Personal Discovery of Freetown and Sierra Leone Road in Trinidad and Tobago
On a cool evening in February a bunch of Sierra Leoneans who were visiting Trinidad and Tobago for the annual Carnival saw something unusual, or at a minimum, attention-getting. Positioned in bold letters on a slab they had used to block off the roads we saw the words: “FREETOWN”, in stencil format, indicating that it was planned and not randomly done. Then we saw it again and again on those slabs around Port of Spain’s Savannah where the celebrations for Carnival are centralised.
We talked about it briefly and moved on, but I was curious. We saw those signs a few more times during the course of the week. Then on another day, the night after Carnival, two of us saw it again from a distance talked about it and continued on walking. I had no choice now, but to check it out.
As soon as I returned to my hotel room, I went to my laptop and typed in Google search “Freetown + Trinidad” and some things came up. I was pleasantly surprised as I leaned forward as if I wanted to enter the computer through the screen with eyes fixated on the summary descriptions. Shocking!
I know we had Sierra Leoneans taken to the US to work on rice plantations. Those same folks who owned or ran Bunce Island (where there was a slave trading post in Sierra Leone) at one time also had some plantations in Carriacou, Grenada, and I knew that some of our kinfolk were taken there. Historians have discovered that the first set of re-settlers in the Province of Freedom (presently Freetown) came from the UK as the ‘Black Poor’ in 1787. Also, known is that free or runaway slaves, some of them possibly with ancestry from Sierra Leone, fought alongside the British in the American War of Independence and were taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia before some eventually moved to the Province of Freedom in 1792. I also knew about the links to the Jamaican Maroons who were taking to Sierra Leone in 1800. And the tens of thousands of ‘recaptives’ also known as Liberated Africans from various parts of Africa, but especially Nigeria, who were resettled in Sierra Leone as the British Navy intercepted slave ships along the Atlantic Ocean.
But a place named Freetown in Trinidad and Tobago? Never! It turned out that a major black community, present day Belmont, was originally called Freetown. A Trinidadian newspaper captured it like this: “Freetown, as it was called earlier, became the first area in Trinidad to be peopled by former enslaved Africans who worked previously on the coffee and cocoa estates at Belmont. It also included many freed Africans rescued from slave ships after 1807, the year in which Britain ended its involvement in the slave trade.”
Could it be that Sierra Leoneans even came to Trinidad and Tobago before emancipation? That will have to be turned over to historians to plough through.
But following this “self-discovery” I subsequently spoke to someone who told me of a Sierra Leone Road in an area called Diego Martin. What??
So, you can guess what I did next! And to my pleasant surprise references to a Sierra Leone Road was online and also found out later that there was even a Sierra Leone community (used to be referred to as a village in the past as one of the elders in the area, who I interviewed informed me).
As I did my research at the University of the West Indies just outside the capital of Port of Spain, I observed that that between 1841 and 1851, many Liberated Africans left Sierra Leone for Trinidad. I also saw a letter that was written by people from Sierra Leone to the then Governor General of Trinidad. But there are two things happening here: a pre-emancipation (Freetown was there before emancipation) and a post-emancipation (Liberated Africans) connections. We should dig deeper into these revelations in the future.
I was so excited about this re-discovery; at least on a personal note, that I overstayed ‘my welcome’ in Trinidad and Tobago for a few more days to do more research and fact-finding. So I went to the community a few times, went to the public library in downtown Port of Spain, and spent some time at the library of the University of the West Indies. Luckily, a Sierra Leonean friend of ours, Dr. Conrad Cole, had studied at that University and he gave me contacts of people who were instrumental in helping me forge on with my “research.”
In the midst of the material I perused, I saw quite a bit to affirm that Sierra Leoneans may have been in Trinidad prior to emancipation, or at a minimum, Liberated Africans from Sierra Leone came in droves to Trinidad and Tobago (along with many from the Kru tribe from eastern Liberia who were already residing in Sierra Leone). This latter group did not necessarily travel as slaves though and there is folklore that the Krus resisted slavery to the greatest heights and instead were used as skilled artisans. Post emancipation, the island of Trinidad was searching for indentured labor. So they went to America, India, China and Africa (Sierra Leone) and even Europe to look for such help. Sierra Leone delivered; at a minimum, over 3,000 Liberated Africans as observed in a few documents moved from there to Trinidad and Tobago between 1841 and 1851.
While I am not particularly deeply interested in the history, but more so on the opportunity to reunite, exchange culture, and search for other mutual benefits between Sierra Leone and countries where her descendants may be, I am aware that we need the past (history) to guide and steer us in the present and future. This is my driving cause for an aspiring amateur public historian who is passionate about seeking our long lost relatives.
Before leaving Trinidad, I made sure I visited with the Diego Martin Regional Corporation that oversees the communities mentioned above and spoke with the person responsible for Sierra Leone, “Chairman” Katty Christopher (see photo).
The reason being that the sign on Sierra Leone road is no longer up as I tried to take a photo of it and could not find it. I raised that with them. She promised she would have it replaced, but I am hoping that they would wait until we get a delegation of Sierra Leoneans there where we can actually have a procession around the replacement of the street sign.
These are things to come my crystal ball tells me, especially after what we just did in Jamaica on March 1, 2016 to formally reunite with the Maroons on their turf, after more than 170 years. There is more to come on this journey, for sure…
“You may say, I am a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…” – John Lennon lyrics in IMAGINE.
About the author: Amadu Massally describes himself as an activist for (global) development. He is based in Dallas, TX. Married to wife, Olayinka and a proud father of 5 boys.
This article led AfricanPostmark to a real treasure trove of historical articles!
- Article: Apology for slavery and reparations
When the British government abolished slavery on August 1, 1834, the Abolition Act provided “a free gift”, not a loan, of 20 million pounds or US$91.2 million “to compensate the slave-owners for the loss of their slaves.”
The truth be told: The total amount of compensation/reparations, that is, unpaid wages, that are owed to all the Africans who laboured on European plantations in this slavery capitalist business has been estimated to be US$770 trillion, plus interest. During this European slavery capitalist business, Nigeria supplied twenty-four per cent of the workers (slaves), Angola supplied twenty-four per cent, Ghana sixteen per cent, Senegal/Gambia thirteen per cent, Guinea eleven per cent and Sierra Leone six per cent. Ergo, the people of these countries (not the governments) deserve their percentage of the US$770 trillion.
Visit the DMRC website
- See also, this article from Trinidad’s ‘Daily Express’: ‘From Freetown to Belmont…Home of T&T’s first President’: it includes the following passage:
Freetown, as it was called earlier, became the first area in Trinidad to be peopled by former enslaved Africans who worked previously on the coffee and cocoa estates at Belmont.
It also included many freed Africans rescued from slave ships after 1807, the year in which Britain ended its involvement in the slave trade.
- In a ‘Trini-Salone culture mix’, Sierra Leone’s Gwyn Jay Allen is captured in concert with Trinidad’s Vaughnette Bigford in a tribute to Louis Armstrong.