Research in the Sierra Leone Public Archives in Freetown

by Carolin Rippstain

As part of my research on the intellectual cooperation on Kanuri language between the German missionary S. W. Koelle and the Kanuri Ali Eisami (European alias William Harding), in mid-19th century Sierra Leone, I conducted fieldwork in Freetown in November and December 2021. My research interest was focused on Sierra Leone‘s Kanuri community in general, details about the life of Ali Eisami in particular, and about places and institutions he was related to, but also on the living conditions of Liberated Africans. Therefore I mainly worked with the records kept at the Sierra Leone Public Archives (SLPA).

Systematic record keeping in Sierra Leone was begun in 1895, yet a big variety of documents starting in the early 19th century have survived. During recent history, however, the archival collections have been subjected to several disruptions, including relocations and storage in unsuited locations, which caused serious disorder and damage as well as the loss of parts of the collections. At some point the documents were brought to the Fourah Bay College (FBC) as a temporary solution. Until today, however, no measures have been taken to end this state, so the documents, already in a bad physical condition, deteriorate ever further remaining in two rooms at FBC on Mount Aureol in Freetown, largely unnoticed by the public.

Despite its physical state the SLPA is a rich source especially regarding the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, offering vast information on victims of the human trafficking as well as details on their ensuing liberation, resettlement and living conditions in the Colony. But the Archive is confronted with many difficulties like a constantly precarious financial situation, mirrored in low wages for the staff as well as inappropriate storage facilities – as such, problems that Katrina Keefer and team, well acquainted with the SLPA, describe as „systemic, pervasive, and governed by limitations within the country“[1]. Yet it is important to point out, as they do, that the local archival staff do not lack initiative or effort. Regardless of the official neglect they do their best to guard the collections as well as enable foreign researchers to work with them. More recent attempts at preserving the Archives and its contents mainly originate outside the country, with scientific interest and funding likewise being to a great extent provided by Western scientists. In recent years the main engagement with the SLPA took part within the scope of a series of digitisation projects initiated by Paul Lovejoy and Suzanne Schwarz with grants of the Endangered Archives Project intended to prevent the loss of invaluable yet mainly unexplored records.[2] These in turn form part of a broader digital hub initiated by Lovejoy, linking together different sources on trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.[3] The digitisation is an extremely important and helpful measure, at the same time securing the collection’s contents as well as facilitating access to them for people from both in- and outside the country, yet it is not a solution for the Archives‘ problems.


Conditions of the 20th century police records

Most prominently the collections contain the Liberated African Registers, lists of new arrivals, which contain indication of cultural attributes in the form of Native names, and in certain periods also individual marks. Apart from this there are various other records of the Liberated African Department, containing Return and Letterbooks or Statements of Disposal. Moreover we find Birth and Death Registers, Police and Court Records or correspondence by different Colonial officials. All these combined offer the possibility to piece together a picture of attitudes towards and treatment of Liberated Africans, and, to a certain extent, allow to trace individuals by their European name. As regards the Kanuri, official documents do not contain definitive traces which is propably due to their rather small number of around 200 members in the 1820-30s. Moreover they had already by the 1850s been reduced to some 30 members, due to high death rates caused by Sierra Leone‘s tropical climate.[4] The Registers show that around 1817-19 very many new arrivals where sent to Bathurst, the village also Eisami had been allocated to. Further analyses of their names and noted marks might allow to ascertain their origin, and see if other Kanuri where among them. Concerning Eisami in particular, Lovejoy had already identified an entry in the Register of Liberated Africans for 1816-19 that could, although with some uncertainty, be attributed to him.[ii] During my search I in turn found an entry in the Death Register, District Freetown, 1874-75, that with the same uncertainty might relate to Eisami. Entry Nr. 348. states the death of William Harding, 85, a former trader who had died of old age on the 8th November 1874 in Coleman Street. The age given in the Registers often seems to be an estimate more than actual knowledge and thus approximately fits Eisami’s.


Another point of interest was Eisami’s being a Constable, but as there were no records kept on the police within the control of the Liberated African Department prior to October 1830, there is no documentation available on his early years.[6] Yet different documents give indications concerning the Constables‘ general recruitment and function at that time. The village Managers (CMS Missionaries) „in their capacity of Justices of the Peace“[7] were usually given a free hand in selecting any person exhibiting „steady habits“[8] as Constables and those two parties were consequently almost autonomous in the handling of local justice. By the 1850s, however, Eisami was no longer a Constable and, together with the remaining Kanuri community, had in all likelihood moved to Cline Town, an independent settlement, belonging to Freetown District.[9] It was located at Fourah Bay close to the Old College building, the place where Koelle and Eisami worked on their linguistic project.

Founding the fame of the ‚Athens of West Africa‘, Fourah Bay College which is now located on Mount Aureol today still lures with its name, while studying conditions in turn have deteriorated considerably.[10] The same holds true for the Old FBC building – its facade still appears impressive and solid, on the inside, however, decay is undeniable and entry prohibited due to danger of collapse.

As for the Kanuri, they, just like most Liberated African communities decimated over time by death and emigration, seem to have gradually lost their cultural autonomy, which facilitated assimilation with the earliest settlers (Nova Scotians, Jamaican Maroons and Britain’s Black Poor) into a shared identity as an alledgedly distinct group called the Krios – the validity and scope of this phenomenon however continue to be controversially discussed.[11] The Krios nowadays amount to only around 1,3% of the total population, yet Liberated African’s history is an integral part of Sierra Leone‘s early history, presenting the country‘s unique feature. I am grateful to have had the possibility to work with the SLPA’s highly interesting records regardless of the Archive‘s difficult situation, made possible by the dedicated and supportive local archival staff. My special thanks goes to John Sannoh as well as Samuel Bangura and Mustapha Kallon for their support during my stay.


Mustapha Kallon, John Sannoh, Carolin Rippstain and Samuel Bangura


[1] Katrina Keefer, Eric Lehman, Michael McGill and Gabriela Mattia, ‚Documenting and Digitizing with Dignity: Ethical Considerations and the West African Frontier Force Personnel Records‘, Esclavages & Post-esclavages [Online], 3/2020, Online since 27 November 2020 [23.01.22].

[2] See description of digitisation project EAP782-1: https://eap.bl.uk/collection/EAP782-1.

[3] https://liberatedafricans.org/sources.php.

[4] S. W. Koelle, 1854, Grammar of the Bórnu or Kánuri Language: VIII.

[5] Paul E. Lovejoy, 2020, ‚Ali Eisami’s Enslavement in Jihad and Emancipation as a Liberated African‘, in: Liberated Africans and the  Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807–1896, Richard Anderson and Henry B. Lovejoy (eds.), 127-149.

[6] SLPA, Liberated African Department Letterbook 1830-31, p. 122: letter by Alexander Findlay to Under Secretary of State, 6th October 1830.

[7] Ibid.

[8] SPLA, Liberated African Department Letterbook, 1830-31, p. 132, letter by Assistant Superintendent Cole to Manager of the Mountain District, Jones, 14th October 1830.

[9] CMS, CA1/M14, Mission Book 1848 – 52: Rev. G. Nicol letter to Henry Venn, 7th June 1851.

[10] Ibrahim Abdullah, ‚Fourah Bay College: Dying, not dead!‘, Pambazuka News, 30 June 2016 https://www.pambazuka.org/education/fourah-bay-college-dying-not-dead [27.01.22].

[11] C. Magbaily Fyle, „Unity in Diversity: Ethnicity and National Consciousness in Sierra Leone“, talk held at: National Consultative Conference, Freetown, March 2013 ; David Skinner and Barbara E. Harrell-Bond, 1977, ‚Misunderstandings Arising from the Use of the Term ‘Creole’ in the Literature on Sierra Leone‘, in: Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 47/3, 305-320.






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