Sierra Leone | An American in Freetown: Remaking a Sierra Leonean Icon

More than 50 years after American Gary Schulze first arrived in Sierra Leone for Peace Corps service, he was installed as an honorary paramount chief at an impressive ceremony in Shenge, Kagboro Chiefdom, Moyamba District, on May 4, 2013. His official title is Paramount Chief Pieh Gbabior Caulker Schulze. "Gary has maintained a 52-year relationship with his Peace Corps country of service," writes Erica Burman, director of communications for the National Peace Corps Association.

A member of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers in Sierra Leone, Schulze taught history at the Albert Academy high school and then served as acting curator in the Sierra Leone Museum.  His stint at the small fledgling museum marked the beginning of an incredible journey remaking a Sierra Leonean icon, the mighty Bai Bureh.

Sewa News: Growing up in Freetown, I remember seeing what I now know is the J.D. Marsh sculpture of Bai Bureh at the Sierra Leone Museum at the Cotton Tree. At home, we had a life-size wooden bust of Bai Bureh. When it got lost during a move, I remember the fun we had choosing another statue at a curio shop. Bai Bureh's a national icon. What does it feel like discovering probably the only existing photo of one of Sierra Leone's most famous warriors?

Gary Schulze: It's a great honor to be able to correct the image Sierra Leoneans have had of Bai Bureh. The British wanted everyone to think Bai Bureh was the depressed-looking old man in the water-color drawing made by a British soldier while the warrior was under house arrest in Freetown. The picture was first published in the London Gazette in 1898 along with a story saying Bai Bureh had been roundly defeated in the so-called "Hut Tax War." The war was about a lot more than house taxes―the British tried to destroy the institution of the Chieftaincy. For over a hundred years that picture was the only one known to exist.

In 1963 I commissioned Mr. Marsh to make the statue of Bai Bureh for the Sierra Leone Museum while I was a Peace Corps volunteer. Marsh only had the old pencil drawing to work with so he had to use his imagination when it came to creating the face of the statue. Then, in 1995 the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC)  put the face of the statue on the Le 1,000 banknote.

Sewa News: What were your thoughts when you first came across the photo on eBay?

Gray Schulze: When Bai Bureh was arrested in 1898 the British forbid anyone, including English soldiers, from photographing him. They didn't want him to become a symbol for anti-British sentiments. Therefore I was shocked to see a photograph of Bai Bureh for sale on eBay several months ago. My first reaction was that it had to be a fake. But it wasn't. It seems that a Lt. Arthur Greer from the West Indian Regiment photographed Bai Bureh while in captivity at Ascension Town [a suburb of Freetown] in 1898 and the picture appeared in a scrapbook maintained by another officer.

Since it was taken without permission, Greer could only give a few copies to friends at the risk of court martial. I bid on it, lost it at the last minute, and then had to pay the buyer an exaggerated amount to get it. I had a friend, Bill Hart, track down the Greer family in the U.K. And he found a letter the lieutenant sent to his family in 1898 describing how he took the picture.

Sewa News: At the presentation of the photograph to President Koroma, he noted that the discovery of the portrait will help to re-create the image of Bai Bureh and also help to shed some light on some of his activities that are missing in our history books. Do you think the drawing of Bai Bureh in captivity that many of us grew up with in history books will disappear?

Gary Schuzle: Will the new photograph replace the old propaganda version? I don’t know. Only time will tell. If you type "Bai Bureh" on Google under "Images" lots of versions of the old picture are still there and only a couple of the new one show up. The Chairman of the Bank of Sierra Leone has already announced that the new photograph will appear on the next issue of currency.

Sewa News: How about the J.D. Marsh statue?

Garry Schulze: As for the Marsh statue, it's ironic how closely the face resembles that of the real Bai Bureh, almost as if the artist had a divine premonition when he made it. The statue is pretty beat up now and one of the hands was broken off recently when it was carried out of the museum for a ceremony.

Sewa News:  Since 1962, you've played a big role in the image making of Bai Bureh, one of Sierra Leone's greatest warriors. You helped put a face on one of the nation's most famous heroes. Did you ever think you would change the face of Sierra Leonean history?

Gary Schuzle: I never thought I would have an opportunity to contribute to help change the face of Sierra Leone history. It's a very humbling experience and one I'm deeply grateful for.

Gary Schulze is the co-discoverer of a remarkable historical find. At the top, the clear and face-on black and white photograph shows Bai Bureh sitting in a relaxed manner with his hands folded on the lap, looking slightly away from the camera. He is wearing his trademark “ronko” (or war shirt) and a small embroidered Muslim hat. A policeman stands next to Bai Bureh keeping a watchful eye on his captive, and holding a large rifle with bayonet.


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