Surveying Memorialisation in Freetown

In December a member of our team (Dr Lee Karen Stow) visited Freetown in Sierra Leone, West Africa, to explore different forms of memorialisation. Here are some reflections from the trip by Lee.

In December 2015 I visited Hull’s twin city of Freetown in Sierra Leone, West Africa, a city I have visited seven times since the 2007 Bicentenary of the British Slave Trade Act.

My task for the AHRC Remember Me project was to conduct a photographic survey of burial sites related to the world’s first post-slave society established in Freetown from the early 18th Century, specifically at the Circular Road Cemetery – the city’s first municipal cemetery. I also looked at two other cemeteries King Tom Cemetery and St Paul’s Wilberforce, and at the memorials erected on the walls inside St George’s Cathedral, St John’s Maroon Methodist Church and St Paul’s Church at Wilberforce. All revealed the changing face of memorialisation in the British World.

The Taylors Family Sepulchre at the Circular Road Cemetery. To the right is Victor Smith, the cemetery caretaker
The Taylors Family Sepulchre at the Circular Road Cemetery. To the right is Victor Smith, the cemetery caretaker

The Circular Road Cemetery encompasses the old and new burial grounds from the early Portuguese settlers in the late 18th century to the present day, including deaths during the recent ebola epidemic. Sadly, it is sorely neglected. Rubbish is dumped in piles and on the hill, and this catches fire and smolders in the heat of the African sun. Apparently, a team from the city council makes regular clean ups only for more rubbish to be dumped deliberately or discarded disrespectfully – just some of the environmental issues facing the precious heritage of burial spaces in West Africa.

Elephant grass grows in profusion, smothering exposed and empty vaults so it’s difficult to walk around in case you fall into the often empty burial pits! There are litters of kittens, puppies, rodents, and human waste, discarded bottles and patches of scorched earth, maybe from lit fires or offering ceremonies. The original ornamental gates to the cemetery are long gone. I read they were moved to the city treasury, so headed to the treasury but couldn’t see them. At the side entrance, a trader displays his toilets for sale. Many locals I spoke to wished more could be done to help preserve such an historic site.

Nevertheless I found a wealth of human history in abundance. If I had six weeks to spare I don’t think I could have covered every burial site in Freetown, documenting every grave, and preserving every long-forgotten name.

Beforehand I fretted that I might find little to photograph, at the very least a few mounds of rubble or the odd broken headstone. Instead I found an overwhelming number of readable and identifiable headstones and memorials recording English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Portuguese, French and African graves. Sometimes headstones were clean and easy to read. One example, still pristine, is a Celtic cross erected in memory of a Scotsman, the granite sparkling as it does in Aberdeen.

Gladys Cole of Freetown, a senior teacher that I have known since 2007 and who has visited Hull three times, was recruited as assistant researcher on the project. She is a stickler for detail and grappled with the tape measure to record depths, heights and widths of burial sites. She took precise notes, and she did all this wearing strappy sandals! The wealth of surprising and intriguing nuggets we found is, in huge part, down to Gladys’ energy for the project and her own love of Sierra Leonean history.

Our enthusiasm at each new discovery of a name grew, especially when we began finding many female names. I had imagined finding names such as John, Thomas, James, Charles and William (which are there of course), but not Sally, Fannie, Margaret, Ellen, Drecilla and, to my delight, a Yorkshire lass – Catherine Peacon from York who died in 1857 aged 21 years. This discovery fired my imagination and is now the subject of a new photo essay – perhaps an exhibition – dedicated to the memory of these early frontier women of Africa’s West Coast.

The more excited Gladys and I became at each new find, the more our driver, Karim, and the cemetery caretaker Victor Smith got involved, looking for headstones buried beneath the grass and pouring water on the engraved fronts so that we could read the writing. When Victor brought a scrubbing brush and began cleaning a marble slab revealing names beneath the mud, I knew he was hooked too. Victor has the tough job of guarding the cemetery as it is open to anybody which means anyone can enter, use the cemetery as a toilet or discard rubbish or a stolen handbag. And some come to bury their dead, Muslim or Christian, simply and quietly. At least three funerals were held during our surveys.

Across town, at King Tom cemetery, we stood before more than 6,000 fresh graves of adults and children who died during the recent ebola epidemic. The rest of this old cemetery was much better kept because now it has many more visitors, coming to pay their respects. At the old cemetery in Wilberforce, the old colonial graves look out towards Hill Station, site of the first settlement of houses in what for many was a lush, green new world until malaria, smallpox and yellow fever devastated their families. As I said before, much more is waiting to be revealed in these cemeteries, and others hidden away.

Medical and Dignified Burial Plot 'H' at King Tom Cemetery, Freetown. In plots A to H are buried 6,723 people. Not all are ebola victims but during the ebola crisis it was decreed that all corpses be buried here.
Medical and Dignified Burial Plot ‘H’ at King Tom Cemetery, Freetown. In plots A to H are buried 6,723 people. Not all are ebola victims but during the ebola crisis it was decreed that all corpses be buried here.

For now though, hopefully our findings will reveal or confirm important information for the researchers who have the task of pouring over these images. I feel privileged to have been a part of this survey, but even more honoured to have been able to bring back to the living so many names, so many characters, each with a story worth knowing.

Dr Lee Karen Stow is Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation. In December 2015 she visited Sierra Leone as a Research Assistant on the Remember Me Diaspora case study directed by Dr Nicholas Evans. For more information on Lee’s award winning photography see: http://www.leekarenstow.com/. She can be contacted via leestow@yahoo.co.uk.

 

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