DEEZ NIGGAS CRAZY
We’ve explored many African countries during Black History Month 2018 that have no cultural or genetic relationship to the ancestors of African-Americans: Central African Republic, South Sudan, Mali, Mauritania, Zambia, Botswana, Niger, Egypt and Wakanda (sorry to be a black-piller, but that one isn’t real and it is supposed to be in East Africa).
We’ve covered a few African countries which were sources of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the ancestors of African-Americans. These include Senegal, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau and Côte d’Ivoire. There are two countries in sub-Saharan Africa, however, which have a special relationship with African-Americans. These countries are Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa.
As it happens, Sierra Leone is the African country that turns up as “the most frequent result for DNA tests in the U.S.” of African-Americans tracing their ancestry:
This doesn’t come as a surprise.
The vast majority of American slaves were brought to American South in the 18th century. They worked on the tobacco farms of the Chesapeake and the rice plantations of the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry. The peak of the Transatlantic Slave Trade was between 1750 and 1807.
In South Carolina and Georgia, the rice planters favored slaves that were imported from the “Rice Coast” of West Africa, which is the area that stretches from Senegal to Liberia. In this region, Great Britain was the dominant power in Sierra Leone, Liberia and The Gambia. The epicenter of the British presence in this part of West Africa was estuary of the Sierra Leone River which is the home to Africa’s largest natural deepwater harbor. It is one of the top three natural deepwater harbors in the world.
Bunce Island is an island in the estuary of the Sierra Leone River. It was Sierra Leone’s equivalent of James Island in the estuary of the Gambia River – the main place where captured slaves were brought from the interior, sold by their fellow Africans to British and Yankee slave traders and transported to South Carolina and Georgia, where they made up roughly a quarter of the black population.
The Gullah people of the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry preserved their culture in the Sea Islands which their ancestors passed down to them from Sierra Leone:
Many of these slaves didn’t stay long in the United States.
They fought for Great Britain during the American Revolution. The British promised them their freedom and evacuated thousands of them after the American victory at Yorktown. These Black Loyalists ended up in Nova Scotia in Canada, the British West Indies, Florida and London.
In the movie Blood Diamond, a black character mentions that “this country was founded as a utopia.” Sierra Leone was founded by these Black Loyalists. The black poor of London were the first to be resettled in the “Province of Freedom” in 1787. They were followed in 1792 by the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia who founded Freetown. According to national legend, these African-Americans planted the famous Cotton Tree which now towers over Freetown. The Jamaican Maroons came next in 1800. These groups mingled and their descendants are the Krio people who now make up 5% of Sierra Leone’s population.
Sierra Leone really was founded as a utopia. The British of the 19th century were captivated by middle class evangelical reformers whose great causes were abolitionism, free labor and free trade. Freetown harbor became the base used by the Royal Navy to suppress the Transatlantic Slave Trade in West Africa. The Royal Navy resettled tens of thousands of slaves there who were intercepted on slave ships crossing the Atlantic. Abolitionists planned to transform Sierra Leone into a thriving free labor colony that would produce sugar and cotton that could compete with slavery in the British West Indies and American South.
Sierra Leone became a crown colony in 1808 as a result of the failure of the free labor experiment. It was kept afloat as a humanitarian colony for the purpose of liberating and resettling enslaved Africans. The resettled Africans were converted to Protestant Christianity. They were given employment in the form of producing palm oil and peanuts. The great African explorer David Livingstone subscribed to the prevailing British ethos of commerce, civilization and Christianity as the solution to sub-Saharan Africa’s many ills.
Originally, Sierra Leone was limited to Freetown and its peninsula. The African tribes in the interior were left to their own devices. They weren’t absorbed into a British protectorate until the Scramble for Africa in 1896. Even well into the 20th century, the African tribes in the interior of Sierra Leone weren’t part of the same colony as the Krios in Freetown who regarded them as uncivilized savages who lived under their own African chiefs. Slavery wasn’t suppressed in the interior of Sierra Leone until 1928.
In Sierra Leone, the British went about transplanting the constitutional machinery of liberal democracy, which we have already seen they also transplanted in Ghana. In accordance with the prevailing dogma of free-market capitalism, the British had done little to build infrastructure and develop the economy in Ghana, Sierra Leone or The Gambia, which was the role of the entrepreneur. This wasn’t due to “racism.” It was the prevailing economic theory of the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
British colonialism had been mild in Sierra Leone. There was nothing there resembling King Leopold II in the Belgian Congo or the Anglo-Boer Wars in South Africa. It came to an end with great fanfare and optimism in 1961. Queen Elizabeth II visited Freetown to celebrate the historic moment.
The British had abolished the slave trade in Sierra Leone, resettled liberated slaves there which they evacuated from the South, shielded it under the Pax Britannia from hostile powers for purely humanitarian reasons, established a national police force, universities, public schools, roads, introduced the free-market economy and a constitution, etc. This is a country which was endowed with gold, titanium, iron ore and diamonds in its rivers. It was blessed with a benign climate and plenty of arable land. It was endowed with Africa’s largest natural deepwater harbor and one of the best ports in the world. It had nothing but well wishers in Britain, the United States and United Nations.
Sierra Leone has the diamonds of Botswana and half a dozen other things going for it. It is easy to imagine it taking a different route like Botswana or Senegal. Instead, Sierra Leone descended into what was unquestionably one the greatest disasters of post-colonial Africa.
If Sierra Leone had remained a British colony like the Falkland Islands, would it be in the shape that it is today? It is highly unlikely that Siaka Stevens would have been allowed to rule Sierra Leone for 17 years while amassing a $500 million dollar fortune as education and other basic public services collapsed. The streets of Freetown wouldn’t have been full of rarray boys addicted to a thuggish lifestyle of gambling, drugs, petty theft and violence. The professional class wouldn’t have immigrated to the United States and Europe in search of opportunities denied to them in their own mismanaged country.
Sierra Leone had been decomposing for thirty years as an independent state before the Sierra Leone Civil War began in 1991. The war and the atrocities depicted in Cry Freetown and Blood Diamond emerged out of this social context like a ripening orange that has fallen off a tree and begun to rot.
RUF COMMANDER SAM “MOSQUITO” BOCKARIE
The background story of this movie is true: the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) relied on child soldiers who comprised over 85% of RUF forces, people were abducted from their villages and were forced to work as slaves in the diamond mines, the RUF amputated limbs with machetes, engaged in torture, cannibalism and gang rape, forced children to kill their parents to desensitize them to violence. The savagery and brutality of the RUF drug addicted rebels, the presence of South African mercenaries and the Kimberely Process which banned the sale of blood diamonds was also true. The sack and looting of Freetown in the RUF’s Operation No Living Thing was also true.
Blood Diamond is nothing more than a pure Hollywood fantasy though. Leonardo DiCaprio is Danny Archer, a Rhodesian mercenary, who plays the Bigot With a Heart of Gold. Djimon Hounsou is Solomon Vande, a Mende fisherman desperate to find his family, who reprises his role as the Noble Savage that he played in Gladiator and Amistad. Jennifer Connolly is Maddy Brown, an American journalist in Sierra Leone investigating conflict diamonds, who plays the Bleeding Heart White Liberal. Arnold Vosloo is Colonel Coetzee, the South African mercenary who was Archer’s former commander in the South African Border War, who plays the Evil White Imperialist. Marius Weyers is Rudolph Van de Kaap, the Tiara Diamond Company executive who employs Colonel Coetzee, who plays The Man who is profiting from the war behind the scenes. Michael Sheen is Rupert Simmons, Van de Kaap’s underling, who buys the blood diamond in London from Vande at the end of the movie.
Blood Diamond ends with Solomon Vande testifying as the Noble Savage and voice of the Third World before the meeting of diamond producers in Kimberely, South Africa that banned the sale of blood diamonds. The unmistakable message of Blood Diamond is that Westerners who buy diamonds for their fiancés are somehow to blame for the whole conflict. Why this never happened in Botswana, Russia, China, Canada, Australia or other non-African diamond exporting countries isn’t explained.
In 1991, the Liberian Civil War spilled over the border of Sierra Leone and its warlord economy engulfed the wider region. Sierra Leone was one of the ECOWAS states (Economic Community of West African States) that intervened to end the Liberian Civil War after President Samuel Doe was tortured and murdered on television. Liberia was carved up between rival warlords that continued fighting with ECOWAS over the spoils of victory. Everything in sight in Liberia (televisions, consumer goods, scrap metal, street lights, industrial equipment) was looted by the warlords to finance the conflict.
In this context, the rich alluvial diamond fields in Kono in Sierra Leone, which are less than 100 miles from the Liberian border became an obvious target. Liberia’s president Charles Taylor resented Sierra Leone’s intervention and armed and financed a group of 100 rebels called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to overthrow the government of Sierra Leone in the same way that he had overthrown the government of Liberia. The RUF overran the diamond fields in eastern Sierra Leone and the bauxite and titanium mines which provided the government of Sierra Leone with virtually all of its export earnings. The blood diamonds in Kono flowed into Liberia and were sold and exported by Jews abroad. It was just the most famous example of Charles Taylor’s warlord economy.
In 1995, the government of Sierra Leone was collapsing, its army had been routed, the RUF had taken over the diamond fields, and the coup de grâce was about to be delivered in Freetown. Desperate to avoid defeat, a South African private security firm called Executive Outcomes was hired to regain control of the country in exchange for concessions to mine diamonds in areas where Executive Outcomes regained control. Within one week, Executive Outcomes drove the RUF out of Freetown. They also cleared the RUF out of the diamond fields in Kono and restored them to government control. Then the IMF intervened and pressured the Sierra Leone government to terminate the services of Executive Outcomes. The government was forced to share power with the RUF which gained control of the diamond fields.
The bloodshed didn’t end until six years later when Freetown was about to be sacked for the fourth time. Britain launched a humanitarian intervention in May 2000, seized control of the country, ended the Sierra Leone Civil War, and took over key posts in the government, central bank, and the economy. The British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 was the model for the American intervention in Liberia in 2003 and two interventions by France in Côte d’Ivoire in 2004 and 2011 to stop the Ivorian Civil War. In all three cases, the Western powers intervened to end the civil wars in their former colonies for humanitarian reasons. Inspired by the positive example of Sierra Leone, Western powers have also intervened in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Central African Republic.
The story told in Blood Diamond couldn’t be further from the truth: the West had nothing to do with starting the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the South African mercenaries were called in by the legitimate government as a last ditch effort to stop the RUF, the fighting over the diamond fields was merely one phase in a wider warlord economy, and it was Britain that finally put an end to the fighting. Tony Blair is considered a hero in Sierra Leone for putting an end to the devastating war.
Sierra Leone’s tragedy was a self-inflicted blow caused by a lost generation. The same is true of Liberia. Neighboring states in the region like Senegal, The Gambia and Ghana have been relatively stable. Botswana, of course, is a diamond exporting country that is hailed as an African success story. In recent years, thousands of people in Sierra Leone have died from the Ebola virus and it is one of the poorest countries in the world and ranks #179 in the UN Human Development Index.
Britain founded the Province of Freedom as a utopia. Native African tribes turned it into a dystopia. It wasn’t a result that 19th century, 20th century or 21st century Britons desired. Many of Sierra Leone’s child soldiers were captured after the war, taken out into the rivers and allowed to drown. That’s how Sierra Leone disposed of the little savages and convinced itself that nature had swept them away.
Note: The documentary Cry Freetown below is horrifying. It depicts the pure savagery of this African conflict which wasn’t motivated by religion (Central African Republic), nativism (Ivory Coast), ideology (Ethiopia), ethnicity (Rwanda), imperialism (Angola), caste (Zanzibar).