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Bunce Island Slave Castle
Importance for African Americans
 
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Clues from History and Archaeology
Brief History of Bunce Island
 
 
Bunce Island Reconstructed
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The Castle Complex
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Bunce Island:
The Castle and its Environs


The British slave traders chose Bunce Island as their base of operations because of its strategic location. The island lies at the limit of navigation in the Sierra Leone River, an enormous natural harbor that became a crossroads of trade. Ships sailing into the great harbor had to stop just below Bunce Island to keep from running aground. This spot gave the slave traders advantages for both trade and defense. They built their castle on the northern side of the island just beyond the end of the deep water where visiting ships had to anchor. From that point they could see ships coming upriver long before they arrived at the castle.

The British traders used the southern end of the island as a settlement area for their African workers. In 1805 -- the date of this digital reconstruction -- the African Workers' Village was called "Adam's Town" for the African foreman who controlled about 600 workers. Adam's house -- larger than all the other dwellings -- was located at the end of a long street.

The Castle
and the African Workers' Village

Click on the captions to see close-ups of the buildings.


© 2008 Chatelain and Opala
Aerial View of the Island

The castle and other important features on the island are labeled in this aerial view:

The Slave Castle is located at a strategic point for trade -- about 17 miles upriver from the Atlantic Ocean and about 5 miles below the mouths to two large rivers that flow from the interior. European slave ships sailed upriver to Bunce Island from the ocean side, while African traders came downriver with slaves and goods in light sailing craft from the interior. Bunce Island was the logical meeting point for European merchants and their African counterparts.

The Trading Area was a wide, open field outside the walls of the castle on the south where visiting African traders could display the slaves and local products they brought to Bunce Island. The British traders built open-side huts in this area to provide shelter for their visitors. A well in this area also provided water for the African traders and their captives. When the Bunce Island men purchased captives in this area, they took them through the Gate Tower into the interior of the castle where they locked them in the open-air slave prisons behind Bance Island House.

The Jetty is a stone-built dock where the British slave traders loaded African captives and local products into launches to take them out to the large slave vessels anchored nearby. The end of the Jetty was the "Place of No Return" for tens of thousands of African captives -- the last point in Africa they would ever set foot before being exiled to plantation slavery in the Americas.

The Slave Ship pictured here is a two-masted brig of about 170 tons dating to the first decade of the 19th century. Slave ships were typically brigs, snows, or barks. The smallest held only 50 to 75 captives, but the largest slave ships could hold as many as 900 captives. Most slave ships had a barricade at the center of the vessel that separated the male captives on one side from the women and children on the other. The barricades extended from the deck area down to the hold underneath.

The African Workers' Village was located on the long ridge at the south end of the island. Contemporary accounts describe a collection of traditional thatched-roof dwellings, both round and square. The houses, made of mud brick or wattle-and-daub construction, were arranged on either side of a long street. There is no visible evidence of the houses today, but one can still find two cemeteries in this area -- one for high-ranking African workers, and the other for their British employers and other white slave traders and ships' captains who died in Sierra Leone.

The African Foreman's House was located at the end of the long street in the African Workers' Village, facing back toward the castle. Contemporary accounts describe the foreman's house as a traditional dwelling, but much larger than the other dwellings in the village. The house shown in this reconstruction belonged to "Adam," the African foreman when the castle was shut down for slave trading in 1805. Adam's grave can still be seen near the site of his large house.

Bunce Island in 1805

Click on the captions to see close-ups of the buildings.


© 2008 Chatelain and Opala
Aerial View of the Castle

The most significant structures are labeled in this aerial view:

The Fortification faces downriver toward approaching ships. A long, low wall punctuated by cannon holes and framed by two semi-circular bastions, the Fortification was originally built to hold sixteen cannons, but was later modified to hold eight. Both bastions contained flagpoles, one flying the Union Jack and other, probably the flag of the London-based firm that controlled the castle. In 1805, that was the Company of John & Alexander Anderson.

Bance Island House, the headquarters building, is a large two-story dwelling built in the style of a West Indian plantation house. It had an elevated veranda that wrapped around on three sides. The slave traders could walk from their dwelling on the upstairs floor onto their veranda in order to observe activities in the fort or watch for slave ships sailing upriver toward the castle.

The Men's Slave Yard is an open-air enclosure that could hold hundreds of captives. Since it was located immediately behind Bance Island House, the commander and his officers could observe their prisoners from their rear upstairs windows. The yard had two doors -- one for bringing captives in and out, and another in the rear for bringing in food and water and taking out waste and the bodies of African captives who died during their imprisonment on the island.

A visitor to Bunce Island in 1791 looked into the Men's Slave Yard and saw "between two and three hundred wretched victims chained and parceled out in circles..." Another visitor who saw the prison seven years later described faces of "blank despair or marked dejection."

The Women and Children's Slave Yard is the smaller enclosure that adjoins the Men's Slave Yard in the rear. Women and children were imprisoned in this area which, unlike the men's yard, contains a small building with two rooms which provided minimal shelter for the captives.

The Gate Tower is the main entrance to the castle. It contained an arched entryway at ground level with two heavy doors, and an elevated guardroom above on the upper level. The guards in the tower could observe people coming through the gate from windows facing south, and look for ships coming upriver toward the castle from other windows facing west, or downriver.

The Merchant's Dormitory is a two-story structure built into a hillside so that it is one-story high inside the castle and two-stories high outside. The upper floor, which held the verandah on the outside, was probably a dwelling space for lower-ranking white workers. The ground floor was used as a storage area for trading goods and bulk items, such as animal hides and ivory tusks, purchased from African traders.

The Office Tower is the only three-story building in the castle. It resembles a British "counting house," or business office, of the 18th century. The castle's senior clerks likely had their office on the top floor of this building where they could observe activities going on in the castle, itself, and in the port area on the west side of the island where slave ships were arriving and departing.

The Gunpowder Magazine is an underground room at the rear of the castle where gunpowder was stored safely at a distance from the main buildings. The upper story of the magazine was probably an ordinary storeroom, but the basement had walls five feet thick. The African villagers who live near Bunce Island today believe that this was the slave prison, but the castle's records indicate otherwise. This underground room has the typical design of a powder magazine.

The Formal Garden is a series of three decorative terraces at the rear of the castle. The terraces have stone retaining walls to stabilize them, and are connected by well-built stone stairways. This was the garden area where the slave traders relaxed in the shade of fruit trees. An early map of the castle shows a spot behind the main buildings called the "Orange Walk."






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