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Fri, 11.14.1670

Bunce Island, Slave Trade Facility Opens

*Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, from 1670, is affirmed on this date. This was a major launching point of the Middle Passage to America, first settled by English slave traders in about 1670.

During its early history, the castle was operated by two London-based firms, the Gambia Adventurers and the Royal African Company of England, a "Crown-chartered company" subsidized by the British government. The castle was not commercially successful then, but it symbolized British influence in the region. This early phase of the castle's history ended in 1728 when José Lopez da Moura, an Afro-Portuguese competitor in the slave trade, raided Bunce Island.

It was abandoned until the mid-1740s. Bunce Island was later operated by two London-based companies: Grant, Oswald & Company, and John & Alexander Anderson, and at that period, it was a highly profitable enterprise. During the second half of the 18th century, the companies sent thousands of African captives from Bunce Island to British- and French-controlled islands in the West Indies and to Britain's North American colonies. The London-based owners grew wealthy from the castle's operations.

Afro-Portuguese sold slaves and local products there. During its late history, Afro-English families, such as the Caulkers, Tuckers, and Cleveland’s, sold slaves at Bunce Island. The slave ships came from the British ports of London, Liverpool, Bristol, Newport, Rhode Island, in the North American colonies, and France and Denmark. They transported slaves mostly to the Caribbean and the American South. French naval forces attacked Bunce Island four times (1695, 1704, 1779, and 1794), damaging or destroying it each time. The attack of 1779 took place during the American Revolutionary War when America's French allies took advantage of the conflict to attack British assets outside North America. Pirates also attacked the castle twice (1719 and 1720), including Bartholomew Roberts, or "Black Bart," the most notorious pirate of the 18th century.

The British traders rebuilt the castle after each attack, gradually altering its architecture during the roughly 140 years it was used as a slave trade entrepôt. In the name of the product produced, Bunce Island is best known as one of the chief suppliers of slaves to planters for the rice industry in the British colonies of Charleston (South Carolina) and Savannah (Georgia) during the second half of the 18th century. British philanthropists involved with the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor established Freetown in 1787, a settlement for freed slaves on the Sierra Leone Peninsula, just 20 miles downriver from Bunce Island.

For the next two decades, Bunce Island slave traders harassed the fledgling colony by inciting local African chiefs against it, organizing trade boycotts to isolate it, and at one point kidnapping and selling as slaves some Freetown colonists whom they accused of stealing goods at the castle. Before the end of the century, Britain also relocated several hundred Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia, who chose to try conditions in the African colony.  In 1807, the British Parliament outlawed the Atlantic slave trade. The following year, Freetown became a Crown Colony, and the British Navy based its Africa Squadron there. They sent out regular patrols to search for slave vessels, violating the ban. Bunce Island shut down for slave trading, and the island was abandoned around 1840. The buildings and stonewalls deteriorated.

Today, substantial ruins stand on the north end of the island.  Bunce Island House, the headquarters building where the Chief Agent lived with his senior officers, is at the castle's center. Parts of the building still rise to a second-story level. Immediately behind it is the open-air slave yard, divided between a large area for men and a smaller one for women and children. Remnants stand of two watchtowers, a fortification with places for eight cannons, and a gunpowder magazine. Some of the cannons bear the royal cipher of King George III). At the island's south end, several inscribed tombstones mark the graves of slave traders, slave ship captains, and the foremen of African workers.

American scholars have done extensive research on Bunce Island. Anthropologist Joseph Opala did the research that linked Bance Island to the Gullah people of the United States East Coast Low Country. Archaeologist Christopher DeCorse and his team thoroughly surveyed Bunce Island’s ruins for a report submitted to the Sierra Leone Government (2006).  Also in 2006, Black TV actor Isaiah Washington visited Bunce Island after learning through a DNA test that some of his ancestors came from Sierra Leone.

Washington later donated $25,000 to a project to create a computer reconstruction of Bunce Island as it appeared in the year 1805. Project directors Joseph Opala and Gary Chatelain at James Madison University produced a 3-D image of the castle using computer-aided design, which allows the viewer to "enter" all the structures and "see" them as they appeared 200 years ago.  A traveling exhibit on the history of Bunce Island, which contains some of these computer-generated images, is available in the U.S. and U.K. The full exhibit is permanently displayed at the Sierra Leone National Museum in Freetown.

Scholars have found evidence of numerous historical and genealogical links between the people of Bunce Island and the United States.  For example, historians have recently discovered that two U.S. presidents (George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush) are descended directly from a slave ship captain who operated out of Bunce Island and other slave trade bases in the Sierra Leone region in the late 1700s. Thomas Walker (AKA "Beau Walker") came from Bristol, one of Britain's principal slaving ports. After making his fortune in the slave trade, he immigrated to the U.S. through New York in 1792.

Walker made sizable investments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but his crew killed him in 1797 when they could no longer bear the brutality he inflicted on them. He had several children in the U.S., including a son named "George Walker." The Walker and Bush clans connected when Prescott Bush (later a U.S. Senator) married Dorothy Walker in 1921. Dorothy Walker Bush was the mother of President George Herbert Walker Bush and the grandmother of President George Walker Bush.

Bunce Island became Sierra Leone's first officially protected historic site in 1948.  In 1989 a group of Gullahs (members of a Black community in coastal South Carolina and Georgia) made a historic homecoming visit to Sierra Leone and toured the ruins of Bunce Island. Shortly after that, the U.S. National Park Service announced a preservation program for the castle. Bunce Island is protected by Sierra Leone's Monuments and Relics Commission, a country's Ministry of Tourism and Culture branch. The government is working to preserve the castle as a reminder of the past and to attract tourists, especially Blacks.

Although other slave castles, especially Gorée in Senegal and Elmina in Ghana, are more popular attractions for Blacks, those castles are historically connected more to slave descendants of the West Indies than North America. Bunce Island has been called "the most important historic site in Africa for the United States." Colin Powell, then Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Bunce Island in 1992 on an official visit to Sierra Leone. Deeply moved by the experience, Powell spoke of his reaction to the slave castle in a farewell speech before leaving the country. "I am an American…But today, I am something more...I am an African, too...I feel my roots here in this continent."

The U.S. National Park Service team surveyed the castle in 1989 and suggested stabilizing the ruins. In addition, they recommended the installation of all-weather displays showing what the buildings looked like and their activities. No historic preservation work has been done. The castle’s ruins are deteriorating rapidly in Sierra Leone’s tropical climate. The World Monuments Fund recently placed Bunce Island (and other historic sites in Sierra Leone) on its 2008 watch list of the world’s “100 Most Endangered Sites.” Several organizations in Sierra Leone, the United States, and Great Britain are now promoting popular awareness of Bunce Island and its history and working toward preserving the castle. In 2010, the Bunce Island Coalition (US) and its partner organization, the Bunce Island Coalition (SL), announced the start of the Bunce Island preservation project, a five-year, $5 million effort to preserve the ruins of the castle and to build a museum in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital city, devoted to the history of Bunce Island and the impact of the Atlantic slave trade in Sierra Leone.


Bunce Island

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