The Scholar and the Slave Trade

"You are an idiot," the U.S. ambassador told Joseph Opala. Then 25 years old and finishing up a Peace Corps stint working with rice farmers in Sierra Leone, Opala had a degree in anthropology and no interest in viewing the 18th century ruins of a slave castle.

Michael Samuels asked him to make just one visit, but 30 years later, Opala is still studying Bunce Island. More than anyone, he has put the island on the map of the transatlantic slave trade, linking tiny Bunce and Sierra Leone with the Gullah culture of the American South.

After finishing graduate school, he taught for more than a decade at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, researching Bunce and studying the history of West Africa. To walk with him through the crowded streets of the capital now is like being with the mayor, a renegade mayor who shouts back greetings to those who shout "OhPAHLah!" at him.

He is at work on a scholarly book about the history of Bunce Island and the slave trade, and his research into connections between Sierra Leone and the Gullah people has formed the basis of two documentary films. Opala returns to Sierra Leone next month for work on a third documentary, this one on the life of an enslaved child named Priscilla taken from Africa to South Carolina aboard a Rhode Island slave ship.

Opala's efforts to document and preserve Bunce have made him popular with Sierra Leone's leaders, who are eager to develop tourism despite the country's extreme poverty and violent recent history. For many African Americans, the island holds a key piece of the past, and a bearded, strongly built Oklahoman, a white man who thinks this beleaguered country is one of the most beautiful and important places on earth, knew it first.

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