Bunce Island

Date of Submission: 01/06/2012
Criteria: (ii)(iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Office of the Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs
State, Province or Region:
Port Loko District
Coordinates: N8 34 187 W13 2 432
Ref.: 5745
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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party

Description

Bunce is a 1600 feet uninhabitted island lying approximately 20 miles up the Sierra Leone River from Freetown, the Capital city of Sierra Leone. Bunce Island was established as a slave trading station in 1670. From 1670 to 1728 two companies- the Gambia Adventurers and the Royal African Company of England ran Bunce Island one after the other.  Bunce Island’s prosperity ran from 1744 to 1807 during private management by a consortium of London firms. At their slave trading heights British traders shipped tens of thousands of African slaves to the Americas from this place. The trading fort was subjected to attacks a number of times by other Europeans. Slave trading ceased on the island with the abolition of slace trade in 1808. It was however in the 1840 that the Bunce Island fort was finally abandoned. Bunce Island was declared a National Monument in 1948.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Established in 1670, Bunce Island was one of more than sixty slave trading forts on the West African coast. The world remembers the slave trade as an evil endeavours in human history. It is the full breadth of theignoble, ignominous, and evil endeavours that slavery was in human history that Bunce Island preserves. Like other former slave trading facilities, Bunce Island is a cultural monument to the mass movement of people and in particular, the painful passage of Africans into slavery.

Bunce Island however contributes to the world’s understanding the trade in slaves in unique ways. In the 1700s when South Carolina became one of the wealthiest States in what is today the United States of America, its economy was overwhelmingly based on rice cultivation. At the center of the strategy of the rice plantation owners in South Carolina and nearby Georgia was an insistence on using slaves that had rice cultivation skills and experience. South Carolina and Georgia rice planters came to prefer slaves from the region stretching from Senegal down to Liberia, which was referred to as the Rice Coast. In 2001 Judith Carney a geographer at University of California at Los Angeles published Black Rice, which explains the contributions Africans from the Rice Coast made to the development of the rice industry in South Carolina and Georgia. At slave auctions in Charlestown (now Charleston), South Carolina and Savana, Georgia slave selling advertisements carried the names of Rice Coast, Sierra Leon and Bunce Island as assurance of the slaves’ rice planting experience. The most favoured buyers of slaves from Bunce Island were rice planters in the States of South Carolina and Georgia who were willing to pay high for Africans with rice panting backgrounds. Thus Bunce Island illuminates the slave trade in a dimension that is unique. The property stands today to testify in the greatest measure the only instance in the slave trade were slaves were valued on account of their skills.  Although tens of thousands of Africans passed through Bunce Island into slavery, in general, slaves from other parts of Africa outnumbered those from Sierra Leone in the Americas. In South Carolina and Georgia however, the concentration of slaves from Sierra Leone outnumbered those from any other single area in Africa.

Bunce Island holds universal value in being a place that an intact community of descendants of slaves can point at as a place of origin in Africa. In particular, Bunce Island provides a unique testament to the cultural interchange between the United States and the African continent. The vast majority of descendants of the African Diaspora created by the slave trade cannot account for their places of origin in Africa. While it is easy to see snippets of African influences in the cultures and sub-cultures of descendants of slaves from Africa in the Americas, there is still an intact community of descendants of slaves in the United States known as the Gullah, with roots directly traceable to Sierra Leone. In South Carolina and Georgia people known as the Gullah still retain traditions in food, names and stories that draw heavily from Sierra Leonean roots. Gullah people from South Carolina and Georgia have visited Sierra Leone a number of times. 

Bunce Island relates with an intangible slave trade heritage with monumental value. The hymn “Amazing Grace” by John Newton is probably the best known of hymns in the Christian world today. John Newton was a slave trader whose activities were mostly associated with Sierra Leone where he had a base at Plantain Island. Upon abandonment of the trade in slaves Newton became a devout Christian and composed the song “Amazing Grace”. 

Bunce Island holds Outstanding Universal Value in the high potential it has for both land and sea archaeological study. The world stands to understand the slave trade and mass movement of people in newer ways when future land and sea archaeological study is pursued at Bunce Island.

Criterion (ii): Bunce Island is tangibly associated with the expansion and deepening of rice cultivation in America. Prior to the mass deployment of slaves from the Rice Coast and Bunce Island in particular in the rice fields of South Carolina and Georgia the American colonies largely relied on rice imported from Asia. Purposive mass deployment of slaves from the Rice Coast and Bunce Island in particular with rice cultivation skills in the fields of South Carolina and Georgia transformed rice growing in America and took it to levels previously unknown.

Criterion (iii): Bunce Island is tangibly associated with the slave trade as a tradition that spanned over two centuries. Slave trade is a past event but it is also a living tradition in another aspect. Slave trade has disappeared as a legitimate economic activity, but there is a practice however today called modern day slavery It is different from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the sense that it is illegal and not condoned by nations. Modern day slavery however holds all the other abhorred elements of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in respect of trading in persons, holding of persons in bondage, and forced labour.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Bunce Island has a high degree of authenticity in respect of materials and substance, use and function, location and setting. The structures have never been interfered with ; and most of the important features of the slave fort can still be identified. Over the many years that the Island has been abandoned many of stone walls of the fort or castle have collapsed. Vegetation has grown over many sections of the remaining walls. Substantial remains of the complex still stand today. The whole layout indicating bastions, stores, residential blocks, the slave quarters, and powder magazine can be seen. A couple of cannons from different nations still lay in position and around, untouched. There are remains of towers from which guards kept day and night watch. There are tombstones marking the burial places of Europeans and Africans. The well from which water was fetched is still there.

In 2006 a Bunce Island Cultural Resource Assessment Mission funded by the United States embassy articulated the site’s immediate and long-term preservation and exploitation challenges that must be addressed.  The centre-piece recommendation in the mission’s report is that the appropriate approach to the development of the site is one of conservation, preservation and stabilization of the existing structures. It does not recommend restoration or reconstruction. The report recommends that archaeological survey and evaluation is undertaken prior to any construction and stabilization work. Such survey and evaluation will particular focus on the areas associated with historic land use and areas indentified for stabilization or reconstruction.  Archaeological survey and evaluation should include the collection of surface material, subsurface testing; and the full excavation of archaeological deposits that will be negatively impacted by construction. Archaeological assessment should equally apply to underwater portions of the site, the report adds. In May 2009 the Monuments and Relics Commission articulated a Bunce Island Preservation Policy fully endorsing the steps suggested by the Bunce Island Cultural Resource Assessment Mission.

In October 2011, a $5 million historical preservation project sponsored by the Bunce Island Coalition was announced. Bunce Island Coalition’s preservation of the island and assets will follow the recommendations of the 2006  Bunce Island Cultural Resource Assessment Mission. Bunce Island has been handed over to the Bunce Island Coalition for the purposes of preservation and conservation action. The Bunce Island Coalition preservation and conservation plans are in agreement with Government of Sierra Leone’s intentions to have the site on the World Heritage List.

Bunce Island has never been exploited for tourism returns. Also there is no development threat to the Island. Overall, it means that human impact on the property is very low. There is no intention to rebuild the fort and castle. All that is needed and that has been agreed by government is to stabilize the ruins and make them more comprehensible through interpretation strategies.

Comparison with other similar properties

All slave trading forts that dot the West African Coastline were fortified enclaves. High walls, bastions and labyrinths convey the same security considerations in the architecture of the forts. Cannon were the massive weapons of the times; therefore it is common to find them at nearly all slave trading forts in Africa. Bunce Island shares all of these attributes with the other slave trading facilities.

Bunce Island is different from other former slave trading facilities such as Elmina Castle in Ghana and Goree Island in Senegal in that it has never been inhabited after the end of active commerce there in the early 1800s. There is therefore very little evidence of alteration of the natural environment. The vegetation, the quietude and surviving intact walls give a sense of time and place, in the words of one renowned anthropologist. Bunce Island is different from these two slave trading facilities in that there has been no reconstruction of structures with interpretive aims. This means that Bunce Island is more authentic. Compared with Bunce Island James Island (Kunta Kinteh Island) in the Gambia was very much smaller in size and in operations. Unlike Goree Island which is still a living settlement, with private homes that continue to be occupied, Bunce Island is not inhabitted.

Bunce Island is different from Saint James’ Island in the Gambia, Elmina Castle in Ghana and Goree Island in Senegal in the fact that an intact African Diaspora community can point at with a higher degree of certainty as a place from where their anscestors were shipped overseas. Saint James Island, Elmina Castle in Ghana and Goree Island do not directly offer any intact slave trade Diaspora community with this kind of symbolic value.

Most slave trade forts along the West African coast including Elmina Castle in Ghana and Goree Island in Senegal on the World Heritage List merely tell the story of the agony of passage of people into slavery. Bunce Island compares with them in full measure in this regard. However, Bunce Island’s story has sub-stories that elucidate the slave trade in unique dimensions. Firstly, Bunce Island tells s sub-story of the transfer of knowledge from Africa. It is the only instance where Africans were particularly targeted for buying and selling on account of their skills. 

In a second dimension Bunce Island has a sub-story that elucidate the nexus between slave trade wealth and political power.A wealthy rice farmer and slave dealer in South Carolina called Henry Laurens was the business agent for Bunce Island in Charlestown in the period immediately before the American war of independence. When America’s war of independence began the wealthy rice farmer Henry Laurens was made President of the Continental Congress. At the end of the war Laurens was one of the American Peace Commissioners that negotiated United States’ independence under the Treaty of Paris. On the British side at the Treaty of Paris was the London-based owner of Bunce Island Richard Oswald. Oswald headed the British negotiating team. This is to say that the independence of the United States was negotiated in part by Bunce Island’s British owner and his American business agent.