The modern country of Sierra Leone faces the Atlantic Ocean along its coastline, and the countries of Liberia and Guinea to the south, east and north. In shape it is roughly circular, its population of just over three and a half million people occupying an area of some 28,000 square miles. The boundaries, finally agreed less than a century ago, follow the rivers and watersheds in places but otherwise are drawn as straight lines between agreed points: they surround a land comprising a rich diversity of peoples and terrain.
This part of West Africa had been inhabited for a long time before Alvaro Fernandes sighted it in 1446 and Pero de Sintra mapped its outline in 1462. They were looking for a sea route to the East from which came spices and silk, and for the source of the gold that had for centuries been traded across the Sahara. In contrast to the low, surf-bound coastline that lay to the north, they came to a fine natural harbour where fresh water, timber, fruits and vegetables could be obtained from the local people. The estuary was a place of great natural beauty with mountains reaching near to the shore on the southern peninsula, and they called it Serra Lyoa or Lion Mountains, a name that has been given a number of explanations including their leonine shapes, the presence of lions, or even to the thunder that rolled round their peaks and sounded like their roaring. Trade was available as they were offered slaves and ivory in exchange for all kinds of European goods. In time they realised the value of the camwood trees from which a rich red dye could be extracted; they found that small quantities of gold were available and beeswax for candlemaking. Iron bars became the standard of trade, all articles being valued in terms of so many bars. The first detailed description we have of the country was written by Andre Donelha in 1625.
English explorers such as Sir John Hawkins, Francis Drake and Edward Fenton, had called there but it was not until the seventeenth century that traders began to establish trading posts. In 1663 The Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa, supplied with a charter from King Charles the second, built forts on Tasso and Sherbro islands; nine years later they were renamed The Royal African Company which continued trading until they abandoned their Sierra Leone operations in 1728. After their demise in 1752, The Company of Merchants Trading in Africa took over their assets and trade was resumed. Apart from these more settled traders, the main business was slave trading carried on by private captains who worked their way down the coast, purchasing slaves where they could, a few unscrupulous ones even entic-ing natives aboard and kidnapping them. The trade goods that went out to West Africa made a major contribution to the Industrial Revolution and their value was so great that most businessmen supported the slave trade against the growing opposition of Churchmen and philanthropists.
The first settlement in Sierra Leone was in 1787 when 411 passengers sailed from Plymouth. They were mainly black people who had been found destitute in London and had attracted the pity of Granville Sharp: some were Loyalists who had made their way across the Atlantic after the War of American Independence, others were former slaves abandoned by their owners after the judgment by Lord Mansfield in Somersett’s case in 1772 when permission had been refused to return a Jamaican slave from England and slavery in England had been described as ‘so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.’ Sharp had formed a Committee for the Black Poor and started a national subscription on their behalf. Members were attracted by a plan, proposed by Henry Smeatham who had been on the Banana Islands near Sierra Leone, that settlers should be taken out there. The scheme was finally underwritten by the Treasury at a cost of £15,000. Land was purchased near the modern Freetown from a local King Tom and Granville Town was founded. It soon transpired that King Tom was a sub-chief of a King Naimbana who disclaimed the purchase but put his mark to a new Treaty in 1788. However, relationships with the local people deteriorated, fighting broke out, and Granville Town was burnt to the ground. The settlers scattered.
In London attempts were made to help these unfortunates and to establish a colony on a firmer footing. Eventually an Act was passed in 1791 constituting a Sierra Leone Company. Its spokesman in Parliament was William Wilberforce but its principal supporters were Thomas Clarkson and Henry Thornton; the company was intended to promote trade, advance civilization, and oppose slavery. As a result of their efforts, John Clarkson, a younger brother of Thomas, brought 1200 former slaves on an heroic voyage from Nova Scotia to strengthen the little colony. Later, 550 others from Jamaica, known as the Maroons, added to the number. Dollars and cents were used for money, sterling only becoming legal tender in
Before the colony was founded there were no public arrangements for the transmission of mail. The new Colony, however, had postal regulations that were contained in an early Constitution of Sierra Leone.