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Gullah Heritage

Transatlantic linkage: The Gullah/Geechee-Sierra Leone Connection


The Gullah, or Geechee as they are known in Georgia, are an extraordinary group of African-Americans who live in small farming and fishing communities on the sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina. Because of their geographic isolation, the Gullah/Geechee have been able to retain more of their African heritage than any other African-Americans. Their ancestors' ability to cultivate rice and their high resistance to malaria due to the sickle trait, a heritable hemoglobin characteristic, are common links to Africans from the "Windward" or "Rice Coast" of West Africa, particularly to the country of Sierra Leone.

Image: Dawn till Dusk by Frances Johnson, Batik

The Gullah/Geechee-Sierra Leone linkage is about people separated by time and ocean, who speak a similar language and share similarities of crafts, food ways, music, folk tales, architecture, textiles, ceramics and belief systems.

This exhibition page celebrates the cultural linkage and the rich heritage shared by the descendants of Africans taken from their homeland to work as slaves in America, African-Americans repatriated to Sierra Leone after the American Revolution, and the Sierra Leonians who have sustained through the generations the culture and traditions shared by these three groups.

Photo: Hicks Walker, Netmaker, Sapelo Island. Photograph © Vera Viditz-Ward

The warm, semi-tropical climate of the sea islands makes Georgia and South Carolina a perfect location for the cultivation of rice. Rice cultivation was a special skill that captives from Sierra Leone possessed which made them highly prized in slave trading. From ca. 1700-1800, over 50,000 slaves were imported by South Carolina and Georgia planters from the Windward Coast of Africa, specifically, the Senegambia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, to cultivate large plantations in the growing of rice and cotton. Ethnic and cultural groups from this area included the Djolas, Wolof, Serer, Mandinga, Mende, Temne and Vai. Despite antislavery importation laws enacted in Georgia in 1799, slaves quickly outnumbered their masters on the sea islands. Slaves from Sierra Leone were often purchased in Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia to be taken to isolated communities in Georgia such as Sapelo Island and Harris Neck where their unique African culture was preserved.

Photo: Basketmaking, Sierra Leone. Photograph © Vera Viditz-Ward

The slave trade brought the importation of slaves from the Windward Coast region of West Africa to the rice growing regions of the coastal sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina through a complex pattern of migration and relocation. Slaves from Sierra Leonean ethnic groups such as Mende, Temne, Vai and Fula intermingled with slaves from other parts of West Africa. Living on the sea islands, isolated from outside influence, the Gullah/Geechee community still reflects this cultural linkage with Africa.

The profitable slave trade that fed on ethnic warfare in West Africa is represented today by the remains of what was once a major slave trading fortress and castle at Bunce Island in Sierra Leone on the Sierra Leone River. Between 1672 and 1807, the slave trade flourished under the protection of powerful English cannons at Bunce Island. The fort, with its adjacent shipyards, supplied slaves by using a fleet of vessels that cruised the Windward Coast.

By 1870, it is estimated that 10-12 million Africans were taken to the Americas, many of whom perished during the transatlantic voyages. Slaves were purchased by the Europeans for textiles, iron guns, Venetian glass beads, rum and brandy, and were exchanged for rice, cotton, indigo, gold, silver, sugar and tobacco in the Americas.

During the American Revolution, British forces offered slaves freedom and grants of land if they fought for the Crown. Many slaves fled the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia for this promise. Two important figures in the history of the repatriation of sea island slaves were Henry Laurens, an influential planter, slave trader and the Charleston agent for Richard Oswald, a Scotsman who owned Bunce Island during the 1750s and 60s. During the Revolutionary War, Laurens became President of the Continental Congress. Captured by the British, Laurens was rescued by his associate Oswald, then the leader of the British negotiating team for the Treaty of Paris. Laurens and Oswald, though on different sides of the war, tried to force the return of the freed slaves to their owners in America. The British commander in New York refused and, on his own authority, directed the slaves to safety in British Nova Scotia.

In 1787, British philanthropists founded the "Province of Freedom," which later became Freetown, a British crown colony and the principal base for the suppression of the slave trade. By 1792, 1,200 freed slaves from Nova Scotia joined the original settlers, called the Black Poor. Another group of slaves who had rebelled in Jamaica, , the Maroons, followed in 1800. The British established a naval base in Freetown after outlawing the slave trade in 1807 and patrolled against illegal slave ships. Those rescued from slave ships were taken to Freetown. Over 50,000 recaptives had been settled by 1855. Known as Krios, the repatriated settlers of Freetown today live in a multi-ethnic country embracing such diverse groups as the Mende, Temne, Kono, Vai, Krim Sherbro, Gola, and Loko.

Although the ancestors of the Gullah/Geechee came from different ethnic groups living along the Windward Coast of Africa, many aspects of their contemporary material culture are shared specifically with Sierra Leoneans. In addition to rice and indigo cultivation, there are strong shared traditions of the following skills and crafts between Sierra Leone and coastal Gullah/Geechee communities: Textiles, fishing, foodways, folktales, vernacular architecture, music, basket making, net making, language, belief systems, pottery and woodcarving.

This exhibition is presented by the Coastal Georgia Historical Society, the Museum of Coastal History and the Sierra Leone National Museum. It was made possible by funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities Public Programs. Additional funding assisting the project provided by the International Partnership Among Museums, the United States Information Agency, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Additional information can be obtained by contacting the: Coastal Georgia Historical Society, 101 12th Street, P.O. Box 21136, St. Simons Island, GA 31522, (912) 638-4666.

Acknowledgements This text is from an exhibit brochure presented by The Museum of Coastal History and The Sierra Leone National Museum. Used here courtesy of the Coastal Georgia Historical Society.