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Project will preserve slave-trading fort in Sierra Leone

01:00 AM EST on Monday, November 8, 2010

By Paul Davis

Journal Staff Writer

American history professor Joseph Opala, shown in 1987, has been striving for decades to restore a slave trade fort on Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island, background.


U.S. scientists and engineers are trying to save a toppled slave fort in Sierra Leone — a site where Rhode Island captains bought African captives 250 years ago.

The team is part of a $5-million effort to preserve the fort’s stone walls, cannons and slave pens, weakened by tropical heat, rain and years of neglect.

Built on Bunce Island in the Sierra Leone River, the British fort is one of 40 slave “castles” that operated on the West African coast during the transatlantic slave trade.

It played a key role in America’s involvement in the trade, said Joseph Opala, an American history professor who is heading the project.

From the 1700s to the early 1800s, its British owners sold kidnapped Africans to New England slave captains in search of human cargo.

About 30,000 captives were shipped from Bunce Island to the West Indies or America, where they toiled on rice plantations in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, said Opala, director of the U.S. arm of the Bunce Island Coalition.

The descendants of those slaves still live in coastal pockets in South Carolina and Georgia, Opala said. Many share cultural traits with the people of Sierra Leone.

Built around 1670, the fort –– destroyed and rebuilt several times –– was operated by four British companies, including the Royal African Company of England. The British Parliament shut down the fort in the early 1800s, after England and America outlawed the slave trade.

Neglected for nearly 200 years, a number of buildings remain, including several pens for men, women and children, along with the two-story stone house occupied by English officers. The roof and wood floors are gone, but the walls, strangled by jungle vines, still stand.

“In many respects, it is a slave-trade Pompeii,” said Opala.

The early Bunce Island owners branded their African captives with irons. The officers dined in the great house on antelope, fish and wine, while their chained prisoners ate from troughs in the pens below.

Opala, who has taught in the U.S. and Sierra Leone, has spent more than 30 years studying Bunce Island. For years, he and others have tried to preserve the 18th-century slave fort. This year, donors from the U.S. and England pledged $5 million to support the project.

American engineers began examining the ruins in late October. They will leave on Nov. 12.

The team is led by Michael Schuller, president of Atkinson-Noland & Associates, a Colorado engineering firm that specializes in historic preservation.

Under a five-year plan, preservationists will stabilize the ruins, halt erosion on the island’s north end and open a slave trade museum in an abandoned college in Freetown, the capital city.

Local firms will carry out most of the work, Opala said.

The project is expected to draw tourists to the country, one of the poorest in the world.

It could also strengthen diplomatic ties between the U.S. and the small nation, still recovering from a brutal 11-year rebel war.

The coalition is working with several government agencies and officials in Sierra Leone, including the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, the Monuments and Relics Commission, the National Tourist Board and U.S. Ambassador Michael Owen.

The slave fort has close ties to Rhode Island.

Slave captains from Newport, Providence and Bristol made about 1,000 trips to Africa, and shipped more than 100,000 men, women and children to plantations in the West Indies and North America.

In 1756, Newport captain Caleb Godfrey purchased 80 Africans and stopped at Bunce Island before sailing to Charleston, S.C., where he sold his cargo to local rice growers.

The trip was bankrolled by William and Samuel Vernon, wealthy Newport merchants who financed more than two dozen trips to Africa. The brothers worked for years with Godfrey, a veteran slaver who was clawed by a lion on one trip.

In 2006, Thomalind Martin Polite of South Carolina — a descendant of one of Godfrey’s prisoners — visited Rhode Island after touring Sierra Leone.

Providence storyteller Valerie Tutson and others raised money to bring Polite to Rhode Island as part of a program to help residents understand the state’s deep ties to West Africa, the American South and the global slave trade.

Tutson also spent time with Polite in Sierra Leone and on Bunce Island.

“It was an incredible experience to travel out to the island and to walk among the ruins knowing that Rhode Island ships involved in the slave trade went to this place,” said Tutson, executive director of Rhode Island Black Storytellers.

The island’s desolation made a deep impression on Tutson, who has visited other slave forts in West Africa.

It’s important the Bunce Island Coalition not “whitewash” or lessen the terrible impact of the site, said Tutson.

“We need to know and feel and experience that history, so we don’t forget, so we know how horrible it was, so we understand how far we have come; so we can see the work we still have to do.”

Readers can learn more about Bunce Island and the Rhode Island slave trade by reading an earlier Journal story at http://www.projo.com/sharedcontent/east/priscilla/.