June 22, 2015 By Prof. C. Magbaily Fyle
There has been a huge misconception about the source of the name ‘Sierra Leone’. Everyone who claimed authority on Sierra Leone history had without question attributed this to the Portuguese voyager named Pedro da çintra (the cedilla softens the ‘c’ into an ‘s’ rendition, just as in ‘çapes’, often written as ‘sapes’). This voyager visited the shores of the Sierra Leone peninsula in 1462 and later claimed to another Portuguese functionary, Pacheco Periera, that he ‘saw a land so rough and wild, (he) called it ‘Lyoa’ (Kup 1961:6). This claim, which did not include the other half of the name, was believed by Periera and it is the source of what has become embedded in Sierra Leone history, that Pedro da çintra gave the name ‘Sierra Leone’ to the peninsula and the name stuck on to that of the colony and later independent nation bearing that name.
This bald acceptance of Periera’s claim, passed on now with a strong conviction among Sierra Leoneans, has created several problems for the history of our country. Virtually all functionaries and teachers in Sierra Leone still repeat the claim, whether in text books, in the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation advertisement or in all other writings. The latest Basic Education Certificate Exam (BECE) carried a question on Pedro da çintra founding Sierra Leone, representing what the teachers had taught the pupils across the country.
Part of the problem also is that historical studies on Sierra Leone have started at 1462 and with Pedro da çintra. British scholars who first started writing Sierra Leone history encouraged this, as if nothing had been happening before Pedro da Vintra got there and the Bulom people who lived there, hardly find mention in historical analyses. Writings from British sources have been more concerned with the actions of the Europeans in Africa, and the founding of the Colony of Sierra Leone was prominent, with a brief mention of where the name comes from. The Monuments and Relics Commission, founded in 1946, still has virtually all of its declared monuments representing things the British left behind and almost nothing on the Sierra Leoneans themselves.
It has become necessary to correct this situation. Briefly, the sum total of the available evidence is that the term ‘serra lyoa’ was already in use, represented in early Portuguese maps before 1462 when Pedro da çintra got there. The peninsula, it is indicated by Paul Hair, the foremost authority on this matter, ‘consists largely of the range of hills “serra” which gave the district its name’ (Donhela 1625:187).
The first Portuguese recorded as having visited the area was Alvaro Fernandes in 1446. This was a period of intense competition between European powers to lay claim to territory on the African coast, the main reason for the fortifications built on most of the islands around the peninsula with the concurrence of the Bulom people living there. This competition for territory also meant that a large number of interlopers, renegade pirates and traders from European countries plied the seas around the Guinea Coast.
Many of them had shipmates familiar with cartography and so made rough ‘maps’ representing their own perceptions of where they were and often hiding those maps for fear of their falling in the hands of other European nations. As A.P. Kup comments:
‘Such maps were secret, and every nation – every ship’s captain almost – as they arrived here kept their knowledge to themselves’ (Kup 1961:1).
Thus the voyages of these ship captains, some of them unrecorded, carried maps secretly prepared and guarded. Some of these maps have survived but the various names of places around the peninsula are so numerous as to be confusing, each ship captain giving new names to each landmass or island they encountered. In all of these however, the ‘serra’ of the peninsula stands out and the name ‘serra lyoa’ was already in use before 1462.
According to Paul Hair, the term “serra lyoa” was also employed by the Portuguese in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to refer to a long stretch of the Guinea Coast, normally from Cape Verga to Cape Mount’ (Donhela 1625:187; Hair 1966:49-51).
In the face of this confused picture, it was easy for any one voyager, as in the case of Pedro da çintra, to claim authorship of the name.
Christopher Fyfe, a prominent historian on Sierra Leone, wrote a formidable History of Sierra Leone in 1962, still very relevant in today’s reconstruction of our history. Fyfe simply mentions that ‘Portuguese voyagers in the mid fifteenth century named the peninsula serra lyoa from the wild looking, lionine mountains’ (Fyfe 1962:). The name Pedro da çintra is not even mentioned in Fyfe’s work, apparently seeing no reason to single out that voyager simply because of a false claim.
Another recent writer, Kevin Lowther, who has followed extant records, while mentioning the name of Pedro da Vintra, does not attribute to him the origin of the name Sierra Leone. (Lowther 2011; 25)
Thus from all accounts, if there is any agreement, it is that we are only sure that the name ‘Sierra Leone’ comes from early Portuguese voyagers who first reached the shores of the Sierra Leone peninsula. Apart from what is a false claim by Periera about Pedro da çintra, no scholar attributes the name to any particular Portuguese voyager.
We should therefore reject this claim and remove it from our history textbooks and from references linking the name Pedro d Vintra with the start of Sierra Leone history.
Donhela, Andre (1625) An Account of Sierra Leone and the Rivers of Guinea Cape Verde.
Notes and English Translation by P.E.H. Hair. Junta De Investigacoes Cientificas Do Ultramar, Lisboa 1977
Fyfe, Christopher 1962. A History of Sierra Leone. London, Oxford,
Hair P.E.H 1966. “The Spelling and connotation of the toponym ‘Sierra Leone since 1461”. Sierra Leone Studies, n.s. 18, 1966, pp. 43-58; n.s. 20, 1967, p.220
Kup, A.P. 1961. A History of Sierra Leone 1400-1787. London, Cambridge University Press.
Lowther, Kevin 2011. The African American Odyssey of John Kizell. Columbia, SC, University of South Carolina Press.