On Tuesday, after much anticipation, the first of a six-part series, written and presented by Henry Louis Gates Jr., aired on PBS nationwide. “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” features a fascinating documentary about the history of African Americans, from the roots of slavery to-date. Gates as always, gives the narrative an edge unlike other documentaries before, and applies a much broader perspective, providing details that may be largely unknown to the mainstream audience. Gates connects the dots, from the moment Africans became slaves, to the experience and transformation those slaves endured in their journey to eventually become African Americans. The documentary bridges together ancestors and descendants, Africa and America, Sierra Leone and South Carolina, Haiti and Virginia, almost removing the ocean that divides both sides of the Atlantic.
In the first episode, one could not help but notice the overwhelming mention of Sierra Leone throughout the hour long program. To many non-Sierra Leonean viewers who are familiar with the name, it may have been startling at the least, as over the years the name seemed to have become synonymous with blood diamonds; from the portrayal of the country’s civil conflict in the movie “Blood Diamond” starring Leonardo Dicaprio. Slightly over a decade of tragedy however, isn’t enough to remove the historical value the country has. Such historical value, although several books written by notable scholars exist, rarely get covered in the mainstream. Much of the historical discourse takes place among exclusive circles of historians and related focus groups such as museums, historical archives, and some Sierra Leonean families.
It was refreshing to see African American history in general, and Sierra Leone’s role in it specifically, presented to such a large-scale audience, on a well-known media platform, by a respected Scholar. It not only confirms the historical value of Sierra Leone history to world history, it also makes it unavoidable to understand the emergence of the African Diaspora across the Atlantic without considering the country’s role over the centuries to the various stages of the African’s experience within the past few hundred years.
Gates took the viewer to the grassy remains of Bunce Island in Sierra Leone, which served as one of the major slave ports during the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. According to the program, at least 50,000 African slaves passed through this port, across the Atlantic, unto the shores of coastal eastern United States. This may be considerably lower than the actual number of Africans who were brought to America through Bunce Island. While there are over 30 million African Americans in the United States today, their African ancestors who were sold into slavery and brought to the U.S. shores, made up only approximately 6 percent of the 10+ million African slaves brought to the Americas. It isn’t a surprise therefore, to see this dynamic reflected today among many African Americans tracing their DNA Ancestry to Africa. Through DNA testing companies such as African Ancestry, African Americans such as Actress Whoopi Goldberg, Mayor Andrew Young, Activist Jessie Jackson, Poet Maya Angelou, Radio Host Tom Joyner, Icon Dr. Dorothy Height, Basketball Player Etan Thomas, and others have traced their ancestry to several major ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. While other West African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon are also major countries of ancestry discovered by African Americans today, the demographics of DNA ancestry continues to reflect the significance Sierra Leone had in the earlier stages of slavery. A gateway for many of the few Africans who ultimately arrived in the British Colonies of North America to populate the nation with possibly millions of African Americans today, still much of the historical value of Bunce Island remain unexplored in mainstream media.
Another significance of Bunce Island, which was not covered by Gates in this episode, probably because this is relevant to America generally, is the link between the port and the turning point in American history, the American Revolution. Two major figures during the American Revolution period emerges out of the Bunce Island story. Henry Laurens, a South Carolina native, was Bunce Island’s business agent to Charles Town (now Charleston), South Carolina. Laurens also served as President of the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1778, the body that governed the United States during the Revolution. Richard Oswald, a British Merchant, was the principal owner of Bunce Island. Marking the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the independent United States, both Oswald, representing the British, and Laurens representing America, were two of the leading figures who negotiated the Treaty of Paris and ushered in a new era in history.
In this first episode, the Gates documentary, centered on another significance of Sierra Leone’s historical link to America and African Americans especially. While Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island reflected mostly the oppressed, tragic, and enslaved experience of the African American’s narrative in the 18th Century; the story of Sierra Leone’s ‘Settlers’ reflected the experience of liberty, freedom, justice, and equality in the African American’s narrative that began to develop in the latter part of the 18th Century. The Black Pioneers consisted of a group of African Americans who were part of the British military during the American Revolutionary War. Other names given to such groups of blacks that formed part of the British military were the Ethiopian Regiment and the Black Brigade. These groups were made up mostly of escaped slaves in the American south, including Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia, among other colonies. The Black Brigades were very active in combat, while the Black Pioneers served similar roles to today’s military engineer. Some of the key leading figures that shaped the foundation of the free western black, in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, fought for it, in well organized militaries. Whether it was Thomas Peters of the Black Pioneers, Tye of the Black Brigades, Crispus Attucks of the Patriots, and Jeannot of the Haitian Revolution; liberty was the silver lining, it was what blacks everywhere fought for, regardless of who they seemed to be fighting for with a promise of freedom.
According to the Black Loyalist Heritage Society in Canada, thousands of slaves took refuge with the British during the American Revolutionary War. The British had promised slaves in America who could make it to their territory, freedom. At the end of the war, both black and white loyalists to the British left the United States and settled elsewhere. Thousands of black loyalists left on ships from the United States and settled in Nova Scotia, Canada. After just a few years in Nova Scotia, land was bought from the Temnes in West Africa for these blacks in Nova Scotia to settle. In 1792, over 1,000 of these blacks and their families in Nova Scotia, led by figures such as Thomas Peters, the Black Pioneer Sergeant and Henry Washington, a Corporal in the Black Pioneers and a former slave of George Washington, sailed on several ships to settle in this new land in Africa bought for them. After their arrival in West Africa, they cleared the land, built homes and communities, and called the new settlement, Freetown. Freetown became both a symbolic place for liberty and equality, as well as the birthplace of a new ethnic group made up of descendants of the black American Settlers, Jamaican Maroons who arrived in the early 19th Century and Liberated Africans (slaves captured and returned to Africa due to the abolishment of slavery in 1808 by the British).
In recent years, several blacks in Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and South Carolina have visited Freetown and made connections and links to these Krio descendants. Some African Americans in general have also tried to reconnect with Sierra Leone, particularly after discovering DNA ancestry to some of the major ethnic groups. Whether it is considering the departure of Africans from Africa to America, or the arrival of African Americans from America to Africa, Gates did well to incorporate Sierra Leone’s historical value in the evolving narrative of the African American’s story.
The next 5 episodes of will feature on PBS every Tuesday from 8pm to 9pm ET between October 22nd and November 26th. The next episodes are likely to go further into the history of African Americans and their journey in America, the development of their heritage, culture and community. While Sierra Leone’s role was highlighted in this first episode, there are many other major elements yet to be covered on the formation of today’s African Americans. In the next episodes, these may be explored, such as the American Revolution, religion, the Civil Rights Movement, American politics and more. Next Tuesday is already bookmarked, as a new episode airs, chronicling this fascinating story of a remarkable people, the African Americans.