The Island of No Return

The 25th of March is the United Nations’ International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery. For this we are doing a series of blogs this week.

Along the west coast of Africa during the Middle Passage, known as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, there were about 40 factories – slave trading forts. Like the concentration camps in Germany, that are visited by Germans and people from across the world as a reminder of the Holocaust during WWII, there are remains of these factories that have enabled historians to build naratives about them. Historian Joseph Opala has created a picture of what took place in the slave factory on Bunce Island during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Like the concentration camps, the picture is ugly, one of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’.

Think of the term ’barbarism’, a term used to apply to ‘other’ people, people who are not like us and then apply the term to people who were us, because it was a British slave trading fort. The slave factory on Bunce is like the Pompeii of the slave trade. Opala’s 30 years of excavations have revealed how people lived, how the process of enslaving and trading took place, and how the slave trade agents behaved. Opala was also able to show the DNA links between the indigenous people in Sierra Leone and people now living in the US:

“Joseph Opala is an American historian noted for establishing the ‘Gullah Connection,’ the historical links between the indigenous people of the West African nation of Sierra Leone and the Gullah people of the Low Country region of South Carolina and Georgia in the United States.

“Opala’s historical research began with a study of Bunce Island, the British slave castle in Sierra Leone that was a departure point for many African slaves shipped to South Carolina and Georgia in the mid- and late 18th century Middle Passage. He was the first scholar to recognize that Bunce Island has greater importance for the Gullah than any other West African slave castle. He ranks it as ‘the most important historic site in Africa for the United States.’”[1]

At the Bunce Island Exhibit:

“In many respects, it [Bunce Island] is a slave trade Pompeii and going there today one has the sense that history stopped 200 years ago. A Sierra Leonean historian once called it a place ‘where history sleeps.'”[2]

The first fortress built by the British was in 1670. They built some and took over some factories built by the Portuguese for example. The British conquered El Mina in the country now called Ghana in 1664.[3]

The Bunce Slave Factory was built in 1670. It is situated at the mouth of the Rokel River near Freetown in Sierra Leone. The advantage of this was that people could be captured and enslaved from villages in the African hinterland by local traders. Enslaved Africans were then ferried in local canoes out to Bunce Island to a clearing outside the defensive walls of the fortress, not far from the main gate.

“The clearing was where the buying and selling was done. Here slave-traders displayed their wares – [not only] captive human beings, but also ivory, gold and camwood, from which a coloured dye was extracted. The British agents came out to meet their trading partners, bringing with them bottles of wine and rum to help lubricate the coming negotiations. In exchange for slaves and other valuable commodities the British offered glass beads, bundles of cloth, gunpowder, European metal goods, tobacco pipes, bottles of liquor and European weapons. Until a few years ago the ground of the Sorting Yard was littered with tiny glass beads and fragments of pottery that had been dropped and discarded by both buyers and sellers, centuries earlier. Most of these grim souvenirs have been hoovered up by tourists who travel out to Bunce Island[4] from Freetown, but many more relics from the trade lie beneath the soil, along with iron nails used to attach shackles and chains to African arms and legs, and broken bottles. It was in the Sorting Yard, during the early years of Bunce Island’s history, that the captives once purchased, were branded with hot irons, and marked indelibly with the initials of the companies that owned them.”[5]

The Duke of York, later to become King James II of England and James VII of Scotland in 1685, led the Royal African Company. He liked to have his human chattels branded with his initials ‘DoY’. Others were branded with the company initials, ‘RAC’.[6]

David Olusoga paints a horrifying picture of what went on to acquire the human chattels, the enslaved Africans who eventually arrived at the Sorting Yard. Armed raiders sacked villages and kidnapped people, mainly young men, from the villages and smaller numbers of women and children. Killing other people in their wake and destroying their communities. For any of those left, survival was precarious because the strong in the village, those able to work had been kidnapped. We talk about the 12-15 million Africans that were enslaved, the death toll would have been much greater through the murder and starvation of the remaining villagers. The kidnapped Africans would then have been taken to the slave factories like that on Bunce Island. All those left behind and those enslaved would have been traumatised, what we now think of as Post Traumatic Stress.

Where the Portuguese were the first Europeans to transport enslaved Africans to the colonies, it was the British that industrialised the process. From the distressing ships designed to pack human beings like sardines in a tin used for the Middle Passage, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, to the factories like Bunce Island:

“More than some comparable fortresses Bunce operated like a factory in the industrial sense. It was, in a way, a proto-industrial production line, along which captive Africans were bought and sold, sorted, processed, warehoused and literally branded – marking them out as human commodities, at least in the eyes of the captors. These processes were part of an organised and globalised system designed to turn captive Africans into New World slaves, a process that was completed – for those that survived the Atlantic crossing – on the plantations of the Americas during the ‘seasoning’, a brutal period of punishments, beatings, cultural deracination and instruction designed to break the spirit.”[7]

In 1662 King Charles II set up the Royal African Company (RAC)[8] with investors from the City of London. The investors included people like his brother James, the Duke of York and who also held the Duchy of Cornwall and Edward Colston from Bristol. It was set up to get a monopoly of English trade along the west coast of Africa initially for gold. With the gold unforthcoming, they included in an update of the charter to include trade in slaves.

The RAC employed agents, people like Thomas Corker[9] from Falmouth in Cornwall. Aged 14 he left Falmouth for his apprenticeship to the RAC in 1683-84 and was eventually stationed on York Island, down the coast from Bunce Island. He married the Sherbro Princess, second daughter, Yema (Senora Doll), of King Ya Cumba, the ruling family on the coast of Yawry Bay. Their children also became slave trade agents[10] and as Olusoga points out:

“Some of the traders were Africans, others were from mixed-race, Afro-Portuguese or Afro-English peoples, powerful coastal communities that were the offspring of European slave-traders and local women.”[11]

On Bunce Island the agents’ quarters were 100 feet in length and 30 feet in breadth, big enough for 9 rooms and a huge dining area with cellars and storerooms below.

“The front had a full-length veranda and the main entrance was an arched doorway that opened up into a hallway in which had been built a fireplace. In a country in which temperatures almost never drop below 20°C this was a purely decorative flourish. The faux gentility of the agents’ house was undermined by the fact that the windows of the room in which they and their guests dined and drank looked directly into the Men’s Holding Yard…..On the right-hand side of the door, when entered from the Women’s Holding Yard, there was, it appears, a rudimentary bathroom and to the left some sort of chamber…..The appalling conclusion that some of them [historians] have reached is that it was what Miss Isatu Smith, the formidable Director of the Sierra Leonean Monuments and Relics Committee, calls the ‘rape house’ of Bunce Island.”[12]

Visitors to the agents’ house in the 1700s recorded how they were entertained on Bunce Island. There was an orange grove adjacent to the Rape House where agents and visitors relaxed and drank wine, archaeologists have excavated a copious number of wine bottles in the area that also evidences this. There was even a two-hole golf course, the first in Africa, and an icehouse.[13] Agents and their visitors were treated to extravagant dinners, wine from Madeira and tobacco from Virginia. Sickened not only by the fact that agents and visitors enjoyed themselves whilst Africans were being held captive, but that a visit to the Rape House was part of the entertainment too.[14]

Once the slave ships arrived, enslaved Africans were taken out of the yards and down to the jetty. A blacksmith was stationed there on the way and the chattel slaves were shackled on their ankles. Then they were rowed away from their homeland, never to be seen again out to the slave ships, away from Bunce Island, the Island of no Return.

Image at top of blog

Artist’s impression of Bunce Island from the northwest, c. 1727 (Wikimedia Commons)

Caption Reads:

The North-west Prospect of Bense Island on the River Sierra-Leone

Sierra-Leone was first discovered and possess’d by Portugeze but afterwards taken by the English. This Country, like most others in Africa is all over Woody also very mountaneous and barren, insomuch as the English Factory here is mostly supplyd with Provisions from Sherbro a neighbouring River (as appears by y map) where stands another English Factory subordinate to Sierraleone which y Englishchooses to reside at, because y Fort at Sherbro is entirely runin’d, & that on Bense Island is in very good Repair as above. The Mountains of the Country are exceeding high & harbour many wild beasts such as Leopards, Tygers & Lyons, from whence y Portugueze first named Sierra Leone or y Mountain of Lyons. The chief trade of these Parts are Slaves, Ivory, and Camwwod.

Read More

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga – this book is a long read and well worth it. It’s a ‘We are Here Because You Were There’ kind of book providing examples of British History in the colonies that connects to British history at home, the impact which is sometimes devastating, the ‘uncomfortable’ history and the brutality. Events don’t just happen, there are drivers behind them, and groups of people behind them and there business interests.

A Conversation with Joseph Opala, the Noted Historian Best Known for the “Gullah Connection” BBC Radio and Joseph Opala in Wikipedia

Kennesaw State University Bunce Island Exhibition

Bunce Island in Wikipedia


[1] Yale University’s research Slavery and its Legacies: Joseph Opala on the Black Seminoles November 18th 2019 https://slaveryanditslegacies.yale.edu/news/joseph-opala-black-seminoles

[2] Kennesaw State University Centre for African and African Diaspora Studies: Bunce Island Exhibit https://dga.kennesaw.edu/caads/bunce-island.php

[3] Ghana – Culture Trip – Ghana’s Slave Castles: The Shocking Story of the Ghanaian Cape Coast https://theculturetrip.com/africa/ghana/articles/ghana-s-slave-castles-the-shocking-story-of-the-ghanaian-cape-coast/

[4] Bunce Island history by Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bunce_Island

[5] Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga in his Introduction: Years of Distant Wandering first published in 2016 by Macmillan and from the paperback version in 2017 by Pan Books page 3

[6] Royal African Company in Wikipedia. “Historian William Pettigrew has stated that this company ‘shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade’, and that investors in the company were fully aware of its activities and intended to profit from this exploitation. Between 1662 and 1731, the Company transported approximately 212,000 slaves, of whom 44,000 died en route, around 3,000 per year. By that time, they also transported slaves to English colonies in North America.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_African_Company

[7] Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga in his Introduction: Years of Distant Wandering page 2

[8] Privy Council List of Charters Granted on behalf of the Sovereign, at the time in 1662 this was King Charles II https://privycouncil.independent.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/List-of-Charters-Granted.pdf 

[9] Black History Bootleg is researching into Thomas Corker because he was born Rob Burn’s and Kate Thomas’s home-town and we hope to publish the research in the coming months. To note that the Corker name changed to Caulker over time.

[10] The Caulkers of Sierra Leone: The Story of a Ruling Family and their times by Imodale Caulker-Burnett published by Xlibris Corporation in 2010 page 41

[11] Black and British: A Forgotten History page 3

[12] Black and British: A Forgotten History pages 4 and 5

[13] The earliest known ice-house in England was made for King James I in 1619 and became fashionable in the Georgian Britain in the 1700s for the rich. The Persians had developed the technology and engineering 2 thousand years earlier. However the Ice House on Bunce Island was stocked, it did display the height of luxury. See Wikipedia the Persian ice-house https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakhch and the ice-house building https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_house_(building) 

[14] Black and British: A Forgotten History

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