News and Views

Sierra Leone’s layers of history

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A past filled with historical memories slowly crumbles away on a forgotten island in Sierra Leone. Tommy Trenchard

Sherbro island, Sierra Leone – Sherbro island – also known as Bonthe island – is a marshy expanse of mangrove-encircled scrubland stretching out into the placid waters of the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of southern Sierra Leone.

Once a thriving trading post and a major town, today Bonthe is a sleepy and impoverished fishing village – a victim of its remoteness.

The island was originally home to the Sherbro people, but the demographic changed as European powers fought over the island for generations and waves of freed slaves returning from the British Empire and the Americas established new communities here throughout the 19th century.

Trade thrived, and even as late as the 1970s, resident Krio families talked of Bonthe as a vibrant town with a social scene to rival the country’s rapidly growing capital Freetown, said historian Joseph Opala.

But as Freetown grew and businesses gradually migrated to the mainland, Bonthe lost its importance as a trading town.

But the island’s past is never far away. The former glory days are embedded in the crumbling remains of Bonthe’s history lining its sandy streets.

American-style Krio board houses, brought back by returning slaves, stand next to long unused colonial water hydrants and the ruins of early European trading companies. An incongruous British telephone box overlooks rusting fishing boats on the seafront.

The signs of the town’s past life can be found everywhere, fighting a futile battle against the brutal humidity and the tropical undergrowth that is slowly reclaiming them.

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