Freetown loses its iconic landmark during heavy rainfall
The Cotton Tree is a well-known landmark in Sierra Leone that has been around for centuries, with some estimating its age to be anywhere from 200 to 500 years old. Three years ago, the world watched in horror as witnesses captured footage of the tree burning, with flames shooting from its trunk.
When Sierra Leone celebrated the 225th anniversary of its capital city, which was founded in 1792, the city's birth story as the "Province of Freedom" had been told many times, but there are lesser-known stories in local folklore.
In a powerful counter-narrative first published in 2011, Mohamed Gibril Sesay, an author, sociologist, and politician, shared a story that sheds light on a different side of the city's history. Here's an annotated version:
The "Province of Freedom" was established in 1787 by 400 formerly enslaved black individuals sent from London, England, under the auspices of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor. They settled in Granville Town, which they established on land purchased from local Koya Temne sub-chief King Tom and regent Naimbana. The British believed that the purchase meant that the settlers had the land "forever," but there were disputes over the property, and King Jimmy burned the settlement to the ground in 1789.
Alexander Falconbridge arrived in Sierra Leone in 1791 to collect the remaining Black Poor settlers, who re-established Granville Town around the area now known as Cline Town, Sierra Leone, near Fourah Bay. These settlers still needed to formally establish Freetown, which was celebrated as the bicentennial in 1987. Freetown was officially founded in 1792.
There are many histories of Freetown, and it's important to acknowledge and learn from all of them. Unfortunately, Freetown's dominant, privileged textbook history excludes other accounts, and it's important to question this meta-narrative. The name "Freetown" exemplifies this narrative, which centers around being a haven for former slaves. However, it's essential to recognize that Freetown has a violent history of displacement of populations, spiritualties, and narratives.
Have you ever wondered what happened to the villages where the Koya of Romeron resided, such as Pa Demba's? What became of the sacred groves, gbanikas, and boromesarr significant to Themne spiritualities?
It is known that the cotton tree was a shrine long before the establishment of Freetown, as history tells us. Governor Clarkson's prayer and the curse placed in that homily against saboteurs of Freetown's founding ideals are well-known. However, have you ever heard of the curse of the ass-head? After being uprooted by the British, the Themne gathered together and, in a fearsome ceremony, buried an ass head and placed a curse on Freetown. The land will remain unsettled until justice or truth is revealed.
Regarding spiritualities, Freetown tends to prefer displays that are not from the hinterland of Sierra Leone. Instead, they often favor those from Yoruba and Igboland. Spiritualities from the hinterland are hardly tolerated and are easily dismissed. For instance, at the funeral of Sir Milton Margai, reverends of "Governor Clarkson's Prayer" extraction sneered at the Wonde fire dances for the greatest of Mende Chiefs, the very first Prime Minister of a nation whose independence Clarkson undermined during his time as Governor.
It is interesting to note the African names of our Krio brethren, mainly from Nigeria and Ghana, not from the Sierra Leone hinterland, like their masked spirits. This is brilliant because the more numerous Themne or Mende could have swallowed the emerging Krio identity. But instead, it has led to bigotry and the behavior and discourses displayed in some engagements on issues as diverse as Bundo/Sande and trading.
Another line of inquiry is who were the wives of many black poor, freed slaves, Nova Scotians, Maroons, etc.? The texts show that the black poor returned to Africa with white prostitutes, which I contest as derogatory. I suspect it was used 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 the women they met in the country as wives? Could we hazard that is why these Themne words are related to reproduction and upbringing in Krio: Bombo, Komra, bayo bayo?
Mendes, also known as Kossohs, have been in Freetown since its foundation in Kossoh Town, etc. How many of the Krios now are descendants of former slaves or recaptives? How many are from the indigenous ethnic groups of the hinterland? It's time to bring out the DNA tests and end the suppression of histories and biographies of Freetown. Let's support the deconstruction of the meta-narrative, which privileges the otherness of Krio and the liberated African and Freed slaves' origins being the badges of the aristos and those with "aspirational identities."
Freetown is changing beyond recognition, and one of the reasons behind this is the abandonment of its historic sites and memorable spaces. The grand family mansions in the east, central, and west of the original Freetown are being abandoned, gutted, or sold out, along with decades-old houses. Although some structures were gutted by fires or during the rebel war, many were left to rot or sold out by new owners.
It's worth noting that squeezing out people from spaces has been integral to the history of Sierra Leone. For example, speakers of Mel languages, such as Baga, Landuma, Shebro, Themne, and Kissi, once dominated the whole of the upper Guinea Coast, from Cape Mount to the Cassamance. However, all of these languages and cultures, except Themne and Kissi, are facing extinction, pushed out by the Mande group of cultures and languages, including Mandingo, Loko, Mende, Kono, and others.
Siege mentalities have emerged in many of the ethnic groups of Salone, leading to the formation of conclaves and sometimes concocting behavior of otherwise fine gentlemen and women.
In 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 the state house, I thought you were Krio, and I had hated you because I thought you were one those limiting our power; I never knew you were blah blab blah.'
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 a rush to fall into the sea.
Naimbana's actual name is Gbanabom of Robaga, and he was chief or king of the 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. Instead, his corpse was put on a tree, and vultures ate it.
Today, the chief of Koya receives annual payments for using 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 the government wharf and was the one with whom he and King Gbanabom signed the Treaty to give land from the government wharf to Ekemorie to the British as protection from slave traders.
When the people of Koya realized the British had tricked them, they waged war on the settlers, who had to run uphill 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 Governor Clarkson gave when the first batch of Maroons landed at Government Wharf. They came up to where Cathedral Church now stands, a site of a cotton tree as big as the one currently in the center, Rokiamp, given to them to Ekemorie by Gbanabom (Naimbana).
This was the first Province of Freedom from which Freetown was derived later. The area runs from the government wharf up Tower Hill and all of 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, now State House. Gbanabom died and 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.