Bunce Island was a former slave castle located in the Sierra Leone River and was one of the largest centers of the transatlantic slave trade in West Africa. During the 17th and 18th centuries, thousands of Africans were captured, forcibly taken to Bunce Island and held captive before being shipped to the Americas as slaves. This island holds a dark history of slavery, violence, and exploitation and serves as a reminder of the atrocities committed during the slave trade. Despite its significance, the site of Bunce Island has received limited attention, and its legacy continues to impact communities in Sierra Leone and the African Diaspora.
Bunce Island is an island in the Sierra Leone River Located some 30 kilometers from Freetown, the island served as a major post for the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century. Established in 1670 by English slave traders, it was the largest British slave castle on the Rice Coast where tens of thousands of Africans were targeted for buying and selling on account of their rice-growing skills and shipped to North America and the West Indies.
The Island was one of the chief processing points for slaves to be sold to rice planters in the British colonies of South Carolina and Georgia, where farmers where willing to pay premium prices for slaves with real hands on experience on rice cultivation.
Upon arriving in the American colonies, they were forced to work in rice paddies, cotton fields and indigo plantations along the South Carolina-Georgia seaboard where the moist climate and fertile land were very similar to their African homelands.
Rice cultivation in America saw an uplift and more extensive rice plantations were developed as more and more African captives were shipped from Bunce Island to work on rice farms.
South Carolina, which became one of the wealthiest states in North America with an economy based on rice cultivation, benefited the most from these enslaved Africans from the Rice Coast.
Slave auction advertisements in South Carolina and Georgia often announced slave cargoes arriving from Bunce Island to assure buyers that they would get experienced hand.
There is still an intact community of descendants of slaves in the United States known as the Gullah, with roots directly traceable to Sierra Leone.
According to UNESCO, the Gullah community in South Carolina and Georgia still retain traditions in food, names and stories that draw heavily from their Sierra Leonean roots.
According to UNESCO, What makes the story of Bunce Island different from the likes of Goree Island in Senegal and the Elmina Castle in Ghana is that it became “the only instance where Africans were particularly targeted for buying and selling on account of their skills,”
For tens of thousands of Africans, Bunce Island was the place where their life in the continent ended.
In 1807 after the British Government abolished the Atlantic slave trade, the task of enforcing it fell to the Royal Navy. The following year Freetown became a Crown Colony and the Royal Navy based its Africa Squadron there. They sent regular patrols to search for slave vessels violating the slave trade ban.
Bunce Island was shut down for slave-trading; British firms used the castle as a cotton plantation, a trading post and a sawmill. These activities were economically unsuccessful and the island was abandoned around 1840, after which the buildings and stone walls deteriorated.
In 1948, Bunce Island was designated Sierra Leone’s first officially protected historic site.
Bunce Island holds universal value in being a place that an intact community of descendants of slaves can point at as a place of origin in Africa.
Today, Bunce Island is protected by the Sierra Leonean Monuments and Relics Commission, a branch of the country’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture. The government is also working to preserve the castle as an important historic site and as a destination for tourists, especially African Americans.