Freetown: The Story You Never Knew

On March 11, Sierra Leone marked the 225th anniversary of the nation's capital.  The city's birthday story as the Province of Freedom has been told over and over again. What's not as widely known is the city in local folklore. In this powerful counter narrative that was first published in 2011, Mohamed Gibril Sesay, author, sociologist, and politician, presents the story you never knew. 

Province of Freedom--The area was first settled in 1787 by 400 formerly enslaved blacks sent from London, England, under the auspices of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, an organization set up by Jonah Hanway and the British abolitionist, Granville Sharp. These blacks were African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Africans, Southeast Asians, and blacks born in Britain. They established the 'Province of Freedom' and the settlement of Granville Town on land purchased from local Koya Temne sub chief King Tom and regent Naimbana. The British understood the purchase was to mean that their new settlers had the land "for ever." Although the established arrangement between Europeans and the Koya Temne included provisions for permanent settlement, some historians question how well the Koya leaders understood the agreement, as they had a different conception of the uses of property. Disputes soon broke out. King Tom's successor, King Jimmy, burnt the settlement to the ground in 1789. Alexander Falconbridge was sent to Sierra Leone in 1791 to collect the remaining Black Poor settlers, and they re-established Granville Town around the area now known as Cline Town, Sierra Leone near Fourah Bay. These 1787 settlers did not formally establish Freetown, even though the bicentennial of Freetown was celebrated in 1987. But formally, Freetown was founded in 1792.

I don’t think there is one history of Freetown; rather what we have are histories. But there is this attempt to exclude all other histories from what is now the dominant, privileged, textbook history of Freetown.

The very name itself—Freetown—exemplifies this meta-narrative: the haven of former slaves.

Other trailers of this central narrative are that only these descendants of liberated Africans/recaptives could truly claim this place as home; that this is a city that has always privileged [Western] education and administration, a city dedicated to the advancement of Christianity, and a city that existed as a result of peaceful exchange between one Naimbana (and also a King Tom) and the Sierra Leone Company.

I ask, should a philosophy for Freetown be based upon a meta-philosophy that is hermeneutically dictatorial and exclusionary? Don’t we need philosophies true to the myriad histories of Freetown rather than the exalted one: Freetown, Education, Civilization, true home for bla bla bla?

Freetown has histories as a camp for the uprooted and displaced.

The Themneh word for Freetown is Kaimp, and its etymology suggests reference to the ‘camp’ built for the first returnees.

The Themneh have always held that recaptives were those running away from the trade wars of the nineteenth century hinterland, those escaping from punitive measures for perceived violations of customary laws.

Freetown has long been a center of trade. In fact, this became its lifeblood, part of the attempt to promote ‘legitimate commerce’ and the British interventions in the hinterland were mainly to open up these trade routes, to allow the traders to come to Freetown. In fact the hinterland of Sierra Leone was declared a protectorate to prevent the French from cutting off these ‘kola nut, plasas, and pepper and Bonga traders from Freetown.

I suspect Freetown somehow always had this disdain for its lifeblood, submerging its great contributions to commerce on the west coast of Africa and rather privileging a similitude to that ancient city of minority free men and majority slaves.

Athens of West Africa, wrongly labeled as citadel of democracy, prime example of the hallowed untruths of the West’s foundational genealogies.

Freetown has very violent histories of displacement of populations, spiritualties, and narratives.

How could a Koya Themne be ever called ‘King Jimmy, when Thenmes could not pronounce J? Who was King Tom? Are we talking here of a ‘Bai Tham’ and that renegade called Naimbana?

Popular oral histories have it that his name was Bana, but when asked for his name he said ‘name Bana’ and the [white) scribe wrote his name as ‘Naimbana.’ These are falsehoods in the foundational libraries of our town.

I heard Bana was refused burial at the Robaga burial sites of Koya chiefs for his handling of whatever happened at the Kiamp.

What happened to Pa Demba’s village, and the other villages where the Koya of Romeron were residing? What happened to the sacred groves, the gbanikas, and boromesarr so central to Themne spiritualities?

History tells us that the cotton tree was a shrine long before Freetown came into existence.

We know of Governor Clarkson’s prayer, and the curse placed in that homily against saboteurs of Freetown’s founding ideals. But do we know of the curse of the ass-head? That the Themne, after being uprooted by the British gathered together and in some fearsome ceremony buried an ass head and placed a curse on Freetown? That until justice is done, or the truth be revealed, the land would be an unsettling one?

Speaking about spiritualities, and the Freetown preferences, even when its gets African, Freetown prefers displays of spiritualities that are not from the hinterland of Sierra Leone. The preferred ones could come from Yoruba and Igboland. Those from the hinterland are hardly tolerated, and are easily dismissed.

I heard that at the funeral of Sir Milton Margai, reverends of ‘Governor Clarkson’s Prayer’ extraction, sneered at the Wonde fire dances for that greatest of Mende Chiefs, the very first Prime Minister of a nation whose independence Clarkson undermined in his time as Governor.

At the 2007 inauguration of the president, I saw emcees shouting at the Sokobanas not to march past the presidential pavilion, making sneering comments about them wanting to parade the devil at the august occasion.

I understand that ethnic identities usually emerge in contradistinction to others, especially those nearest to it. New ethnic formations tend to stress their difference from those nearest them.

Watch the African names of our Krio brethren: mainly from Nigeria and Ghana, not from the Sierra Leone hinterland; the same as their masked spirits. This is brilliant; else the more numerous Themne or Mende would have swallowed the emerging Krio identity. But drawn to the extremes, it leads to bigotry, to the type of behavior and discourses displayed in some of the engagements on issues as diverse as Bundo/Sande, and trading.

Another line of enquiry, who were the wives of many black poor, freed slaves, Nova Scotians, Maroons etc.?

We know through the texts that the black poor returned to Africa with white prostitutes.

I contest that categorization, for I suspect that it was used derogatorily to refer to white women who dared follow blacks to Conrad’s Africa. Well, mosquitoes wiped them away. So whom did the men have as wives? Was it the case that the settlers took as wives the women they met in the country? Could we hazard that is why there are these Themne words related to reproduction and upbringing in Krio: Bombo, Komra, bayo bayo.

Mendes were known in Freetown as Kossohs, and they have been here since its foundation in Kossoh Town etc.  How many of the Krios now are really descendants of former slaves or recaptives? How many are from the indigenous ethnic groups of the hinterland? Bring out the DNA tests and bring to an end the suppression of histories and biographies of Freetown. Bring it on and support deconstruction of the meta narrative: privileging of the otherness of Krio; the liberated African and Freed slaves origins being the badges of the aristos, and those with ‘aspirational identities.’

Freetown is changing beyond recognition.

One of the reasons why Freetown is changing is that its historic sites are being abandoned; its memorable spaces neglected. The great family mansions in the east, central and west of the original Freetown are being abandoned, gutted or sold out.   

Decades and even century old houses (the famous Freetown Bod ose and tone ose) left to rot almost everywhere you turn: from Up gun through Fourah Bay, Kossoh Town, Foulah Tong, Magazine Marbella, Bambara Tong, AkayMorri, Soja Ton, Maroon Town, Portuguese Tong, Congo Tong and other places in the city of communities.

Sure, there were structures that were gutted by fires, like for instance the Jones family home that Eldred Jones wrote about in his book, and many others gutted during the rebel war. Like at Fourah Bay, where fine houses of our childhood still painfully hang unto my eyes though the renegades gutted them in January 1999. But the fact of the matter is that Freetown is suffering from abandonment, many of the spaces of family memories sold out and converted to mighty shops or stores by the new owners.

But squeezing out of peoples from spaces etc. has been integral to the history of Sierra Leone.

Speakers of Mel languages once dominated the whole of the upper Guinea Coast, from Cape Mount to the Cassamance: Baga, Landuma, Shebro, Themne, and you may add Kissi, which is another Mel Language. Now all these languages and cultures, with the exception of Themne and Kissi, are facing extinction, pushed out by the Mande group of cultures and languages (Mandingo, Loko, Mende, Kono etc.).

Siege mentalities have emerged in many of the ethnic groups of Salone, leading to formation of conclaves and sometimes concocting behavior of other wise fine gentlemen and women.

I remember one episode, in one of the privileged parlors of the emerging political hegemony, a guy threw out a greeting in Themne, and I answered, in the rotten Themne of a Freetown brat.

A man sitting close to me was shocked, ‘what, you understand Themne?’

The man who had thrown out the greeting replied ‘Sure, he is a son of Sheikh Gibril Sesay.’

And this man sitting close to me started apologizing ‘Seeing you at state house I thought you were Krio and I had hated you because I though you were one those limiting our power, I never knew you were bla blab bla.’

This man has got a siege mentality of the rabid sort, and I see such behavior from across the political spectrum; entrepreneurs of ethnic supremacy and exclusion, and even as I speak such entrepreneurs of Themne, Mende, Limba, Kono, Krio extraction are forming conclaves and reinterpreting events to whip up support for their ethnic candidacy in the 2018 elections.

I still love this town, this Freetown, this Kiamp, this Salaw, this Romeron.

This Themne man with a Mande surname and many Krio habits, schooled and spoilt in Freetown; heir to the glory, the gore, the hypocrisy, and the anatomical and other imaginations of a city with hills that look like they are in rush to fall into the sea.


Naimbana's actual name is Gbanabom of Robaga and he was chief or king of Koya Kingdom, which was all Western Area up to the Rokel River in the north and up to Warima in the east. He gave some land minus Cline Town and the present Deep Water Quay.

This act made him fall out with his people and he was asked to ‘eat kola.’ He died a little later and was never buried. His corpse was put on a tree and vultures ate it.

Up to this day the chief of Koya receives annual payment for the use of the Deep Water Quay.

King Tom was Pa Tham and was Mandingo and a regent chief to the Koya king.

Ba Daimba was also a regent Mandingo chief. He is known as Padamba.

Pa Kaimp lived close to what is now government wharf and was the one with whom he and King Gbanabom signed the Treaty to give land from government wharf to Ekemorie to the British as protection from slave traders.

When the people of Koya realized they had been tricked by the British they waged war on the settlers, who had to run up hill to Regent and Gloucester, and they buried the head of an ass where State House now stands and which was Fort Thornton then.

Fort Thornton was the name given by Governor Clarkson when the first batch of Maroons landed at Government Wharf. They came up to where Cathedral Church now stands, which was a site of a cotton tree as big as the one now in the center, and, which was Rokiamp, given to them up to Ekemorie by Gbanabom (Naimbana).

This was the first Province of Freedom from which the name Freetown was later derived. The area runs from government wharf up Tower hill and all Ekemorie excluding Fullah tong and Mends street.

Later when they forcefully took other areas the Koya people came with a dead ass and buried it at Fort Thornton, which is now State House. Gbanabom died and he was never given the chieftain burial but left to the vultures to consume his body at Robaga on the Rokel River very close to Pepel.


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