Bunce Island

I had one of those experiences where you see things clearly on Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, a few months ago. I have been travelling to Sierra Leone on a regular basis since 1997. Floris UMC, where I am the lead pastor, has supported the Child Reintegration Centre and Mercy Hospital, in Bo, Sierra Leone, since those organizations were first created by the Sierra Leone Conference of the United Methodist Church. I travel there to meet with our partners, see the impact of our collective work, and stay in touch with its impact. Over the years I had heard of Bunce Island, and what people there refer to as its “Slave Fort,” a series of buildings that were once one of the most lucrative trade centers of enslaved West Africans in the world. Bunce Island is located just a few miles north of Freetown on the Sierra Leone River. It is small island that is measured in feet rather than miles. In October 2021, a group I was with took a boat upriver to see how even the smallest bit of land can house the greatest of human misery.

If you ever want to gain a thorough understanding of the word “systemic” as it is used in the phrase “systemic racism,” I suggest that you visit Bunce Island. The historic marker that greets you at the dock helps you understand that Bunce Island was chosen because it was the furthest inland point of the river at which big ships could dock. These ships were large enough to hold hundreds of newly enslaved human beings and successfully cross the Atlantic to deposit their cargo in places like the West Indies, South Carolina, and Georgia. A short hike up the path leads to the edge of what once was a fortification. Eight cannons lay in the grass, some of which bear the royal cypher of King George III. If you have ever travelled to England, you have seen monograms similar to those I saw on these cannons. Looking at that seal the word “systemic,” which means system-wide, gained additional meaning. I was standing in a key reference point of the historic system of chattel slavery, which produced remarkable wealth for those who created and controlled the system that turned free West Africans into enslaved laborers in North America and the West Indies. Bunce Island was in operation for over a century, from about 1670 to 1807, when England finally made the sale of enslaved humans illegal. The Royal Africa Company and the later companies that operated Bunce Island were “Crown-chartered,” meaning that they were subsidized by the British Crown. This was a cooperative arrangement between the British monarchy, government, and merchants. It was a remarkably well-designed system of human enslavement and trafficking that included those who owned and operated the ships that traversed the Middle Passage to the American Colonies, plantation and farm owners who filled those same ships with goods for sale in England and Europe, as well as banks and other lenders who financed and insured the shipping trade and other aspects of enslavement.

The system allowed colonists in North America to steal knowledge about rice cultivation from West Africa so that they could grow the crop on their land. Enslaved persons from the “Rice Coast” of West Africa, whom colonists claimed as their property, had this expertise. The more skill and knowledge an enslaved West African had, the higher the price paid to their enslaver. As the Yale University website on Bunce Island notes, “African rice-growing know-how was essential to the prosperity of the American rice industry.”

Today leaders in business appropriately complain about trademark and patent violations, and other forms of intellectual property stolen by foreign governments or overseas competitors. Imagine if the countries and businesses that steal this intellectual capital, rather than doing so through hacking computer systems, came into our country, went to the headquarters or research facilities of these businesses, and through force of arms kidnapped their engineers and scientists. These men and women would then be taken to foreign countries where they would be forced to spend the rest of their lives doing their valuable work in servitude without wage or benefit. Further, they would be denied all relationships with spouse, children, family, or friends. If they failed to perform this work to the satisfaction of their overseers, they would be beaten or killed. If you can wrap your mind around that fictional modern scenario, you can understand the system that the people who ran Bunce Island, and those in the American colonies who facilitated the sale of enslaved West Africans, created. That system created tremendous wealth for most of those who controlled it.

Because it was a system of enslavement, the people in power knew each other. Richard Oswald, a principal owner of Bunce Island in the 1750’s, sent enslaved West Africans to Henry Laurens, a wealthy South Carolina rice planter and plantation owner who also sold enslaved persons to other planters. Oswald supplied the humans that Laurens sold, and this partnership rendered both men a fortune. These two men eventually partnered together to establish rice plantations in Florida that were staffed with skilled enslaved persons who flowed through Bunce Island.

Their partnership had even more significant ramifications at the close of the American Revolutionary War. By this time Henry Laurens, riding high on the profits of the misery of enslavement, was President of the Continental Congress. Richard Oswald became a participant in the British delegation at the Paris negotiations that led to American independence. These two Bunce Island business partners sat across from each other during the negotiations that recognized the United States of America as a sovereign nation.

Sometimes I meet white people who do not understand what the “systemic” in “systemic racism” means. Simply put, it means that the stubborn economic and power disparity between those of European and those of African descent that persists in the United States today was a part of the original system that created our nation. I live in Virginia and have been to several historic sites not far from my home that helped me understand that system. However, I have never experienced it as vividly as I did while walking through the ruins of Bunce Island.

Only the shells of past structures remain on the island today, including the fortified walls, the gunpower magazine, and the gate to the open-air yard where enslaved families were divided, one area for men and another for women and children. The walls of the merchant’s quarters are still standing. Our Sierra Leonean guide told us that the fireplaces there were used to heat irons that were used to brand the flesh of enslaved persons. The island was quiet and still, interrupted only by breezes flowing across the river. Our group of six were the only people on the island that day. After some words of explanation, our guide walked us past the tombstones that marked the graves of enslavers and captains of ships that sealed the fate of those taken from West Africa. We walked past the empty field where enslaved people who did not survive the ordeal were buried in unmarked graves. Our group was mostly silent. You could feel the heaviness of the place.

While some historical work has been done to stabilize and conserve the buildings on Bunce Island, I fear that the lack of resources available in Sierra Leone for this UNESCO World Heritage Site may lead to even greater degradation of the island’s important history. In the future, when I travel to Sierra Leone with teams going to work with our partners in Bo, I plan to make Bunce Island a first stop. If you want to understand the complexity of the history of Sierra Leone or the United States, it is a worthy starting place.

Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.