The helicopter service to Freetown from the airport at Lungi was suspended; it had crashed one too many times. That meant I would have to take the ferry, across the neck of one of the world’s largest natural harbours. After a jolting truck ride, I found myself at the edge of a concrete pier, watching the sun-set through the haze, waiting for the boat. Fishermen poled their pirogues onto the brown strip of beach. A couple of women slouched over baskets of mangos. A boy wandered by to ask for money, then posed for a photo, droop-lidded and smirking, his dog-tags glinting in the twilight. Shiny SUVs with corporate insignia piled up along the loading ramp behind me, glamorous, outsized and out of place.

Against the trace of the hills on the opposite shore, a spot grew into a wide white ferry, the Murzuk, registered in Libya, sidling up to the pier. Rust climbed up its hull like a rash. The crush of bodies against the rails reminded me of the last time I saw a Libyan vessel, just as overloaded, pulling into Valletta from Benghazi and heavy with men looking for work. I took a seat on the wooden benches of the first-class section. Over in the VIP lounge, the Chinese businessmen from my flight were relaxing over an ample supply of alcohol. But we had entertainment too, flickering across a small TV screen: a dramatic re-enactment of the capture and rescue of some Royal Irish Rangers, seized by the West Side Boys, notorious rebels in the Sierra Leone civil war, just eight years ago. My fellow passengers were transfixed: outside, they peered in at the windows, three deep.

Things don’t take long to become history in a country where a devastating decade-long war ended in 2002 and where half the population is under the age of 18. A study by Médecins sans Frontières concluded that virtually every Sierra Leonean personally experienced the horrors of the conflict: starvation, displacement, slaughtered relatives, destroyed homes, amputation of hands and feet and ears. Millions may still be living with the psychological effects. The UN Human Development Index, which ranks countries by life expectancy, education and standard of living, places Sierra Leone 177th out of 177. Twenty-eight per cent of children die before reaching the age of five. One in every fifty live births results in the mother’s death. Other statistics are predictably dismal. There are 900 kilometres of paved road in the whole country; Sri Lanka, which is slightly smaller, has 78,000. Sierra Leone has 46 internet hosts; Laos has 935 to serve a population only slightly larger. Twenty-two out of every thousand Sierra Leoneans subscribe to a cellphone service; even Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas, has more than twice that number. This is not a developing country: it is, in the polite lexicon of international aid workers, a ‘reconstructing’ one.

Yet this had once been a utopia of sorts. The origins of Freetown date back to the 1780s in Britain, where a group of abolitionists decided to establish a free black settlement in West Africa. The colony, they hoped, would ‘civilise’ a region ravaged by the slave trade, and undercut the trade by offering more profitable commerce in the products of free African labour. Under the sponsorship of the Sierra Leone Company, Freetown’s 1200 founding settlers arrived in 1792. Most were former slaves from North America, who had earned their freedom by fighting for the British in the American War of Independence, and afterwards been granted land in Nova Scotia. These black loyalists would be joined by other groups, including Jamaican Maroons and, after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, ‘recaptives’ liberated by the Royal Navy from illegal slave ships. They soon developed a language, Krio, an English creole heavily laced with African loan words; their descendants, the Krio, form a distinct ethnic group. By the 1820s, when American abolitionists founded Liberia on similar principles, Freetown had become the ‘Athens of West Africa’, home to the first university conceived on the European model in the region, and to a cosmopolitan population of free blacks from around the Atlantic.

I had come to Freetown to research the black loyalists. Their improbable journey from American slavery to African freedom crystallised the utopian aspirations that went into the making of the capital. But utopia seemed more like ‘no place’ the night I stepped off the ferry into a warm darkness that smelled of back alleys and tropical rot. My car barrelled along streets lined with rubbish, through an architectural jumble of slatted wood, rough concrete, padlocked steel doors; then climbed past anonymous compounds ringed with razor wire, around dirt bends where derelict-looking houses loomed above the road on iron stilts. By the time I reached my hotel, six hours after landing, the 18th century seemed more remote than ever.

To the Portuguese who first saw it, the crest of the peninsula’s hills resembled a reclining lion. They named it Serra Lyoa, ‘lion mountain’, and continued on their way, tracing the future routes of the transatlantic slave trade. For the colonists approaching Sierra Leone in the first week of March 1792, the mountains marked a welcome end to their journey. ‘There was great joy to see the land,’ the Baptist preacher David George recalled. ‘The high mountain, at some distance . . . appeared like a cloud to us.’ They had retched and ached through seven weeks of storms and pernicious fevers at sea. Now they raised three cheers and fired a salute. Their British officers established a governing council, met the local Koya Temne chief, King Jimmy, who ‘dress’d himself according to the English fashion, and conversed . . . in tolerable good English’, and dined with the regent King Naimbana’s British interpreter. Meanwhile, the settlers busied themselves ‘clearing away the wood to build the town which is to be called Free Town’. On their first Sunday ashore, the Anglican minister delivered a sermon on the text of Psalm 127, ‘Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it’, while not far away a large congregation of black Baptists listened to David George preach ‘the first Lord’s day, it was a blessed time, under a sail’ – as he continued to do until they built a proper meeting house with wooden poles and thatch.

The newcomers had reason to pray for success: five years earlier, another party of colonists had tried and failed to make a go of it on the Freetown peninsula. They, too, were mostly black loyalists, who had turned up in Britain destitute after the American Revolution. The hearts of Georgian philanthropists clenched at the sight of these ‘Black Poor’ begging on the streets of London. A committee, encouraged by the abolitionist Granville Sharp, set about recruiting them for the utopian experiment in Africa. In the spring of 1787, more than 350 free blacks and several dozen white women set off for what was to be their ‘Province of Freedom’. In the National Archives of Sierra Leone, shining in a cellophane envelope, you can see the treaty signed with King Naimbana by the settlers’ representatives – the founding document of British imperialism in Sierra Leone. In it, Naimbana grants a huge tract of land along the peninsula to ‘the free community of Settlers . . . lately arrived from England’, promises to protect them ‘against the Insurrections and Attacks of all Nations or people whatever’, and offers them a portion of the customs duties paid by ships anchoring in the harbour. In return, he receives suits of embroidered cloth, a telescope, a ‘mock Diamond ring’, two hefty wheels of cheese, and the usual tributes of tobacco, guns and rum.

By the time Naimbana fixed his mark to this document, more than a quarter of the settlers had died, probably of the falciparum malaria that continues to plague Sierra Leone’s population today. The new inhabitants of Granville Town – named for Sharp – would have been further disheartened to find that upstream lay one of the largest slaving stations in West Africa, on Bunce Island. (A watercolour painted by an artist travelling with the 1792 fleet shows the Nova Scotian ships arriving in the harbour, while next to them an impressive craft prepares to head out to sea with its cargo of slaves.) Many of the free blacks ran off to join the European slavers, who were trying to prejudice King Jimmy, who profited from the trade, against the settlement. In late 1789, provoked by a conflict with the crew of a British ship, King Jimmy ordered the remaining residents of Granville Town to evacuate, and burned their huts. When Anna Maria Falconbridge, the wife of a Sierra Leone Company surgeon, saw the Granville Town ‘outcasts’ in 1791, she hoped never again to ‘witness so much misery as I was forced to be a spectator of here’. Hearing that yet more recruits were due to arrive from Nova Scotia, she judged it ‘surely a premature, hare-brained and ill-digested scheme, to think of sending such a number of people all at once, to a rude, barbarous and unhealthy country’.

Freetown’s superintendent, John Clarkson, had plenty to keep him busy. A Royal Navy officer and ardent abolitionist (his older brother, Thomas, helped found the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade), Clarkson personally recruited the black loyalists in Nova Scotia and felt honour-bound to make good on British promises. His diary is the best surviving account of Freetown’s earliest days. Through a near constant tremble of fever, Clarkson laboured to lay out plots of land, organise construction and facilitate good relations among all groups. He won genuine affection from the settlers in return. But what he and his colleagues had not reckoned on was that the black loyalists might not be unreflectingly ‘loyal’: like other American loyalist refugees, they had formed ideas about rights and representation in the colonies that clashed with their rulers’ more authoritarian style. The black loyalists’ leader, Thomas Peters, had journeyed from Nova Scotia to London in 1790 to demand better treatment for his community. Now in Freetown, he bombarded Clarkson with ‘many complaints’, and imbued the settlers with ‘strange notions . . . as to their civil rights’. Learning of a plot by Peters to take over the government, Clarkson immediately called a meeting ‘under a Great Tree, and addressed myself to Peters: I said, it was probably either one or other of us would be hanged upon that Tree, before the Palaver was settled.’ By the end of the meeting, Clarkson successfully persuaded the settlers that ‘the Demon of Discord’ would bring ‘misery and guilt’, and ‘blast . . . every prospect of bettering the condition of the black population throughout the world’.

Peters’s sudden death in June 1792 removed Clarkson’s greatest source of trouble but, worn down by illness and stress, he was given permission to sail for England at the end of the year. Black loyalists came by the dozen to present him with eggs and chickens for the journey; Naimbana sent an ox and an Arabic prayer for a safe passage. He left behind a Freetown that would not only survive but grow. Yet tensions between whites and blacks, among settlers, traders and natives, would never entirely vanish.

There is nothing quite like the shivering at the fingertips you get from handling centuries-old documents written by people you feel you’ve already met. I had examined a microfilm of Clarkson’s diary in the elegant reading rooms of the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West, and looked through his letters and notebooks in the comfort of the British Library manuscripts department. Now, opening his original journal on a chipped formica table in the National Archives of Sierra Leone, I marvelled at this tangible testimonial of global circulation and survival. It is no small wonder that the archives themselves exist intact, housed on the hilltop campus of Fourah Bay College, where they escaped looting during the war. Other local hazards have been eluded, too. Inside the journal’s front cover lies a sheet of paper inserted some forty years ago by the colonial archivist and historian Christopher Fyfe. ‘Do not remove this paper,’ it insists. ‘If any holes appear in it, it will show that insects have attacked the cover again. If this happens, the outside cover of the volume . . . should be dusted with Sammexane Powder D.034 (0.5 per cent gamma), which is obtainable from the Medical department.’ There are no holes.

One of the archive’s oldest documents is a set of instructions written up for Clarkson and his colleagues by the directors of the Sierra Leone Company. In nearly seventy detailed pages, they spell out the steps that should be taken in Freetown to establish government, commerce, agriculture and the foundations of civil society. The peroration recapitulates the organisation’s goal of ‘introducing to a Vast Country . . . the Blessings of Industry and Civilisation’: ‘Millions yet unborn may have reason to look up to you as being under heaven instruments of rescuing them from a state of darkness, aggression and disorder and of imparting to them . . . the security and comforts of Civilised Society.’ I read these words with a shock of déjà vu. Freetown today bustles with expatriates employed by a host of NGOs, the UN, the Special Court and more – all working to help Sierra Leone recover from its recent nightmare of ‘darkness, aggression and disorder’. The 18th-century language of civilising mission might just as well describe current Western initiatives designed to help bring ‘security and comfort’ to Sierra Leone. (How differently we might now reflect on Freetown’s idealistic origins if it had turned out more like Sydney, its exact contemporary.)

Outside the archives, too, the recent past shadowed my search for 18th-century remains. According to local legend, the black loyalists settled around the Cotton Tree (quite possibly the ‘Great Tree’ Clarkson described), which still marks the centre of Freetown, dominating the high-rises nearby. Dozens of plump, caramel-coloured bats nestle against its trunk. The loyalists disembarked a short distance away, at a place called King Jimmy, where a market is now held twice a week. The bamboo frames of shop stalls line the path down to the harbour front: a reeking ad hoc landfill of rotting peel and husks, shit, bones and stray plastic scraps, picked over by rootling pigs. Seventy years ago, Graham Greene commented in Journey without Maps that ‘Freetown is like an old trading port that has been left to rot along the beach; it is a spectacle of decay.’ Here, today, you could leave out the ‘like’.

To get to Bunce Island, the slave-trading base, I slapped along the harbour in a fibreglass dinghy, along a fringe of water-front slums, bobbing pirogues and rust-streaked trawlers, then into the mouth of the Sierra Leone River, where cloudy waterways snake off behind mangrove thickets. The fishing villages here, shaded by cotton trees and lumpy baobabs, fell in the path of the rebel offensive bluntly named Operation No Living Thing. In one inlet, a companion ferry to the Murzuk sags against the riverbed, run aground on purpose, I was told, to prevent it falling into enemy hands.

The ruins on Bunce have already begun to disappear. On the beach, two corroded cannon peel and flake. My companion, a member of Sierra Leone’s monuments and relics commission, picked shards of old porcelain and pipe stems from among the pebbles, and pointed out the traces of ancient timbers beneath the sand. As many as fifty thousand slaves passed through the holding pens of Bunce Island before sailing west in chains. Now, the bricks of the great house are held together by vines and roots, the guns are dislodged from their emplacements, and the slate grave markers in the island’s small cemetery have been smashed and stolen by vandals for sharpening machetes. Bunce Island’s two-hole golf course, the first in Africa, has been absorbed by the brush. We received a vague but passionate account of Bunce’s history from the island’s old caretaker, a shrivelled, toothless figure in loose pyjamas; flecks of chewed kola nut sprayed from his mouth as he talked. At the end of our visit, he took from his pirogue a heavy green, cloth-covered visitors’ book embossed with crossed scimitars, presented by Bangladeshi peacekeeping forces in 2002.

Non-Africans routinely confuse Sierra Leone with Liberia, unable to distinguish between the two neighbouring, war-torn one-time utopias. I was struck, though, how few Sierra Leoneans knew that Sierra Leone – not Liberia – had been the pioneer. Fewer still know of the American revolutionary background of Freetown’s first settlers. Freddy ‘Shabaka’ Cole, a Krio reggae artist now living in the United States, told me he found out about the black loyalists only when he came across recent books by Simon Schama and Cassandra Pybus. Last year he released an album called Black Loyalist to celebrate their history. But the president of the Krio Descendants’ Union explained to me that the memory of the loyalists can’t so easily serve as a source of national pride in Sierra Leone, because a fissure has long divided Freetown and the Krio from the rest of the country and its indigenous majorities. Perceived as a privileged elite during the colonial era, the Krio feel they’ve been politically and culturally marginalised in independent Sierra Leone. This helps explain why the most conspicuous icon of freedom here is not a black loyalist (and Krio forebear) like Thomas Peters, but Sengbe Pieh, the Mende leader of the 1839 revolt on the slave ship Amistad. Pieh stares proudly from the 5000 leone banknote, and when a replica of the Amistad, circling the Atlantic to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade, docked at Freetown in December 2007, thousands lined up to see it.

Leaving Sierra Leone I had a final, unexpected brush with the past. Catching the ferry to the airport would have been an all-day affair, so I decided to charter a speedboat instead. There are no piers on the beach nearest to Lungi, so as we approached I started rolling up my trouser legs to wade to shore. But I had barely removed my lifejacket when two lean young men splashed towards the boat. One of them reached in, hoisted my bag onto his head, and toted it across to the dry sand. The other put out his arms, crooked them under my knees and back, and deposited me on the beach next to it. It was a first in my experience of airport transfers; yet this was just how they used to do it in the days of sail, when many Europeans arriving in the tropics would be carried over the warm waves by a local bearer.

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