Sierra Leone is located in the heavy rainforest region of West Africa. With an estimated population of 6.5 million, it covers a total area of 27,699 square miles. It is a constitutional republic which is made up of three provinces and a Western Area subdivided into 14 districts.
It is one of those countries with a very colourful history. Long before any Briton knew where the “colony” was, the indigenous Mende people called their country Romarong. In fact, archaeological finds show that the territory that became modern Sierra Leone had been inhabited continuously for at least 2,500 years by Africans who moved there from other parts of the continent. The earliest inhabitants included the Sherbro, Temne and later the Mende, and the Kono who settled in the east of the country.
European contacts with Sierra Leone started with the Portuguese.
In 1462, the Portuguese explorer, Pedro da Cintra, mapped the hills surrounding what is now Freetown Harbour, and named the shaped formation Serra de Leão (the Portuguese words for Lion Mountains).
In the Italian tongue, Serra de Leão becomes Sierra Leone, which eventually became the country’s name. Pedro da Cintra’s travels paved the way for Portuguese traders to arrive at Freetown Harbour, and 33 years later a Portuguese fort was built there in 1495 to act as a trading post. With time, the Portuguese were joined by the Dutch and French; all of them using Sierra Leone as a trading point for slaves.
Britain, the eventual colonial ruler of Sierra Leone, was a latecomer to the area. British contacts came indirectly via the slave trade when in 1562 Sir John Hawkins shipped 300 African slaves acquired “by the sword and partly by other means”, to the British colonies in America.
In 1787, English traders founded a settlement in Sierra Leone, naming it the “Province of Freedom”, which became the home of freed African slaves from America. In March 1792, through the influence of Thomas Peters, the Sierra Leone Company was established to relocate 1,196 black Americans who had escaped enslavement by seeking protection with the British Army during the American Revolution.
Sixteen years later, Britain took over from the Sierra Leone Company when Freetown became a British “crown colony” in 1808.
Almost 90 years would pass before the interior of the country became a British “protectorate” in 1896. At independence in 1961, the “crown colony” and the “protectorate” became a united country.
Before independence, because the country was divided into a “colony” and a “protectorate”, with separate and different political systems constitutionally defined for each, antagonism escalated to a heated debate between the two entities in 1947, when proposals were introduced to provide for a single political system for both the colony and the protectorate. “Most of the proposals,” according to historical accounts, “came from the protectorate. The Krios (or descendants of the freed slaves from America and elsewhere), led by Isaac Wallace-Johnson, opposed the proposals, the main effect of which would have been to diminish their political power.
“It was due to the astute politics of Sir Milton Margai, who was the son of a Krio man by the name of Tu-borku Metzeger, that the educated protectorate elite was won over to join forces with the paramount chiefs in the face of Krio intransigence. Later, Sir Milton (whose real family name was Tu-borku Metzeger) used the same skills to win over opposition leaders and moderate Krio elements for the achievement of independence.”
In November 1951, Sir Milton supervised the drafting of a new constitution, which united the colony and protectorate legislatures and provided a framework for independence. Two years later (in 1953), the country was given local ministerial powers, and Sir Milton was elected “chief minister” of Sierra Leone under a parliamentary system.
The country held its first parliamentary election in May 1957 which was won by the SLPP, the most popular party at the time. Sir Milton was re-elected as chief minister by a landslide.
As the clamour for independence increased in 1960, Sir Milton led a delegation to a constitutional conference in London. The colonial secretary Iain Macleod represented the British government at the talks. All the members of the Sierra Leonean delegation were prominent and wellrespected politicians, including Sir Milton’s younger brother Sir Albert Margai, John Kareefa-Smart, Hector Boltman, Lamina Sankoh, Banja Tejan-Sie, Ella Koblo Gulama, Amadu Wurie, Mohamed Sanusi Mustapha and Eustace H. Taylor Cummings.
Notable absentees from the delegation were Siaka Stevens, the leader of the opposition APC, and the veteran Krio politician Isaac Wallace-Johnson, who were placed under house arrest in Freetown, charged with disrupting the independence movement.
When Britain’s West African empire expanded (to include Ghana, Nigeria, and Gambia), Sierra Leone became the educational centre of British West Africa. Fourah Bay College was established in Freetown in 1827 to act as a magnet for English-speaking West Africans. For more than 100 years, Fourah Bay was the only Europeanstyle university in that part of Africa.
But not everybody was happy under British rule. Some of the indigenous people mounted several unsuccessful revolts against the British, the most notable was the “Hut Tax War” in 1898. The legendary Bai Bureh led the “northern front” of the Hut Tax War, with his fighters giving the betterarmed British forces a run for their money for several months. Hundreds of British troops and Bureh’s fighters were subsequently killed.
Finally, Bai Bureh himself was captured on 11 November 1898 and sent into exile in what is now Ghana, while 96 of his colleagues were hanged by the British. The Hut Tax War then saw the end of large-scale organised resistance to colonialism, but resistance continued throughout the British rule of the country.
In 1935, the British granted a mineral mining monopoly to the South African-based diamond conglomerate, De Beers, via its subsidiary, the Sierra Leone Selection Trust, which was planned to last 98 years.
Sierra Leone is rich in minerals; it has some of the rarest and most valuable mineral types in the world.
The economy is built around mining, with diamonds at the top of the pile.
The country is among the top 10 diamond producers in the world.
There are also large deposits of titanium, bauxite, gold and rutile.
Home to sixteen ethnic groups (the two largest being Mende and Temne), Sierra Leone is a predominantly Muslim nation, though with a significant Christian minority.
Next year will be an interesting year in Sierra Leone as three national elections will be held: presidential, legislative, and local government. It is no secret that the polls are going to be hotly contested, with the APC keen on consolidating its hold on power, while the SLPP will do everything to unseat the APC.
No-one foresees a return to the 1993-2004 conflict; the country has gone past that stage. But if the conduct and outcomes of recent by-elections are anything to go by, then tough times lie ahead.
But that will be for next year. For now, it is time for celebrations. Fifty years in the life of a nation is a big deal. Sierra Leone may not have made the most of the past 50 years. But despite the ups and downs, the country is still together as one – united and now at peace with itself! That alone calls for celebration. Happy Birthday Sierra Leone!