsettling character—it was a combination fortress, trading post, prison, and rich man’s estate.”

Danish, Dutch, and English slave forts along the coast of Africa (1732) by Jan KipWorld Monuments Fund

Bunce is one of 40 or so slave forts along the west coast of Africa. The fort’s connections with slavery in the American colonies would have profound effects for the development of the American South and its Black communities.

Carte particulière de la Caroline (1690) by Nicolas SansonWorld Monuments Fund

From Sierra Leone to the Lowcountry

The first known instance of rice cultivation by white settlers in South Carolina took place before 1690 near what is now Charleston.

In time, rice would become one of the region’s most economically important products.

Stereoscopic image of a rice field in the South (date unknown)World Monuments Fund

But cultivating rice required both manual labor and technical know-how. Meanwhile, the mosquitoes that bred in the standing water of the fields exposed European settlers to diseases against which they had neither resistance nor particularly effective treatment.

Black farm workers aboard a rice craft in South Carolina (1895) by Strohmeyer & WymanWorld Monuments Fund

Southern rice farmers were therefore in search of a way to maximize their profits while keeping themselves out of harm’s way. For these white planters, the answer was the enslavement of Africans with the skills needed to work the fields for them.

Workers threshing rice in Sierra Leone (1915) by Kenneth James BeattyWorld Monuments Fund

To cater to the demand of white planters, enslavers turned to a particular stretch of West Africa from Senegal to Liberia whose inhabitants’ mastery of rice cultivation was so famed that it had earned the nickname “the Rice Coast.”

Harvesting rice in Panguma, Sjoerd Hofstra, circa 1934, From the collection of: World Monuments Fund
Harvesting rice in Panguma, Sjoerd Hofstra, circa 1934, From the collection of: World Monuments Fund
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“The rice-fields or lugars are prepared during the dry season, and the seed is sown in the tornado season, requiring about four or five months growth to bring it to perfection”

Joseph Corry
Observations Upon the Windward Coast of Africa, 1807

Barracoon in Sierra Leone (1849) by Illustrated London NewsWorld Monuments Fund

Knowing planters were willing to pay a premium for Africans with this knowledge, the British merchants who ran Bunce ramped up trade to meet this rising demand.

Workers reaping rice in Sierra Leone (1910s) by Alphonso and Arthur Lisk-CarewWorld Monuments Fund

As UNESCO puts it, Bunce Island is a unique example of a slave fort in which the Africans who were confined there “were particularly targeted for buying and selling on account of their skills.”

Black workers plowing rice in Georgia (date unknown) by O. Pierre HavensWorld Monuments Fund

By the beginning of the 18th century, South Carolina rice farmers had brought so many enslaved people from Africa that the Black population constituted a majority in the colony.

Black workers hoeing rice in Georgia (date unknown) by O. Pierre HavensWorld Monuments Fund

Over 40% of enslaved people in colonial South Carolina traced their roots back to the main areas of rice cultivation in West Africa.

Black workers on rice plantation in Cape Fear (1866) by Frank Leslie's Illustrated NewspaperWorld Monuments Fund

In time, the Lowcountry would become known by the same nickname as the area whose enslaved natives drove its economic growth: the Rice Coast.

Buzzards by Charleston's old Central Market, where enslaved people were once sold (1900s) by UnknownWorld Monuments Fund

A particularly clear example of the entanglement between Bunce and the white rice farmers of the American South can be seen in the relationship between Henry Laurens, a wealthy South Carolinian rice planter and slave trader, and Richard Oswald, Bunce’s proprietor.

Advertisement for sale of enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina (1833) by UnknownWorld Monuments Fund

Laurens dealt with Oswald directly, purchasing enslaved Africans without the need of a middleman; in turn, he supplied Bunce with goods from South Carolina, advertised on Oswald’s behalf, and organized sales of enslaved Africans to rice planters.

“…Very likely healthy People, Two thirds at least Men from 18-25 Years old, the other young Women from 14-18 the cost not to exceed Twenty five Pounds Sterling per head... There must not be a Callabar [sic] amongst them. Gold Coast and Gambias are best, next to them the Windward Coast are prefer'd to Angolas.”

Henry Laurens
Letter to Smith & Clifton detailing demand for enslaved Africans in South Carolina, 1755

Advertisement for enslaved Africans taken from "the Windward and Rice Coast", Unknown, 1760, From the collection of: World Monuments Fund
Advertisement for a sale of enslaved Africans in Charleston, South Carolina, Unknown, 1769, From the collection of: World Monuments Fund
Advertisement in a South Carolina newspaper for an auction of enslaved people by the company Austin & Laurens, Unknown, 1857, From the collection of: World Monuments Fund
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Portrait of Henry Laurens (1781 or 1784) by Lemuel Francis AbbottWorld Monuments Fund

The connection between Oswald and Laurens forged by their trade at Bunce endured even the Revolutionary War. In 1777, Laurens was elected President of the Continental Congress; when he was later captured by the British, Oswald interceded to have him freed.

American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement with Great Britain (unfinished oil sketch) (1783-4) by Benjamin WestWorld Monuments Fund

After the war, the two found themselves on opposite sides of the negotiating table at the Treaty of Paris, where Laurens successfully convinced Oswald that the British should return enslaved people who had fought against the rebels to their former enslavers.

View of a doorway on Bunce Island (2019)World Monuments Fund

With Britain’s abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807, operations at Bunce would be shut down and its fortress largely forgotten. It was not until 140 years later that a new chapter in its existence began.

View of Bunce Island from the Sierra Leone River (2019)World Monuments Fund

Rediscovering Bunce

In 1947, Macormack Charles Farrell Easmon sailed across the waters of the Sierra Leone River out to an island some distance from the shoreline. Greeting him on the promontory was a dramatic sight: stone ruins buried beneath a nearly impenetrable thicket of roots and vines.

Beach at Bunce Island (2015) by Pierre ChrzanowskiWorld Monuments Fund

The long-abandoned Bunce Island had become, as Easmon would later call it, “the place where history sleeps.”

“When the Commission took over in 1947 nothing of the ruins could be seen from the river and a way had to be hacked through to them. The general clearing of the undergrowth took place leaving numerous large trees in front of around and growing on the numerous walls. The help of the Forestry [Department] was enlisted to fell the trees so that the remaining walls were not damaged leaving alone those growing on the walls.”

MCF Easmon
Notes on Bunce Island

Photo of clay pots taken behind the Sierra Leone Museum (1968) by John AthertonWorld Monuments Fund

A doctor by training, Easmon was descended from a prominent Creole family in Sierra Leone and had developed a passion for history in his spare time. He played a key role in the founding of both the National Museum in Freetown and the government’s Monuments and Relics Commission.

Information panel at Bunce Island (2015) by Pierre ChrzanowskiWorld Monuments Fund

The inaugural site included in the Commission’s list of Sierra Leonean historic places was Bunce Island. With his visit to the ruined fort, Easmon set the stage for a new awareness of Bunce’s history.

Many other prominent slave forts, such as Osu Castle in Ghana's capital of Accra, are located within continually inhabited settlements and have been put to a variety of uses in the years since the abolition of the slave trade.

View of the southern enclosure wall on Bunce Island (2015)World Monuments Fund

By contrast, Bunce’s position of relative remove meant that it preserves intact evidence and artifacts that may have been lost elsewhere. Furthermore, Bunce Island has not undergone the significant reconstruction that has occurred at a number of similar sites.

Gravestone on Bunce Island, Pierre Chrzanowski, 2015, From the collection of: World Monuments Fund
Gravestone on Bunce Island, Pierre Chrzanowski, 2015, From the collection of: World Monuments Fund
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This reconstruction work has sometimes been a source of criticism from Black Americans who feel cut out from conversations regarding the fate of these sites and wary of the danger of “Disneyfying” the places of their ancestors’ trauma.

Sign at Bunce IslandWorld Monuments Fund

Today, Bunce Island is Sierra Leone’s most-studied archeological site, and in 2012 it was listed as a tentative nominee for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Preserving the fort is key to bearing witness to the horrors of slavery and honoring its victims and their descendants.

Tree growing over a wall on Bunce Island (2015) by Pierre ChrzanowskiWorld Monuments Fund

However, a number of buildings on the island itself are in an endangered state. By the time Bunce Island was included on World Monuments Fund’s 2016 Watch, several of the structures captured in Easmon’s original survey had degraded significantly.

Conservation work at Bunce Island (2020)World Monuments Fund

WMF's work documenting and stabilizing Bunce’s surviving structures alongside the Monuments and Relics Commission has been supported by the International National Trust Organization and the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.

Isatu Smith

Bunce Island Project Manager

Tree on Bunce Island (2015) by Pierre ChrzanowskiWorld Monuments Fund

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