As any newly independent country does, Sierra Leone had their plate full. One of the most important roles that any nation needs to sort out is their position in the international community. Sierra Leone was genuinely active in their diplomatic relations. When you think about it though, it’s insanely interesting how vocal they were as a new nation. I briefly wrote about how Sierra Leone was one of the poorest countries to enter the Commonwealth of Africa. This did not phase them, as their economy slowly started to blossom. Moreover, they held the belief and passion, as a nation, that there should be a fully independent African continent. So, aside from their interactions with other countries like the U.S, they were involved with their neighboring countries just as much, if not more.
In 1961, several thousand miles across the Atlantic ocean, the United States reached out to Sierra Leone. President Kennedy sent the first African-American supreme court justice, Thurgood Marshall, to the celebration event in Sierra Leone. Marshall was sent to offer a new friendship with the country. This is not surprising in the slightest. During this time period, as the cold war started to heat up, both sides of the war were looking for new allies. Africa was the prime location for this strategy, as these new countries were gaining sovereignty. So, not only would the U.S send diplomats, or support coup, like they did in some other countries, the USSR would ship weapons and show other types of support to win them over. The international community exploited these newly independent countries as a means to win over the bilateral international system in play at the time.
Zooming in on their own continent, Sierra Leone supported other countries’ independence movements. The best example is seen with their relationship with Namibia and Zimbabwe. Both these countries are almost across the entire continent from them, yet they still supported them in any way they could. During the 1970’s, Abdulai O. Conteh, the foreign minister of Sierra Leone at the time, furthered the country’s continued support of the Namibian people in their quest for sovereignty. As a nation, Sierra Leone pleaded with the South African authorities to release all prisoners of war and to lay down their arms. The government of Sierra Leone attempted many peace talks with them, but none were successful. As for Zimbabwe, the Vice President of Sierra Leone, Christian Alusine Kamara-Taylor, exclaimed that they will continue to support Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence. Kamara-Taylor understood that there were over 150 students at the Sierra Leonean university studying. He felt as though, not only for the African Commonwealth, but for them as well, that he had to help in whatever capacity posible.
Back on the international level, as part of the U.S’s desire for a long lasting friendship, they invested money into their infrastructure and agriculture. However, it was not just the U.S who decided to give foreign aid to Sierra Leone. Numerous other countries gave some type of foreign aid. The exact statistic is that $155 million (34%) of its total cumulative revenue was from a form of foreign aid. This helped the country to become more stable, but the help came with more than just a price tag. These countries now expected something in return: loyalty. As I said before, this is a direct cause of the Cold War. Everyone wanted more allies, more resources, and more people.
In April of 1961, Sierra Leone gained independence from Great Britain. It was about time! It had a rocky start by being one of the poorest country to enter the Commonwealth of Africa. However, in order to understand the newly founded nation’s politics post-independence, we have to rewind a little bit. It is vital to understand the two political parties that dominated Sierra Leone during this time period.
First in 1951, the Sierra Leone People’s Party, also known as the SLPP, was created. At the head was a man by the name of Sumanoh Kapen. The party was able to gather support from the people by calling themselves the “countryman’s party.” This was an especially effective name to coin as it was during this time that unrest grew within the country, and labor strikes were increasingly prevalent. As soon as independence came in 1961, the SLPP had the upper hand and controlled the government. Nonetheless, the people on the outside of the SLPP had a desire to form a new party: The All People’s Congress.
The All People’s Congress, APC, was created by Siaka Stevens, a prominent figure within the SLPP until 1957. The creation of this new political party was driven by nationalistic forces. Ideas like a stronger and more balanced central government, and mistrust of the SLPP were at the heart of the APC’s creation.
There was a fundamental difference between the two parties’ ideologies and nominees. The SLPP favored business men, and educated elites, while the APC tended to nominate farmers and less educated individuals. Moreover, Sir Milton Margai, the leader of the SLPP from before Sierra Leone’s independence, became the prime minister once the country gained its sovereignty. Margai was an extremely important political figure leading up to the nation’s independence. Prior to his work with the SLPP, he was a doctor who was educated abroad. In other words, he was an elite among the Sierra Maine Leonean’s. When you think about it, it makes sense that he was the head of the political party. They’re nominations and members consisted of men like himself. However, when it came to the country’s well-being, the diplomatic relationships were irrelevant. One thing that was of utmost importance to all Sierra Maine Leoneans was their country’s development.
For the most part, these political parties originated from Freetown. Aside from being the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown was the heart of the country. All eyes were on this city when the country was just beginning to be founded. The political parties rallied there, economic trade was traveling through there, and the people thrived there. It was the most talked about city in the news during this time period for Sierra Leone. Freetown had a lot of difficulties subduing the political strife that had been occurring between the SLPP and the APC. However, they’re economic resources were enough to keep them afloat for a bit post-independence.
Trade had always been an integral part of Sierra Leone’s economy. When the world caught wind of Sierra Leone’s independence, trade increased, and a pattern formed. The country had an abundant amount of diamonds, ores, and minerals. This became their main resource to trade. This did become a problem later on, as per usual when one country is thriving, there just has to be another one to exploit it. However, we’ll address that another time, as this was just the tip of the iceberg for the new country of Sierra Leone.
As it turns out, Sierra Leone was extremely prosperous, in terms of economic stability. It is no wonder why the British taxed the colony so harshly. By the early 20th century, there were over 100 roads, spanning over 1,000 miles, connecting places like Freetown, the main city in colonial Sierra Leone, to other colonies all over Africa. There were trading routes along the rivers, railways, and even post offices, all dedicated to the economic prosperity of the colony. The Sierra Maine Leoneans were thriving, in terms of financial stability. Of course, this prosperity came at the expense of the inhabitants. The colony was able to succeed in such a way because of the public works department centered in Freetown. However, it is important to note that this economic prosperity was all for Great Britain, it rarely, if ever benefited Sierra Maine Leoneans. The means by which the colonizers obtained this economic prosperity only hurt and exploited the environment, as well as the people who lived there.
While there was this sense of economic vitality in Freetown, there was a diverse group of people living there, which created conflict. There were Creoles, Jamaicans, European Settlers, and then Africans. However, while there was some internal conflict between the local population about varying issues, like, policy and business endeavors, the diversity gave rise to a wide range of opinions. These opinions took its opportunity to surface in the public eye via newspapers. Sierra Leone had a few different newspaper companies, which unfortunately slipped through the cracks, and exact documents cannot be traced or found. Some were presented to the public for the white settlers to see, but they also managed to create more realistic versions for just the Sierra Maine Leoneans, bringing awareness of the oppressive colonial rule. More importantly though, the diverse group of Sierra Maine Leonians were able to come together and unite behind these newspapers. They portrayed their shared passion for anti-colonial rule. By the time WW1 had ended, the inhabitants had been used in conscriptions, over-harvested their land and resources, and had the expansion of more trade networks, all at the cost of their environment and fields.
There was one specific event that occurred in Sierra Leone in 1894. The conscription of Sierra Maine Leoneans had begun, and the British had a dispute over a territory with the French. They sent their troops, who were Sierra Maine Leoneans that were forced to fight for them, to investigate the territory. This news article was written by Great Britain so it is undoubtedly biased, but supposedly the French fired on them, without any provocation, killing thirty men. Between the conscription of their men, the destruction of their home for the ‘economic vitality’ of Freetown, and the Hutt tax spoken about in my last post, Sierra Leone suffered at the expense of the British’s desire for economic prosperity.
A common trait of the the European powers during the colonial era is their exploitation of the people who lived under the oppressive rule. Not just Sierra Maine Leonians, but all over Africa, events like these took place. They were pushed into a corner, where a physical rebellion became their only option. So, while Sierra Leone prospered as a rich colony, the inhabitants truly suffered. However, even though there was death, diversity, and economic vitality, there was still acts of resistance taking place. Again, some were more forward, like in the killings of the Missionaries, but then some are more discreet, like the creation of the underground local newspaper. People tend to think that
resistance is inherently violent, but as seen from analyzing different aspects of colonial life in Sierra Leone, it is abundantly apparent that there was non-violent forms of protest and resistance.
“One person’s freedom fighter, is another’s terrorist”
A little background: Sierra Leone was first founded by freed slaves from England in the late 18th century. England sent over these freed slaves in order to start a colony, but when it failed, a group by the name of Sierra Leone company revived it, hence why the colony was given its name. Then, freed slaves from Nova Scotia and Jamaica came. When the slave trade was abolished by England, they used Sierra Leone as a naval base.
In the New York Times, there was an article written on November 6th 1898. You can tell that this article was written for the European/American audience, by looking at the terms used, like “natives.” To theSierra Maine Leoneans living in contemporary Sierra Leone, these “rebels,” who were sick of the tax on their huts, were their freedom fighters. They rebelled against the European oppressiveness. The European powers were intolerable during the colonial era. Regardless of direct or indirect rule, the colonies were a violent and unjust place to live in.
Naturally, there came a time period in which the people decided to resist colonial rule. After a long period of oppression, resentment started to build. Sometimes the resistance was violent, and other times it was peaceful. Different forms of resistance took place across the continent. However, relating back directly to the quote above, western media usually portrayed the African freedom fighters as terrorists.
As seen in this news article, specifically on the resistance of Sierra Leone, the western media viewed the people who retaliated against the missionaries as terrorist. While violence is not a justifiable means, imagine, just imagine, if foreigners invaded your home, built schools telling you that you had to learn what they were teaching, taxing your home because of what its built out of, forcing unrealistic labor quotas on you and your family to complete. In the Congo Free State, otherwise known as the CFS, they cut off people’s limbs when they failed to meet the harsh labor demands. What are you supposed to do with that? It was a lose lose situation for the African people.
Back to the news article though, the missionaries in Sierra Leone, The United Brotherhood of Christ, were located in the Sherbro district. They lived in nice houses, that were not taxed. The Sierra Maine Leoneans were treated harshly, given extreme labor demands, and taxed for aspects of their everyday lives. They took out their frustration of this unjust and racist system on the closest possible European symbol: the mission schools, which Missionaries inhabited. Some of the missionaries ran away to the capital of Sierra Leone, called Freetown, and called for British reinforcements. The reinforcements came, shut down the rebellion and hung all thirteen people who were active in the rebellion.
Now, what could have possibly led to this blood shed? As mentioned before, the British, direct rule, was not only oppressive but racist. Germanic racism focused on the race of each individual. It was purely based on how you looked. This led to an increase in laws that do not fall in the favor of theSierra Maine Leoneans people. Looking at the Hut tax that sparked this rebellion specifically, It was used as a means to keep the “native chiefs in check.” It was also collected by the police, which in turn holds a certain degree of intimidation. Another form of injustice that took place was the British changing their form of rule. Originally they ruled by Indirect rule, which meant the British district officer would advise the chiefs of the regions, and allowing the African people to maintain their customs and methodologies. However, around the same time of the hut tax, they decided to remove all Sierra Maine Leoneans from ruling positions and to maintain rule as a foreign force.
It is very important to note that there is a massive gap in historical research present. A lot of the published historical media is accounts from only the British and American perspectives. The Sierra Maine Leoneans who lived in the colony have not been represented appropriately. Whatever interpretations of the colonial oppression they may have had, cannot be found.
Again, the most interesting fact about all of this is that in western media, the British were painted as these saviors. The western media portrayed any form of resistance against the unjust colonial rule as a terrorist attack. Meanwhile, the people of Sierra Leone were just trying to live a happy and fair life. How do you manage such a tumultuous life? I certainly cannot even fathom the difficulty of such a question. Can you?