The Gullah-Geechees have a special relationship with Sierra Leone and her people. That is evident in the few stories we have showing that connection. On these pages, you will get to learn, understand and appreciate this special kinship that the people of Sierra Leone share with their Gullah-Geechee brothers and sisters. The story actually starts in the North America Colonies. Colonists in Charles Towne, in the colony of South Carolina, realized that they could grow rice in the semi-tropical conditions along the southeastern coast. These colonists had missed out on the lucrative sugar business as they could not grow sugar cane in the numbers required for it to be a thriving business in those climatic conditions. But rice could grow well. However, it was a difficult crop and they had no idea how to successfully cultivate it.
Eventually, they had to go to a region along the West Coast of Africa where rice had been cultivated for eons to look for such skilled labor. As an interesting observation, how could Africans be teaching colonists from Europe that now reside in America, to grow rice? This is how the story begins, as to how and why the Gullah-Geechees have become a distinctive group of African Americans. They have been able to preserve more of their African cultural heritage than any other in America. Many of that is influenced by Sierra Leonean (or West African) culture. "They speak a creole language similar to Sierra Leone Krio, use African names, tell African folktales, make African-style handicrafts such as baskets and carved walking sticks, and enjoy a rich cuisine based primarily on rice/" American Anthropologist, Joseph Opala, documents.
Even though the white plantation owners purchased slaves from various parts of Africa, the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa, spanning from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Liberia is where they found their favorite human cargo. Historians have illustrated that Africans from the Rice Coast were almost certainly the largest group of slaves imported into South Carolina and Georgia during the 18th century. The Gullah-Geechee people are direct descendants from these enslaved Africans who labored on the rice plantations, and their language reflects significant influences from Sierra Leone and the surrounding area. Lorenzo Dow Turner in his book, Afrikanisms in the Gullah Dialect, cited a lot of loan words and names in languages spoken in Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, for example, we use a word like "pantap," to mean "on top off," something. Guess what? The Gullahs do too! There are others that are identical historians have identified; for example, "yeys" (ear), 'ohltu" (both), and "swit" (delicious). Dr. Lorenzo Turner also recorded Gullah-Geechees singing many songs. One of them, the longest text preserved by an African American family, is a five-line stanza funeral dirge that Turner recorded in Harris Neck, GA in 1931. That song was traced to Sierra Leone and the family visited in 1997.
This advert illustrates a ship called Bance Island who went past Charleston and landed at Ashley Ferry, a few miles inland. In 2008, we had a commemorative ceremony to acknowledge the spirits of the Sierra Leoneans believed to have been sold right there at the dock. The white plantation owners were willing to pay premium prices for Africans with this type of specialty labor. Rice cultivating skills were in high demand!
"In fact, all of the African texts that Gullah people have preserved are in languages spoken within Sierra Leone and along its borders." ~ Joseph Opala
How did all this happen to create this special kinship between Gullah-Geechees and Siera Leoneans? Scholars have been able to show that while Sierra Leoneans where outnumbered in so many different places they were taken to, in the midst of other populous nations, "the rice plantation zone of coastal South Carolina and Georgia was the only place in the Americas where Sierra Leoneans came together [as enslaved people] in large enough numbers and over a long enough period of time to leave a significant linguistic and cultural impact." These are some of the reasons why, arguably, Sierra Leone is the single-most-important country in Africa for Gullahs, especially. But even more broadly to African Americans in general. I know.