This Black History Month, I am remembering a shared history that connects 2 places I call home: Sierra Leone and Canada.
This year marks the 230th anniversary of the exodus and repatriation of approximately 1200 Black Loyalists from Halifax, Nova Scotia, for Freetown, Sierra Leone. They were almost half of the 3,000 Black Loyalists—individuals and families that were promised freedom in Nova Scotia in the early 1780s in exchange for their support of the British during the American Revolutionary War. Instead of freedom, they faced hardships so severe, including broken land promises then and now and re-enslavement, that they opted to make a return journey to the continent they were forced from in a quest for freedom, dignity and self-determination. After an organized campaign by Black Loyalist leader, Thomas Peters, the group left on 15 ships for Freetown, Sierra Leone on January 15, 1792. Freetown had been established as a settlement for freed formally enslaved Black peoples, on land bought from Indigenous Sierra Leonean Themne (also spelled Temne*) Kings by British abolitionists in 1787. It would later become one of the first British colonies in Africa in 1808. It was populated by formally or almost enslaved Africans and African descendants from 1787 until the mid-1800s, who formed the Krios (Creoles) of Sierra Leone**.
Freetown’s Mayor, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, OBE, announced on January 15, 2022 that a celebration will be held throughout the week of March 7th 2022 to celebrate this history, noting that on arrival: “They called it Freetown: the city of hope, the city of liberty, the city of freedom. And together with the people already living here, they built the foundation of our beloved city.”
The arrival of the Black Loyalists in Freetown, on March 11, 1792 was and is historic. It is said that they stood at the iconic Cotton Tree in the center of the city to pray and give thanks for their safe arrival and new home, a tree where the first arrivals in 1792 are also said to have rested. That tree now hosts a plaque in memory of these early settlers and the Black Loyalists’ exodus is being commemorated on both sides of the Atlantic this year.
In Halifax, Karen Hudson, a High School Principal and one of the organizers of the #1792Project successfully campaigned for Jan 15th to be proclaimed in Nova Scotia, the Day of the Black Loyalist Exodus: 15 Ships to Sierra Leone.
Dr. Afua Cooper, a past poet laureate for the city of Halifax, Founder and Chair of the Black Canadian Studies Association (BCSA) and a Harry Jerome Award Recipient wrote and performed 15 Ships to Sierra Leone, which is posted on Black Halifax.
In an interview about this story, Dr. Afua Cooper notes that Freetown was not the promised land the Black Loyalists hoped for. While Krios did go on to become one of the most successful people groups and leaders on the African continent and beyond, they faced continued oppression. The Sierra Leone Company of Abolitionists continued to hold power over them with an all White British government and control of resources. There were also conflicts between the local Themne rulers (and other locals) with both the European arrivals as they resisted colonization and the Black settlers. Not unlike the indigenous atrocities against the Canadian First Nations, there is evidence that these Temne rulers signed treaties that they did not fully understand. When treaties and local protocols with the peoples they considered to be guests were breeched, they escalated to conflict and fighting, even burning down the original Freetown settlement. Today, at approximately 2% of Sierra Leone’s population, they face ongoing marginalization. Freetown and Sierra Leone’s past and present have not been easy, and on any given day there are reasons to vacillate between hope and despair for the land of my heritage, in spite of it being one of the most beautiful resource rich places on earth.
But today, I commemorate the history of the foundation of Freetown, Sierra Leone, which lives in the bloodlines of my family. I am Themne and my husband is Krio, a partnership that under colonial divide and conquer regimes was not permissible. We live in British Columbia, Canada and also call Freetown, Sierra Leone home. And the story I have shared here, is not the history our children are learning in their Canadian schools. They endure instead continued racial slurs that evoke the historical enslavement and persistent anti-Black racism against African descendants globally, devoid of the colonial atrocities and systemic oppressions that are wrapped up in this history, then and now. This is why I share these histories with them and with you. It is why I will spend time this month combing through Black Halifax and the BC Black History Society site and encourage my children to keep learning and reading and aspiring to make the sacrifices of the ancestors who made it possible for us to be here worthwhile.
So today, I honour the Black Loyalists (especially Thomas Peters) for their fight for true freedom, dignity and self-determination.
I honour my Themne ancestors and all other Sierra Leonean peoples for their role in the formation of Freetown/Sierra Leone and their resistance of colonization, successfully and unsuccessfully, amidst all its complexities.
I honour Dr Afua Cooper and Karen Hudson for documenting and keeping this history alive.
I honour Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr for her hard work to Transform Freetown amidst ongoing deep-rooted and persistent challenges and personal attacks.
There is much still to do, but I hold on to the vision and hope that the vicious circle of anti-black racism and systemic oppressions ends NOW and the we, humanity, will continue to transform our world for the better.
- *Temne is the more common anglicized spelling
- **Krio is most commonly used to describe this people group. Although sometimes used interchangeable with Creole, which is most commonly used for the language (also known as pidgin English) spoken by the Krio peoples in Sierra Leone and well as many other people groups who formed a Creole language by mixing local/indigenous languages with English throughout colonization.