In 1808 Sierra Leone became a British crown colony, ruled under a colonial governor. The British administration favored a policy of “indirect rule” whereby they relied on slightly reorganized indigenous institutions to implement colonial policies and maintain order. Rulers who had been “kings” and “queens” became instead “paramount chiefs,” some of them appointed by the administration, and then forced into a subordinate relationship. This allowed the crown to organize labor forces for timber cutting or mining, to grow cash crops for export, or to send work expeditions to plantations as far away as the Congo. Sierra Leoneans did not passively accept such manipulations. The 1898 “Hut Tax rebellion” occurred as a response to British attempts to impose an annual tax on all houses in the country. The Temne and Mende people especially refused to pay, attacking and looting trading stations, and killing policemen, missionaries, and all those suspected of assisting the colonial government.
Pressures to end colonialism had as much to do with Britain’s weakened position following World War II as it did with the pan-African demands for autonomy. Sierra Leone became an independent, sovereign state on 27 April 1961 with Milton Margai as its prime minister. Ten years later, on 19 April 1971, the country became a republic, with an elected president as the head of state.
There are a wide variety of ecological and agricultural zones to which people have adapted. Starting in the west, Sierra Leone has some 250 miles (400 kilometers) of coastline, giving it both bountiful marine resources and attractive tourist potential. This is followed by low-lying mangrove swamps, rain-forested plains and farmland, and finally a mountainous plateau in the east, where Mount Bintumani rises to 6,390 feet (1,948 meters). The climate is tropical, with two seasons determining the agricultural cycle: the rainy season from May to November, followed by the dry season from December to May, which includes harmattan, when cool, dry winds blow in off the Sahara Desert. The capital Freetown sits on a coastal peninsula, situated next to the world’s third largest natural harbor. This prime location historically made Sierra Leone the center of trade and colonial administration in the region.
The population of Sierra Leone is around 7 million people (National Statistics Report Census 2016), the majority being children and youth. The population had been increasing at just over 2 percent per year, though this has declined somewhat since civil conflict began in 1991 and the outbreak of the “Ebola” epidemic in 2014 and ends in 2015. Thirty-six (36) percent of the people live in urban areas; the average woman bears three children during her lifetime. There are also numerous Sierra Leoneans living and working abroad, especially in England and the United States. They generate active discussion concerning events in their country and provide an important source of resources for their families at home
Different reports list between sixteen to twenty different ethnic groups. This is a discrepancy not so much as to whether a certain group of people “exists” or not, but whether local dialects once spoken continue to be mutually distinct in the face of population expansion, intermarriages, and migration. For example, the two largest ethnic groups, the Temne and Mende, each comprise about 30 percent of the total population and have come to “absorb” many of their less populous neighbors. For instance, Loko people will admit to being heavily culturally influenced by the Temne people surrounding them, the Krim and the Gola people were also culturally influenced by the Mende people, and so on.
In addition, there are also a good number of people of Lebanese descent, whose ancestors fled Turkish persecution in Lebanon in the late nineteenth century. While each ethnic group speaks its own language, the majority of people speak Mende, Temne, or Krio. The official language spoken in schools and government administration is English, a product of British colonial influence. It is not unusual for a child growing up to learn four different languages—that of their parent’s ethnic group, a neighboring group, Krio, and English.
To some extent symbolic imagery is regionally based—people from the western area often associate the tall cotton tree, white sandy beaches, or the large natural harbor with home; people from the east often think of coffee and cocoa plantations. Yet the palm tree and the rice grain are the national symbols par excellence, immortalized in currency, song, and folklore, and valued for their central and staple contributions to everyday life. Different products of the palm tree contribute to cooking oil, thatch roofs, fermented wine, soap, fruits, and nuts. Perhaps the only product more important than that of the palm tree is rice, the staple food, usually eaten every day. It is often hard for outsiders to grasp the centrality of rice to daily existence in Sierra Leone. Mende people, for example, have over 20 different words to describe rice in its variant forms, such as separate words for “sweet rice,” “pounded rice,” and “the rice that sticks to the bottom of a pot upon cooking.”
Before the expedition of Pedro da centra, archaeological evidence suggests that people have occupied Sierra Leone for at least twenty-five hundred years, and early migrations, expeditions, and wars gave the country its diverse cultural and ethnic mosaic. Traders and missionaries, especially from the north, were instrumental in spreading knowledge of tools, education, and Islam. The emergence of a modern national identity, however, did not begin until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Bunce Island, off the coast of Freetown, became one of the centers of the West African slave trade. Over two thousand slaves per year were channeled through this port, thus increasing the incidence of warfare and violence among the local population. The slaves were especially valued off the coast of South Carolina on rice plantations, where it was discovered they had considerable agricultural expertise.
There are between fifteen and twenty ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, depending on one’s linguistic tendency to “lump” or “split” groups of people speaking different dialects. Relations have been generally cordial among them, and Sierra Leone has largely avoided the racial tension characteristic of other parts of the world. In the recent electioneering period, for instance, one family may have children fighting for opposing sides, a fact which makes the violence difficult, as well as deeply and personally felt. When ethnic problems do arise, they often do so around the time of national elections, when politicians become accused of catering to the desires of one particular constituency or region (usually their own ethnic group) in order to gain votes.
When the slave trade began to be outlawed near the close of the eighteenth century, Sierra Leone became a resettlement site for freed slaves from England and the Americas, thus led to the name of the capital, “Freetown.” English philanthropists, concerned about the welfare of unemployed blacks on the streets of London, pushed a “benevolent” movement to round them all up and take them back to Africa to settle, where they could begin life anew. Other migrants had been ex-slaves from America who had fought for the British during the Revolutionary War. The English loss had forced them to move to Canada, where they were not entirely welcome. Still others were ex-slaves who had revolted and were living freely in the mountains of Jamaica, until the British conquered the area and deported them to Nova Scotia, from where they immigrated to Sierra Leone.
Finally, from the time when the English officially outlawed the slave trade in 1807 up until the 1860s, the British navy policed the West African coast for trading ships would intercept them and release their human cargoes in Freetown, in what became a rapidly expanding settlement.
National identity has been influenced by several factors. Besides the common experiences shared under colonialism or since independence, one of the most important has been the development of the regional lingua franca Krio, a language that unites all the different ethnic groups, especially in their trade and interaction with each other. Another has been the near universal membership, across ethnic lines, in men’s and women’s social organizations, especially Poro among the men, and Bundu, or Sande, among the women.