The Gullah-Geechees

Sierra Leoneans and Gullahs have known about their family connection for more than 30 years, and people on both sides of the Atlantic are eager to learn more about it. This is what Fambul Tik (“Family Tree”), a Sierra Leonean cultural organization, will address when we lead a historic study tour of Sierra Leone in December 2019. Our visitors will include Gullah people, Gullah performers, historians, historical preservationists, and cultural activists.

We call our tour: “The Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection: The Next Step.”

The Gullah people (also called “Geechees”) are a unique group of African Americans who live in the coastal Low Country region of South Carolina and Georgia, where they have preserved more of their African cultural heritage than any other black community in the United States. The Gullahs are proud of their African heritage and, for their part, Sierra Leoneans have every reason to feel proud that an African American community closely related to them has preserved so much of its African cultural heritage, up to the present day.

Rice is central to the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection. Africans from what was once called the “Rice Coast,” the area stretching from what is now Senegal and Gambia in the north to Sierra Leone and Liberia in the south have been growing rice for hundreds of years. During the Atlantic slave trade period, many African rice farmers were taken to South Carolina and Georgia where American rice planters were eager to exploit their skills. These enslaved African farmers, later called “Gullahs,” became isolated on the rice plantations due to a combination of geographical and health-related factors, and were, thus, able to develop their unique African-derived culture.

Scholars first called the world’s attention to the Sierra Leone-Gullah Connection in the 1980s, and since then Gullahs and Sierra Leoneans have come together on a number of high-profile occasions to celebrate their common heritage. Sierra Leone’s president visited a Gullah community in South Carolina in 1988, and Gullah community leaders made a return visit to Sierra Leone in 1989. These events were followed by two more “Homecomings” to Sierra Leone in 1997 and 2005. These events were based on extraordinary discoveries.

The British slave castle at Bunce Island, in the Sierra Leone River, is the only slave trade operation on the Rice Coast that sent African captives to Charleston and Savannah throughout the period of the transatlantic slave trade in South Carolina and Georgia. Bunce Island (or “Bance Island,” as it was called then) was known to every rice planter in those colonies, and the name “Bance Island” frequently appeared on slave auction adverts in the local newspapers in the second half of the 18th century

Sierra Leone’s connection to the Gullahs

But Sierra Leone’s connection to the Gullahs is not just about the thousands of enslaved African rice farmers sent to the Low Country; it is also about the hundreds who came back. History shows that Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown was founded by a group of freed slaves who had served in the British army during the American Revolutionary War in return for their freedom. After Britain lost the war, these black troops and their families were taken to Nova Scotia, Canada and, later, to Sierra Leone. (which is depicted in the photo immediately above depicting their arrival in the Freetown Harbor in 1792). About 25% of these “Nova Scotians,” as they are called in Sierra Leone, came from coastal South Carolina and Georgia, and were likely Gullah-speakers. The modern descendants of the Nova Scotians and other groups of freed slaves that settled in Freetown are called “Krios,” and there are many Gullah influences on their language (also called “Krio”) and culture, including their storytelling tradition.