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

Corry's Drawing: The Starting Point

The British Library Board Joseph Corry's 1805 drawing of Bunce Island

We have reconstructed Bunce Island as it appeared in 1805, the year a British traveler named Joseph Corry visited the castle and made a drawing for his book Observations Upon the Windward Coast of Africa (1807). Corry's drawing is the last of five known sketches of Bunce Island made during the period when it functioned as a slave castle, and it corresponds better than any other contemporary image to the ruins we see on Bunce Island today.

But Corry's drawing has many inaccuracies we can see from close observation of the ruins. There were eight cannon holes in the fortification at the front of the castle, and not the twenty depicted in the drawing. The cannon holes were open at the top and not triangular as shown in the drawing. The castle's two bastions where the cannons were mounted were also semi-circular and not triangular as they appear in the drawing. And, finally, "Bance Island House," the commander's residence at the center of the castle, had a conventional hipped roof, not the flat roof with Medieval-style crenellation we see in the drawing. Although Corry's sketch is helpful in many respects, it is not a fully accurate portrayal of Bunce Island at the time of his visit.

Four Sources of Information

To create an accurate image of Bunce Island in the year 1805, we have drawn on four sources of information, each with its own advantages and disadvantages:

•Early drawings and plans of the castle made between 1682 and 1805
•Written accounts by people who visited the castle during the slave trade
•Photographs and a model of the ruins made by researchers in 1947
•Archaeological studies of the ruins conducted in recent years

Early Drawings and Plans

There are five known drawings of Bunce Island from the period it operated as a slave trading base, made in 1682, 1726, 1749, 1792, and 1805. Looking closely at these images, we can see that Bunce Island had a different appearance each time it was sketched. This is because the castle was repeatedly attacked, destroyed, and rebuilt; and every time the slave traders rebuilt it, they gave it a somewhat different design.

Bunce Island was attacked six times during its long history -- four times by French warships (1695, 1704, 1779, and 1794) and twice by pirates (1719, 1720). The attackers did a great deal of damage each time, sometimes setting the castle afire and even demolishing its walls with powder charges. Altogether, the slave traders may have built as many as six castles at Bunce Island during its 137-year history as a slave trading base. The ruins we see today represent the last castle built after the final French attack in 1794.

Corry's 1805 drawing was sketched just ten years after construction began on the last castle and, therefore, it corresponds closely to the ruins found on the island today. But the other four sketches of Bunce Island – including the oldest one made in 1682 – are still useful to some extent for the purposes of our computer reconstruction. Some features did not change significantly even though the castle was rebuilt time and again.

We also benefitted from having two detailed plans of the castle (showing its various buildings labeled according to their functions), made in 1726 and 1749.

University Library of Leipzig Bunce Island, 1682 (by Von der Groeben) Private Collection Bunce Island, 1726 (by William Smith) National Archives, UK Bunce Island, 1749 (by John Wade) Private Collection, UK Bunce Island, 1792 (by John Beckett)

Bunce Island, 1805 (by Joseph Corry)

Plan of Bunce Island, 1726 (by William Smith)

National Archives, UK Plan of Bunce Island, 1749 (by John Wade)

Written Accounts

Many people who visited Bunce Island during the period of the Atlantic slave trade wrote brief accounts of the castle. There are descriptions by British, French, and German ships' captains, slave traders, and travelers. One of the most detailed accounts was penned by de Pontevèz, the French naval commander who attacked Bunce Island in 1779. De Pontevèz took such pride in destroying the British slave castle that he listed every building he demolished in his report to the French Admiralty. Two of the companies that controlled Bunce Island – the Royal African Company of England and Grant, Oswald & Company – also left records of the castle and its buildings.

Two British travelers who visited Bunce Island during its last years as a slave trading base left the most valuable accounts, though, for the purposes of our virtual archaeology project. Joseph Corry not only sketched the castle in 1805, he also provided a brief written description of the buildings in his Observations Upon the Windward Coast of Africa (1807). Anna Maria Falconbridge provided another valuable description in her Narrative of Two Voyages to the River Sierra Leone Leone (1802). Although Falconbridge visited the castle in 1791, three years before the last French attack, we can see from her account that the castle she visited differs only slightly from the one that was built after that attack – the one whose ruins can be seen today. Falconbridge provided a particularly detailed description of the castle and its various structures.

Joseph Corry, Bunce Island, April, 1805.  This appears in Corry's Observations Upon
the Windward Coast of Africa, 1807, page 4.

Anna Maria Falconbridge, Bunce Island, February, 1791. This appears
 in Falconbridge's Narrative of Two Voyages
to the River Sierra Leone,
1802, page 31.

Early Photographs and Model of the Ruins

M.C.F. Easmon, a Sierra Leonean medical doctor and amateur historian, conducted the first archaeological survey of Bunce Island in 1947. Dr. Easmon and his team cut back the vegetation, photographed the site, and made a detailed scale model of the ruins. The photos and model, both preserved in the Sierra Leone National Museum, provide important clues to the original appearance of the castle. Some of the features they recorded have collapsed during the past sixty years, but can be seen clearly in the old photos and the model. The arch over the main gate, for instance, was still standing in 1947, but collapsed sometime in the late 1960s. Another structure – possibly a strongroom for keeping gold and other valuables – still had its vaulted brick roof in 1947, but the roof has since collapsed into the interior of the building. We can see the roof clearly, though, in the detailed model of the ruins prepared by Dr. Easmon's survey team.

Sierra Leone National Museum           Gate Tower, 1947

Sierra Leone National Museum Bance Island House (south end), 1947

Photo by Joseph Opala                                                                Sierra Leone National Museum Model of the ruins, 1947

Archaeological Surveys

Three archaeological surveys have been conducted on Bunce Island during the past thirty years. Joseph Opala, the co-director of our project, produced a report on the ruins in 1976 and has continued to observe and document the castle's remains ever since. The U.S. National Park Service produced another survey in 1989. Then in 2006, Christopher DeCorse, an archaeologist at Syracuse University, conducted the most detailed survey yet. DeCorse brought a team to Sierra Leone that included archaeologists from the U.S., Ghana, and Brazil. DeCorse and his colleagues produced a 280-page report complete with drawings and scores of photographs. They also prepared a detailed topographical map, showing not only the landscape of the island, but also the plan of the castle indicating the precise locations of all its walls and other features. Opala accompanied both the U.S. Park Service and DeCorse teams to Bunce Island.

These surveys identified many features that point to the buildings' original appearance. There are horizontal grooves on the exteriors of some buildings that show where elevated verandahs were once attached and grooves on the interiors of buildings that show the original floor levels. There are also notches in the walls of some structures showing where wooden stairways were once located. We drew on these and other clues in the ruins in order to create our computer animation of the castle and its environs in the year 1805. The virtual buildings draw on the archaeological surveys even in the smallest details. If the archaeological data indicate that a particular window is 4 feet, 7 inches high, for instance, then we scaled the window to those precise dimensions in the virtual model. The shape of the virtual island we built also closely follows DeCorse's topographical map. We have made the computer animation as accurate as possible based on all the information currently available.

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

Photo by Jacque Metz The fortification

Photo by Alison Sutherland The women and children's slave yard

Photo by Bosman Murray Archaeological survey, 2006 (right: Christopher DeCorse; left: Joseph Opala)

Map by Christopher DeCorse DeCorse's topographical map of Bunce Island (2006)

Map by Christopher DeCorse DeCorse's topographical map (detail of the ruins)

Photo by Diane Elliott Gary Chatelain (left) and Joseph Opala examining a scale model built by Opala and
his colleagues in Sierra Leone based on Opala's survey of the ruins

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