By Ibrahim Seibure
Member of Parliament for Constituency 78 in the Bonthe District has described Bonthe Island as a potential tourist spot for Sierra Leone if properly tapped.
Hon. Segepoh Solomon Thomas recalled that Bonthe (Sherbro) Island is the site of an early 19th-century British post against the slave trade which was acquired from the Sherbro people by the Freetown Colony in 1861.
“This Island was very strategic in developing the colonial economy of Sierra Leone. The Island was Sierra Leone’s first administrative capital and the first municipality. A major seaport and headquarter of many business conglomerates such as the now defunct Paterson Zochonis popularly known as PZ,” Hon. Thomas stated.
He explained that the Island was the host of the Mende Mission led by Sengbeh Pieh and other freed slaves that were trained and sent to Sierra Leone as missionaries immediately after the abolition of the slave trade and where Sengbeh Pieh himself died and was buried in addition to the fact that the Island served as the first host of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2003, adding that Bonthe Island was referred to as “Christmas Island” because of the pleasant beaches and other small islands that surround it.
“This was where the first detention facility of the Special Court for Sierra Leone was established and where indictments of Foday Sankoh, Chief Sam Hinga Norman, Issa Sesay, Alieu Kondowa and others were read. You can now sense the touristic potential of the area,” noted the lawmaker. “We need to preserve these places as national monuments and develop them into tourist facilities. Between March and August 2003, Special Court Judges presided over nine initial appearances of accused persons on the Bonthe Island. I would like to appeal to the government of Sierra Leone and good friends of Sierra Leone to pay a visit to Bonthe Island to see for themselves what potential Bonthe has in terms of tourism and other economic activities.”
Bonthe District comprises several islands and mainland of the Atlantic Ocean in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone. Its district administrative town is Mattru Jong and its largest city is Bonthe, on Sherbro Island. As of 2012 the district had an estimated population of 140,845. Bonthe lies on the eastern shore of Sherbro Island, on the Sherbro River estuary. It is about 60 miles south-west of Bo and 187 miles south-east of Freetown.
In 1815, Paul Cuffe – a successful ship maker and prominent Quaker – settled a group of 88 freed slaves on Sherbro Island under a British initiative. Cuffe’s first trip to West Africa was not solely to help freed slaves however as he sought to make a profit on the cargo he would return to America with. After Cuffe’s death in 1817, the ACS took over in the transportation of freed black slaves to West Africa.
The island was also surveyed by Samuel John Mills and Ebenezer Burgess at the behest of the American Colonization Society to explore the idea of establishing a “black colony” that consisted of freed black American slaves in Africa. The survey was conducted along a track of land between Sierra Leone and Sherbro Island where they found a group of coloured people led by a former freed slave named John Kizzel. A report filed by Mills and Burgess on the mission led to the passing of an act by the U.S. Congress on March 3, 1819, authorizing the return of freed black slaves to their “motherland”. With this new congressional approval the ACS took action in establishing a black colony in Africa. This black colony later became known as the Republic of Liberia.
The ACS group of freed slaves arrived at Bonthe (Sherbro) Island in 1821 before being driven by circumstance to Providence Island at Cape Mesurado in present day Liberia in April 1822. The ship Elizabeth left from New York with 86 free American blacks as well as three agents from the ACS. After arriving on the island and hoping to only stay long enough to find more permanent living conditions on the main land, disease and fever had killed more than a quarter of the would-be settlers.
Bonthe Island was home to the first set of settlers. The gateway to Bonthe is by the Jong River and Yagui via Sierra Rutile mining sites. It is festooned with mangrove swamps and sandbanks. The Island was a major seaport and headquarters of many business conglomerates such as the now defunct Paterson Zochonis popularly known as PZ. The district’s first referral hospital is located in the Bonthe Island. Its first Doctor was Milton A. Margai in 1941.
Bonthe District is primarily inhabited by the Sherbro people (who are the native people of the district); and the Mende people, who immigrated to the district from Mende-dominant areas in the southern part of Sierra Leone.
The district has one of the largest deposits of titanium ore (rutile) in the world. Due to poor mining policy, the region has little to show for this huge economic potential. There are still no good roads, hospitals, water supply or electricity.
Bonthe (Sherbro) Island is believed to be a breeding ground for green sea turtles as well as leatherback sea turtles. Also the water surrounding the Island holds some of the biggest tarpon in the world. The major industry in Bonthe is fishing. In colonial times the town used to be a major trading centre for piassava and other agricultural products. The population of Bonthe is ethnically diverse, though mainly from the Sherbro and Mende ethnic groups.
In May 2013, the Government of Sierra Leone’s figure of the island’s population was 28,457.