Salone News

Freetown: The Original Sin

19 January 2021 at 20:32 | 1361 views


By Dr. Vandy Kanyako, Portland, USA

“Land” played a critical role in the founding and shaping (literally) of modern Freetown. The first set of settlers from Europe, North America and the Caribbean were lured to what is now Freetown with the promise of “free land”.

Right from the outset, however, due to a confluence of factors, this highly desirable immobile asset proved to be an explosive issue that soon pitted the new arrivals, the Koya Temne and the British authorities against one another. The history of modern Freetown and by extension, Sierra Leone, will therefore be incomplete without understanding the intractable nature and dynamics of land and its linkages to class, privilege, politics and social conflicts.

The original sin
It was the yearning for freedom and the promise of “free land” that convinced, first some 400 “Black Poor” in 1787; and then in 1791 an estimated 1200 “Nova Scotians” to risk it all for a new life in and unfamiliar region on the other side of the world. Prior to their arrival “each man was promised twenty acres, with ten more for his wife and five for each child” (Kup, 1972, pg 208). It turned out to be an exaggerated promise with wide ranging implications. .

There were gargantuan problems with this social experiment from the outset. When the settlers arrived, and contrary to that they were promised, there was no “purchased’ land “given up, by the native chiefs”, waiting for them, as the 1791 SLC director’s report had stated.

To make matters worse there was serious misunderstanding with the local inhabitants. As it turned out the arrangement that Clarkson was banking on to sort out the land issue was fraught with challenges. The Koya Temne certainly did not understand that when they negotiated with Captain Thompson in June 1787, that they had "sold" their land. As a matter of fact, contrary to what the popular history books state, King Naimbana, who signed the deed, was not present during the actual negotiations. He wasted no time in telling Alexander Falconbridge, a former slave-ship-surgeon-turned abolitionist that "he had been hastily drawn in to dispose of land to Captain Thomson”. (Kup, pg 209).

It was a bit of seller’s remorse.

In addition to feeling duped, the Koya Temne were also hostile to the new settlements because the process of allocating land to the new settlers involved cutting through their farms, often without their permission. There was no mechanism for compensation due to the damage that occurred to their crops. They protested vehemently.

Administratively, upon arrival Clarkson and his team seriously bungled the land issue. There was a mismatch between available skills set and the manpower at his disposal. Rash unprofessionalism was the end result. There were massive delays in identifying and distributing the promised and. Most settlers had to wait for over a year before their names were entered into a lottery system for land allocation.

There was only one surveyor, a James Cocks, responsible for doling out land to more than 800 families. To compound the problem surveyor Cocks “was more interested in captaining the parade of the company’s fourteen soldiers than in surveying the bush” (Kup, pg 208).

The topography also proved to be a challenge. As Clarkson explained to the Board, “First a road had to be built in place of the steep slope to the watering place; then all public work had to stop so, that houses could be completed before the rains”.

Even where land was to be found, the Board had no intention of granting it for free. In their declaration of October 1791 Thornton and co-directors stated explicitly that land revenue was to be one of their three main sources of intended income, "derived partly from quit-rents, partly from a gradually increasing tax upon the district” (Kup pg 205). The settlers were told repeatedly that the land would be free, which turned out to be a lie.

In fairness to Governor Clarkson, he realized the import of the land issue and made it a priority. "I had rather everything else should be neglected till that is done . . . the prosperity of the colony depends upon our exertions in completing this desirable object," he told William Dawes, his second in council, soon after the latter arrival. (Hart, 1927). When the local farmers complained about the constant trampling on their cultivated land, he called up a special meeting on September 27, 1792, to address the issue. After the meeting, which included representatives of the Koya Temne, Clarkson agreed that the surveyor should work around rather than through any cultivated land, "for I consider," he said in his reasonable, sympathetic way, "that the people when they sold the land had not the most distant idea that they would ever be disturbed (Kup, 209)

The attitude and behavior of the SLC Board did not help matters. They constantly micro-managed Clarkson from England. Among the many committees he was asked to set up, was the “Committee on Civilization!”.

They sent him a copy of Thomas Astley’s “Collection of Voyages” and asked him ‘to study’ particularly the portions on Cape Shilling and Cape Mesurado with a view to settlement and then to survey both areas.

Having waited for over a year most families had lost patience with the officials. Tempers were frayed. The fact that some had what appeared as unreasonable demands did not help matters. For example On 13 November 1793, land grants were finally made to forty families who had already drawn lots. Clarkson was immediately besieged with people complaining that their lot was too rocky, or too far away from their friend (Kup pg 218). Throughout his administration, the land conflicts was a nagging issue that consumed most of the energy of Governor Clarkson.

End of Part 1