A short while ago I was lucky enough to join VSL on a tour to Bunce Island. It had been on the top of my list because of the rich and intense history of the island. It was worth the trip. The encounter was one that stirred me deeply, and in this article I will share my experience of one of the most astonishing and humbling tours I have ever been on.
A tropical island with a haunting past
I joined a group of about fifteen people, who happened to be tourists from the States (originally from Trinidad). According to our tour guide Abdulai, most visitors are either Europeans, Sierra Leoneans from the diaspora or so-called “roots explorers,” African-Americans or people of the Caribbeans who have taken an interest in West-African history. We were all excited to embark on the adventure. Some geared up with sun hats, some with a bottle of Black Label.
The boat ride from Freetown to Bunce Island took about 45 minutes and offered us some spectacular views. Such as the mountains of Freetown, the iron ore mining site at Pepel and Tasso Island, the first island that was turned into a slave-trade post by the Portuguese and the Dutch but was abandoned for Bunce Island as it was too large to control.
Upon arrival, our tour guide gave us a 20 minute history lesson. No flashcards, no booklet; it was clear that he was an expert in the field. Everything he told us was interesting. From all the battles fought by the Europeans over ownership of the Island, to the flora and fauna that can be found on the island. Everyone listened intently, apart from two of the caretakers, who were hanging around their local fisher boat, listening to an ancient transistor radio that played old Congolese soukous.
We explored the island as a group. Abdulai stopped every 50 meters to explain what we saw. As Bunce Island has not been restored to its original state, what is left of the once majestic fort is overgrown ruins. The result is quite dramatic. Lush tropical plants climb through the remnants of what used to be the female quarters. Flowers bloom next to tombs, palm trees sway in a soft breeze. As we continued, the commentary of our tour guide became graver and graver.
With a bit of imagination I could imagine Bunce Island during its peak activity. Hear the cries of the people that were branded to become property, see where the slave masters could observe their purchase through holes in the roof. I could hear the firing of the cannons, aimed at enemy ships, destroying those who were ready to splurge into the lucrative trade.
Bunce Island is left to decay, and although this raises questions of preservation, it does have a certain charm. It is authentic, raw- a painful history that is burying itself under layers of greenery. This is different from other former slave trading posts found in West-Africa, such as Elmina Castle in Ghana, which have been restored to its original state.
Our tour ended at the Amazing Tree. A massive cotton tree with two-meter high branches that lends itself excellent for group photos. But I paying more attention to the little tufts of cotton that fell down from the tree, weightless, leaving the earth specked with white.
Apparently, Bunce Island used to be a sacred land. It served as a place of worship for the ancestors. Now it is completely abandoned, stained by the history linked to the island.
Still, visiting Bunce Island felt to me as exploring something vivid. The stark beauty of the island, the sound of the crickets and of the waves, combined with the luxuriant flora made it an invigorating experience. If I tried hard, I could forget about the past and just see a pretty tropical island. But as I went back to reality, back to Freetown on a quiet boat ride, I couldn’t stop from sensing that Bunce Island had left a permanent mark on me. The history of so many can be linked to this place. When I spoke to Lennox Jones, one of the Trinidadians who had also joined the tour, he told me of his own experience. “It was great to get so close and personal with this kind of history. It was enlightening.”
To that, I can only agree.