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

Photo by Jacque Metz
Thomalind Martin Polite at Bunce Island, 2005

Bunce Island is arguably the most important historic site in Africa for the United States, and as its history becomes better known, we can be sure that more and more African Americans will be going there.

One group of Americans, though, has already recognized Bunce Island's importance and taken action to commemorate the site -- the Gullah people in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. The Gullahs have an especially strong link to Bunce Island as that particular castle sent a great many of its captives to the ports of Charleston and Savannah. Gullah people made three historic homecomings to Sierra Leone in 1989, 1997, and 2005, and on each occasion they made a poignant journey to Bunce Island. During the first homecoming, their Sierra Leonean hosts poured a libation at the end of Bunce Island's jetty where thousands of captives set foot on African soil for the last time. They prayed to their ancestors, asking them to welcome the Gullahs back to Mother Africa and never to allow their single "family" to be torn apart again.

Colin Powell also recognized Bunce Island's importance for African Americans when he visited the castle in 1992 after the first Gullah homecoming. He described his reaction to the castle in powerful terms in his 1995 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

History and DNA

African Americans are now visiting the West African slave castles in increasing numbers to learn more about what their ancestors endured on their forced journey to America. Many are going to Senegal and Ghana to see Gorée and Elmina castles, and these sites have become household names for many African Americans. But history shows that these better known castles actually sent the vast majority of their captives to the West Indies, while Bunce Island had close connections to North America. Bunce Island had so many commercial links to the North American Colonies that it even figured, as we have seen, in the events of the American Revolutionary War.

If history is drawing African Americans to Bunce Island, so is biology. Thousands of black Americans have taken DNA tests in recent years in order to determine where their ancestors came from in Africa, and one of the most common results is Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leone Embassy in Washington frequently gets calls from African Americans who have been linked to that country through DNA and want to know how they can make their own personal connection to Sierra Leone. Some of those who took the DNA test have already gone to Sierra Leone and set up assistance projects of various sorts. The most high-profile example is the actor Isaiah Washington who recently established the Gondobay Manga Foundation to help the country. Washington built a school in Sierra Leone, and in March, 2007, he donated $25,000 to our virtual archaeology project. Mr. Washington has become a celebrity spokesman for the Bunce Island's preservation.

Gondobay Manga Foundation
Isaiah Washington in the men's slave yard at Bunce Island, 2006

Three Gullah Homecomings

In 1989, the Sierra Leone Government invited a group of Gullah cultural activists from South Carolina and Georgia to come to Sierra Leone. Led by Emory Campbell, a well known community organizer, the Gullahs were hosted by Sierra Leone's president and featured in the local media. Sierra Leoneans were responding to new research on Bunce Island's slave trade connections to South Carolina and Georgia. This first historic visit by African Americans to Sierra Leone was called the " Gullah Homecoming."

Eight years later a Gullah family from coastal Georgia made its own homecoming to Sierra Leone. Led by Mary Moran, a 67-year-old grandmother, this family has preserved a song in the Mende language of Sierra Leone, passing it down from mother to daughter for 200 years. An ancient funeral hymn, this 5-line song is the longest text in an African language known to have been preserved by a black family in the U.S. Researchers found that a Mende woman living in a remote rural area of Sierra Leone still knows the same song today. This 1997 visit -- called the "Moran Family Homecoming" -- was also hosted by Sierra Leone's president and covered extensively by the local and international media.

In 2005, another historic homecoming took place when a young Gullah woman from South Carolina, named Thomalind Martin Polite, arrived in Sierra Leone to great fanfare. Polite can claim an unbroken 250-year document trail linking her to a 10-year-old girl, later named "Priscilla," who was taken on a slave ship from Sierra Leone to Charleston in 1756. Polite is Priscilla's 7th generation descendant. Her family may be the only black family in the U.S. with a continuously documented history starting with the records of an enslaved ancestor in Africa. Their document trail includes slave ship records, slave auction accounts, and plantation records. The discovery of this remarkable document trail led to the most recent Gullah visit to Sierra Leone, called "Priscilla's Homecoming."

When Thomalind Polite entered the women's and children's slave yard at Bunce Island where her ancestor, "Priscilla," may have been imprisoned, she said that she could feel the pain of the little girl who had been torn from her family forever. She said:

"I'm sure she felt helpless. And I'm sure she cried for her
family everyday and longed to see them again. And to
know that she couldn't, I know I would be heart-broken."

Photo by Maggie Steber
The "Gullah Homecoming" (1989). Libation at the end of the jetty.

Photo by Maggie Steber
The "Gullah Homecoming" (1989). Visiting the men's slave yard.

INKO Productions
The "Moran Family Homecoming" (1997). Examining the cannons.

Photo by Idriss Kpange
"Priscilla's Homecoming" (2005). At the entrance to the men's slave yard.

Photo by Idriss Kpange
Priscilla's Homecoming" (2005). Inside the women and children's slave yard.

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