By: Jacey Fortin
An abandoned slave fort in Sierra Leone is undergoing restoration so that it can be opened to the public. Officials hope that it will generate much-needed tourism revenues in the country.
The centuries-old facility is on Bunce Island, a tiny spot of forested land in the middle of Tagrin Bay, about 20 miles inland from the coastal capital city of Freetown. Many Sierra Leoneans were unaware of its existence, and today the fort is falling apart. But preservationists hope to rebuild a close approximation of the structure as it stood 200 years ago.
In accordance with the newly established Bunce Island Preservation Project, the fort will be turned into a working museum by 2015. In the meantime, there’s a lot of work to be done; the facility was abandoned almost immediately after being shut down in 1807.
But Joseph Opala, an American historian who is leading the project, is raring for a restoration.
“It’s the most important historic site in Africa for the United States,” he said to the BBC. “No other West African slave fort sent as many people directly to North America.”
After Portuguese explorers landed in Sierra Leone in 1462 and started up the slave trade there, the British followed and swiftly institutionalized the practice. They began using Bunce Island as a slave trading post in 1670. Sierra Leoneans were experienced in the cultivation of rice, and the British colonizers seized upon this as a valuable asset.
Many Sierra Leoneans died of disease in their home country following the arrival of the Europeans. Others were forced into forts like the one on Bunce Island, where they died of poor health or mistreatment.
Still others perished on overcrowded boats during the 10-week journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Those who survived were put to work on slave plantations in the Americas.
Many of these Sierra Leoneans ended up in the southern United States.
Today, the Gullah communities of South Carolina — descendants of rice-growing slaves — still speak an English creole that combines traces of several Sierra Leonean dialects.
Unfortunately, it was this same mineral wealth that helped to fuel the country’s next great tragedy: a descent into violence that began more than 20 years ago.
Before Sierra Leone’s devastating civil war, the population suffered extreme levels of poverty. Under a series of corrupt governments, trade in gold and diamonds was largely unregulated. So when protests and conflicts erupted in 1991, the ease of access to valuable resources helped to fund weapons and mercenary fighters. The violent clashes stretched on for nearly 11 years and killed about 50,000 people.
The war ended in 2002, and Sierra Leone has enjoyed a relative peace over the past decade. Economic growth is apparent, and in 2010, the U.N. Security Council lifted all economic sanctions against the Sierra Leonean government. Natural resources are still abundant, and investments are being made into agriculture and infrastructure.
On the other hand, poverty remains a major problem, and corruption still exists in the government. Child mortality rates are declining but still high. International aid remains essential to continuing development.
Tourism could help to raise needed revenues, if all goes well. Outside of its somewhat polluted urban areas, Sierra Leone boasts miles and miles of pristine beaches and verdant jungles.
And on June 1, the country initiated a new government-led project to boost its appeal to international travelers. With $3 million in funding from the World Trade Organization, reports Agence France-Presse, Sierra Leone is planning to focus on eco-tourism and build upscale facilities for tourists. So far, investors seem interested.
An old slave fort may seem out of place considering these upmarket ambitions, but historical interest sites have a history of success in Africa. In fact, facilities like the one on Bunce Island can already be found in several countries.
In Ghana, for instance, Cape Coast Castle once served as a central trading post for the slave trade; it is now open to tourists. During U.S. President Barack Obama’s first visit to sub-Saharan Africa in 2009, he and his family took a guided tour of the facility there.
Tourists can also visit slave forts in Nigeria, Senegal, Benin and other countries.
Other historical memorials of tragedy can be found all over the world; two of the most notorious spots on Earth, the former concentration camps at Dachau,Germany, and Auschwitz, Poland, are both open to the public.
Just this month, a minor controversy erupted over three soccer players’ visit to Auschwitz in the lead-up to the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship. The three athletes were members of Germany’s national team, and they were criticized for not bringing along all of their teammates to send a stronger message.
That episode highlights some of the sensitivities that will inevitably surround historical sites of tragedy; the words “tourist attraction” are not easily linked with words such as “slavery,” “captivity” and “death.” There is always a risk of appearing to repackage, monetize or misrepresent the suffering of others.
But for many historical preservationists, that’s a risk worth taking in order to establish lasting connections across generations.
Isatu Smith, the deputy director of the Bunce Island Preservation Project, told the BBC that many slaves who passed through the Sierra Leone slave fort ended up putting down new roots across the ocean.
“It was important for me to forge a link with these descendants,” she said. “Because, for all you know, these might be my long-lost brothers.”
As Sierra Leone regains a solid footing after decades of turmoil, making those connections may be a fitting way to heal old wounds — and an effective way to independently raise national revenues that are still so sorely needed.