Sierra Leone is a country located on the western coast of Africa between Guinea and Liberia. Formerly a British colony, it became an independent country in 1961. The modern center of Creole culture in Sierra Leone is the city of Freetown, located at the tip of a peninsula on the Port of Freetown, on the far western coast of the country.
The first Creole settlement in Sierra Leone was established under the behest of the British Government in 1787 by freed people and British abolitionists. It was intended to be a safe haven for people who had been enslaved in the Americas, in part as a reward for the so-called “Black Loyalists” – escaped slaves who fought with the British during the colonial United States’ war for independence. Many of these people had initially been moved by the British government to Nova Scotia, and were later transported to Sierra Leone.
These Black Loyalist were joined by freed people from Jamaica, and by “Liberated Africans” – captured people who were recaptured off of slave ships and settled in the freed people’s colony. A certain number of white Europeans, mostly from London, were included in the original Freetown settlement, predominantly women who had married freed men.
These freed settlers, their spouses, and their descendants are the founding population of Sierra Leone’s Creole ethnic group. Creole culture contains European influences from the freed people’s time in the Americas and London, and from the Europeans with whom some intermarried. Caribbean culture strongly influenced Creole culture through the absorption of immigrant Jamaican Maroon communities, as did the Gullah culture of the United States’ Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands through the immigration of freed people from these areas. Surrounding African cultures have also contributed a great deal to Creole culture through intermixing and intermarriage.
The native language of the Creole ethnic group is called Krio. It is based on English with strong dialectical influence and loan words from Spanish, Portuguese, and French as well as from a variety of African languages. Though only three to four percent of the population of Sierra Leone are ethnic Creoles, the Krio language is spoken by ninety-seven percent of the Sierra Leonean population, although, as a former British colony, the official language of the country is English. Krio has a unique grammar and syntax, and as the movement for Creole cultural and historical pride grows, a growing body of literature is being written in the language.
The population of Sierra Leonean Creoles currently numbers less than 400,000, however the worldwide population of people claiming Creole ethnicity is larger due to a diaspora to other African countries, Britain, and the United States. The original Creole colony was called the Province of Freedom, and its main city was Granville Town. The location of the original settlement was granted to the Creole settlers by the nearby Temne community. Initial relations between local communities and the 400 to 500 Creole settlers were friendly. However, a change in leadership among the Temnes along with internecine strife caused by continued slave raids in the area soon soured these relations. The Granville community was in large part wiped out during an attack by the Temnes, who blamed the Creoles for slave raids in their villages, and by 1791 fewer than seventy of the original settlers remained. These settlers built a new Granville Town in a different area. In 1792, several thousand new immigrants from the freed communities in Nova Scotia established the current capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown.
The vast majority of the Creole founding population had spent time enslaved in the Americas, and many of these people had been born into slavery. As such, their initial culture was largely Western, with the Christian religion dominating their spiritual beliefs. As with many syncretic cultures, the religious beliefs of these enslaved people mixed the traditional beliefs of their African cultures of origin with the Christian beliefs of their captors, so the religion of the Creole immigrants already had certain African influences upon their arrival in Sierra Leone. These influences were strengthened and granted new vitality through cultural mixing with native and Liberated Africans. The dominant religion of Sierra Leonean Creoles today is Christianity, which retains this strong African influence, making ethnic Creoles a religious minority as well in the otherwise strongly Muslim country. A small minority (around 4%) of Creoles identify with Islam, and a smaller minority have returned to indigenous African religions.
Historically speaking, the Creoles of Sierra Leone have been disproportionately represented among the country’s upper classes. This is in part due to a strong cultural emphasis on the value of higher education, a value which is frequently found among ethnic groups who have endured enslavement and who have had to struggle for liberation and equality. The Creole community founded several public colleges and universities, and worked very hard historically to provide free and universal higher education to its members.
Despite this historical emphasis on education and upper class representation, human rights groups currently designate the community as “at risk” due to civil strife within Sierra Leone, including recurrent civil war within the country and in surrounding countries. The small size of the community contributes to its vulnerability, as does a growing rate of illiteracy and its concomitant, poverty. The Creoles are at this time considered a marginalized community, whose interests ought to be recognized both within Sierra Leone and by the international human rights community.