Freetown is the capital and largest city of Sierra Leone. It is a major port city in the Atlantic Ocean and is located in the Western Area of the country. Freetown is Sierra Leone's major urban, economic, financial, cultural, educational and political centre. The city proper had a population of 772,873 at the 2004 census.
As of 2010, the population of Freetown is estimated at 1.2 million. The city's economy revolves largely around its harbor, which occupies a part of the estuary of the Sierra Leone River in one of the world's largest natural deep water harbours.
The population of Freetown is ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse, among Muslims and Christians. The city is home to a significant population of virtually all of the country's ethnic groups, with no single ethnic group forming a majority of the city's population. As in virtually all parts of Sierra Leone, the Krio language is Freetown's primary language of communication and is by far the most widely spoken language in the city.
Province of Freedom (1787–1789)
The area was first settled in 1787 by 400 formerly enslaved Black Britons sent from London, England, under the auspices of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, an organisation set up by Jonah Hanway and the British abolitionist, Granville Sharp. They established the 'Province of Freedom' and the settlement of Granville Town on land purchased from local Koya Temne subchief King Tom and regent Naimbana. The British understood the purchase to mean their new settlers had the land "for ever." Although the established arrangement between Europeans and the Koya Temne included provisions for permanent settlement, some historians question how well the Koya leaders understood the agreement, as they had a different conception of the uses of property.
Disputes soon broke out. King Tom's successor, King Jimmy, burnt the settlement to the ground in 1789. Alexander Falconbridge was sent to Sierra Leone in 1791 to collect the remaining Black Poor settlers, and they re-established Granville Town around the area now known as Cline Town, Sierra Leone near Fourah Bay. These 1787 settlers did not formally establish Freetown, even though the bicentennial of Freetown was celebrated in 1987. But formally, Freetown was founded in 1792.
Freetown Colony (1792–1808)
In 1791, Thomas Peters, an African American who had served in the Black Pioneers, went to England to report the grievances of the black population in Nova Scotia. American slaves who joined British forces, known as Black Loyalists, had been given their freedom and resettled there by the Crown after the American Revolution. Land grants and assistance in starting the settlements had been intermittent and slow.
During his visit, Peters met with the directors of the Sierra Leone Company and learned of proposals for a new settlement at Sierra Leone. Despite the collapse of the 1787 colony, the directors were eager to recruit settlers to Sierra Leone. Lieutenant John Clarkson, RN, who was an abolitionist, was sent to Nova Scotia in British North America to register immigrants to take to Sierra Leone for a new settlement.
Tired of the harsh weather and racial discrimination in Nova Scotia, more than 1,100 former American slaves chose to go to Sierra Leone. They sailed in 15 ships and arrived in St. George Bay between February 26 – March 9, 1792. Sixty-four settlers died en route to Sierra Leone, and Lieutenant Clarkson was among those taken ill during the voyage. Upon reaching Sierra Leone, Clarkson and some of the Nova Scotian 'captains' "dispatched on shore to clear or make roadway for their landing". The Nova Scotians were to build Freetown on the former site of the first Granville Town, where jungle had taken over since its destruction in 1789. Its surviving Old Settlers had relocated to Fourah Bay in 1791.
At Freetown, the women remained in the ships while the men worked to clear the land. Lt. Clarkson told the men to clear the land until they reached a large cotton tree. After the work had been done and the land cleared, all the Nova Scotians, men and women, disembarked and marched towards the thick forest and to the cotton tree, and their preachers (all African Americans) began singing "Awake and Sing Of Moses and the Lamb."
In March 1792, Nathaniel Gilbert, a white preacher, prayed and preached a sermon under the large Cotton Tree, and Reverend David George, from South Carolina, preached the first recorded Baptist service in Africa. The land was dedicated and christened 'Free Town,' as ordered by the Sierra Leone Company Directors. This was the first thanksgiving service.
John Clarkson was sworn in as first governor of Sierra Leone. Small huts were erected before the rainy season. The Sierra Leone Company surveyors and the settlers built Freetown on the American grid pattern, with parallel streets and wide roads, with the largest being Water Street. On August 24, 1792, the Black Poor or Old Settlers of the second Granville Town were incorporated into the new Sierra Leone Colony, but remained at Granville Town.
In 1793, the settlers sent a petition to the Sierra Leone Company expressing concerns about the treatment that they were enduring. The settlers in particular objected to being issued currency that was only redeemable at a company owned store. They also claimed that the governor, Mr. Dawes ruled in an almost tyrannical fashion, favoring certain people over others when ruling the settlement. The writers then argued that they had not received the amount of land that Lt. Clarkson had promised them on leaving Nova Scotia. The letter expressed anxiety that the company was not treating them as freemen, but as slaves and requested that Lt. Clarkson return as governor.
In 1800, the Black migrants from Nova Scotians rebelled. The British authorities used the arrival of 500 Jamaican Maroons to suppress the insurrection. Thirty-four Nova Scotians were banished and sent to either the Sherbro or a penal colony at Gore. Some of the Nova Scotians were eventually allowed back into Freetown. After the Maroons captured the Nova Scotian rebels, they were granted their land. Eventually the Maroons had their own district at Maroon Town.
Freetown as a Crown Colony (1808–1961)
Indigenous Africans attacked the colony in 1801 and were repulsed. The British eventually took control of Freetown, making it a Crown Colony in 1808. This act accompanied expansion that led to the creation of Sierra Leone.
From 1808 to 1874, the city served as the capital of British West Africa. It also served as the base for the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron, which was charged with enforcing the ban on the slave trade. When the squadron liberated slaves on trading ships, they brought most to Sierra Leone, and Freetown in particular. The grew to include descendants of many different peoples from all over the west coast of Africa. The British also situated three of their Mixed Commission Courts in Freetown.
The liberated Africans established the suburbs of Freetown Peninsula. They were the largest group of immigrants to make up the Creole people of Freetown. The city expanded rapidly. The freed slaves were joined by West Indian and African soldiers, who had fought for Britain in the Napoleonic Wars and settled here afterward. Descendants of the freed slaves who settled in Sierra Leone between 1787 and 1792, are called the Creoles. The Creoles play a leading role in the city, although they are a minority of the overall Sierra Leone population.
During World War II, Britain maintained a naval base at Freetown. The base was a staging post for Allied traffic in the South Atlantic and the assembly point for SL convoys to Britain. An RAF base was maintained at nearby Lungi airfield.
Civil war, 1990s
The city was the scene of fierce fighting in the late 1990s during the civil war in the country. It was captured by ECOWAS troops seeking to restore President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 1998. Later it was unsuccessfully attacked by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front.