US-funded coalition restores key West African slave-trade 'castle'

A group of historians, archaeologists, and concerned citizens is transforming Sierra Leone's Bunce Island castle into a museum exploring the transatlantic slave trade.

By , Correspondent

For nearly 140 years, this tiny scrap of an island on West Africa's Atlantic coast was the point of no return for hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who were stolen from their homes and sold into slavery, many of them bound for the rice plantations of Georgia or South Carolina.

It's a place of singular importance to both African and American history, but today Bunce Island is an overgrown mess of jungle that gets just a handful of tourists every year. The ruins of the slave castle that once dominated the island's 1.5 acres have been smothered by vines and eroded by the 13 feet of rain that fall every year here in Sierra Leone. A couple of rusting signs are the only indication of Bunce's grisly place in history.

But that could be changing soon. Backed by some wealthy anonymous donors in the United States, a group of historians, archaeologists, and concerned citizens is working to preserve what's left of the slave castle and build a museum that explores its role in the transatlantic slave trade.

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"It's the most important historic site in Africa for the United States," says Joseph Opala, an American historian and the director of the US branch of the Bunce Island Coalition, the organization that is working to preserve the island.

Key funnel for US slaves

Roughly a quarter of the tens of thousands of slaves who passed through Bunce were shipped directly to what is now the US, Mr. Opala says. That's a huge percentage compared with the other slave castles along Africa's Atlantic coast, most of which sold their captives to buyers in South America and the Caribbean.

"This island had a very strong connection to North America, and it's the only one of the African slave castles that did," says Opala.

Africa's 'rice coast'

Bunce was most active in the middle of the 1700s, which is precisely when the rice plantations in the southern Colonies were getting big enough to warrant slave labor. And plantation owners in Georgia and South Carolina wanted to buy slaves who already knew how to cultivate rice, a challenging crop that they had little experience with themselves.

So they sought out slaves from what was then known as Africa's "rice coast," which reached from Senegal to Liberia. Bunce fell right in the middle of that stretch.

Three hundred years later, the cultural ties across the ocean are undeniable. The Gullah people, a community of African-Americans along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, use words from a handful of Sierra Leonean languages, and they give their children traditional Sierra Leonean names such as Hawa and Isata for girls and Sorie and Tamba for boys.

Today, DNA tests are providing evidence of the links that have disappeared from the historical record. Gina Paige, president of Africa Ancestry, Inc. – a company that has provided DNA testing services to more than 100,000 African-Americans – wrote in an e-mail that about 20 percent of the maternal lineages they trace are of Sierra Leonean ancestry.

Poet Maya Angelou and politician Jesse Jackson are among the African-Americans who have discovered their Sierra Leonean roots through the testing.

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