maandag 18 januari 2021

Cotton Tree

Translation from Dutch blog

My photo app reminded me this morning of a photo I took seven years ago today: the Cotton Tree in Sierra Leone's capital, Sierra Leone. The day before, I had arrived in Freetown with my former roommate and friend Abdul, who returned to his native country after a long time. I would stay in the country for three weeks. There were four of us in the car — Abdul, two cousins ​​who were our hosts, and myself — and I noticed the Cotton Tree first, having seen many pictures of it. Is that...? Yes, that's it.

I took this photo through the windshield of the car; the spot in the bottom center is the reflection of what I assume is a packet of paper tissues on the dashboard. The Cotton Tree is surrounded by a busy roundabout and political billboards, which obscure the view.  The Cotton Tree is an important historical symbol of Sierra Leone.

Cotton Tree Freetown seen from car (picture: Ytzen Lont)

Black Loyalists
Exactly how old the tree is, that's unknown. According to sources it was already there in 1787. The Cotton Tree is a Ceiba pentandra or kapok tree.  It is 'the tree that saw everything' and as long as the tree is there, Sierra Leone exists, is the thought. The Sierra Leonean capital is located on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean along a large bay. In 1792 a group of former slaves from America landed here. They walked to the tree that rose high above the shore, gathered around the tree and thanked God for their freedom.  They settled in this place and called the city Freetown. 

These first settlers were Africans who had fought on the side of the British in the American War of Independence. In return they were given freedom. They were called Black Loyalists or Nova Scotians. At that time, a movement arose against slavery. The name of the neighboring country of Liberia also recalls this history.

Free People of Color
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the American pastor Robert Finley was one of the initiators of the American Colonization Society (ACS) or in full The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America. It was a project to repatriate free African Americans to Africa. The ACS was founded in 1816 and four years later the first ship, the Elizabeth, sailed to the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown and a little later from there to present-day Liberia. In the end, the American Colonization Society succeeded in building a permanent settlement there called Monrovia, named after then US President James Monroe. In the beginning, the administration was in the hands of white Americans, but they gradually withdrew and in 1847 the immigrants declared Liberia's independence. Nearby Sierra Leone had been a British Crown Colony since 1808 and only became independent in 1961.

British Crown Colony
Freetown was the seat of the British governor who governed the Gold Coast (Ghana), The Gambia and the coastal region of Sierra Leone. Initially, the West African slave trade was coordinated from here, but after the abolition of the slave trade (1807) and slavery (1833) Freetown and the coastal areas of Sierra Leone were able to develop further as residences for returned slaves.

During the nineteenth century, approximately 70,000 freed slaves settled in Freetown, making it one of the most populous cities in West Africa. A prosperous black elite emerged in Freetown, mainly Creoles or Krios. After 1880, Great Britain started colonizing the interior of Sierra Leone, this area became a British protectorate (protected area) in 1896, while the peninsula on the coast with Freetown remained a crown colony.

After independence on April 27, 1961 (our Dutch King's Day is Independence Day there) the British Queen Elizabeth II remained the head of state, but ten years later in April 1971 Sierra Leone became a republic with a president at the head.

War and peace
The relationship with the British has therefore always been ambiguous, but my impression is that the British - despite or thanks to the colonial past - do not have a bad reputation among the population. Sierra Leone has also seen much internal strife and rebellion since independence. From 1991 to 2002, a fierce civil war raged.

Four consecutive housemates of mine have lived through the horrors of that war, one even as the son of a rebel leader / coup plotter / president. The country is struggling to recover and after the war, fortunately, several elections have taken place with a more or less peaceful transfer of power. As a result of the war and modern times, many rural residents have moved to the capital Freetown, causing the city to grow from the shoreline up into the hills. In 2017 - shortly after the deadly Ebola epidemic was contained - an estimated 1,000 residents were killed in a major landslide caused by logging and illegal construction. One of my friends called me: "Those hills that you saw from our house, those hills they are gone".

Sweet Salone
The Cotton Tree, the symbol of a free people, is therefore not always in bloom and Sweet Salone is still struggling with its acquired freedom.

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