Bunce Island Slave Castle
Importance for African Americans
Virtual Archaeology Project
Bunce Island Weblinks
Clues from History and Archaeology
Brief History of Bunce Island
Bunce Island Reconstructed
Project Team and Sponsors
The Castle Complex
Where We Go From Here . . . . .
Visit Bunce Island in 1805
Make a Contribution

Bunce Island

The British Library Board Drawing of Bunce Island, 1805

Bunce Island is a British slave castle located near Freetown, the capital city of the Republic of Sierra Leone in West Africa. Slave traders representing four London-based companies operated there between about 1670 and 1807, buying African captives, imprisoning them, and shipping them to bondage on plantations in North America and the West Indies.
Bunce Island has been called "the most important historic site in Africa for the United States." Although there are more than 40 major slave castles along the West African coast, Bunce Island is the most important one for African Americans. The other castles shipped their human cargoes almost exclusively to the West Indies, but Bunce Island had significant connections to slave markets in the North American Colonies.

American Connections

Slave auction advertisement,
South Carolina, 1760

Bunce Island lies at the heart of the West African "Rice Coast," a tropical region where African farmers have grown rice for thousands of years. Rice was the staple crop in South Carolina and Georgia in the 18th century, and the planters in those colonies knew that Bunce Island was a dependable source of labor with rice-growing know-how. "Bance Island" (the castle's mid-18th century name) often appeared on slave auction advertisements in those colonies. American planters knew "Bance Island" provided the skilled labor they needed to develop their rice fields in South Carolina and Georgia.

Richard Oswald

Florida also has a connection to Bunce Island. Richard Oswald, the castle's London-based owner, opened several new plantations near St. Augustine in the 1760s. Oswald shipped African captives directly from Bunce Island to his business agents in Florida.

The Northern Colonies were also linked to Bunce Island. Slave ships based in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York stopped at Bunce Island on a regular basis to purchase captives for sale in the Southern Colonies and the West Indies.

American Revolution
Joe will call,UK 
Henry Laurens

Bunce Island was so strongly connected to the North American Colonies that it actually figured in the American Revolutionary War. A battle of the American Revolution took place there in 1779 when America's French allies attacked the castle in order to disrupt British commercial activities in West Africa.

Later, after the Revolutionary War ended, both the British and American officials who negotiated U.S. Independence under the Treaty of Paris were linked to Bunce Island. Richard Oswald, Bunce Island's owner, was the principal negotiator for the British side, while Henry Laurens was one of the four American Peace Commissioners who sat across the table from Oswald. Laurens had been Oswald's commercial agent in Charleston for two decades before the Revolution, selling captives from Bunce Island to South Carolina rice planters for a 10% commission. United States Independence was thus negotiated, in part, between Bunce Island's British owner and his American business agent in South Carolina.

Amazing Grace

John Newton

Bunce Island also figures in the cultural history of the United States. John Newton, the author of "Amazing Grace," was a slave ship captain as a young man before repenting his sins, becoming a well-respected clergyman, and writing the famous hymn that brought comfort to many he had once enslaved. As an older man, Newton also spoke out against the slave trade at the time the British Parliament was debating its prohibition.

During his years a slave trader, John Newton called at Bunce Island many times, sometimes taking his human cargoes directly from Sierra Leone to South Carolina. In a letter to his wife on March 30, 1753, Newton wrote: "I am now at the factory, in the river of Sierra Leone. We are at length preparing for sea, and I hope to find all in readiness."

Bunce Island Today

Photo by Vera Viditz-Ward Aerial view of Bunce Island looking west (downriver)
Aerial view of Bunce Island looking west (downriver)

Bunce Island is located about 17 miles into the Sierra Leone River, Africa's largest natural harbor. A tiny, finger-shaped island, it is only about 1600 feet long and 350 feet wide. The ruins of the castle lie on the northern tip of the island, covered in tropical vegetation. Although some archaeological research has been carried out over the past 30 years, no significant preservation work has ever been undertaken on Bunce Island.

Photo by Alison Sutherland  "Bance Island House," the residence of the castle's commander
"Bance Island House," the residence of the castle's commander

Bunce Island was abandoned about 1840 and has remained uninhabited ever since. Unlike other West African slave castles, which are mostly located in built-up areas and have been used until recently for other purposes, Bunce Island is a slave trade ghost town where nothing has happened for the past 200 years. The only changes one sees are those wrought by the weather, the tropical vegetation, and the passage of time. An African historian once called this slave castle, "Bunce Island Where History Sleeps."

Photo by Alison Sutherland Women and children's slave yard
Women and children's slave yard

The U.S. National Park Service sent a team to evaluate Bunce Island in 1976, and one of its members remarked that he had "never seen an historic site so important for American history in such dire need of preservation." The Sierra Leone Government recognizes the importance of Bunce Island for its own country as well, and it is now actively seeking overseas partners and technical assistance for the preservation of the castle.

Photo by Jacque Metz The fortification
The fortification

In 1992, Colin Powell toured Bunce Island during an official visit to West Africa. He expressed his strong feelings after seeing the castle in his autobiography, My American Journey:

"I am an American…But today, I am something more…
I am an African too I feel my roots here in this continent."

Colin Powell at Bunce Island, 1992
Colin Powell at Bunce Island, 1992

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