Sierra Leone: Why the Name?

Modern-day Freetown
Modern-day Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone

I always thought the name of the country Sierra Leone was rather strange: how could a predominantly Muslim, English-speaking, African country have an Italian name?  There was never an Italian presence in that region of Africa.  So why in the world, is an ex-British colony with slaves returning from America, slaves who had fought on the British side during the American revolutionary war from 1775 to 1783, carrying an Italian name, and what does it mean?

Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1856
Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1856

Well, in 1462, the Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra sailing down the West African coast, saw the tall mountains rising from what is now Freetown peninsula or harbor, and named the area ‘Serra de Leão,’ which means ‘mountains of the lion’, or ‘hills of the lion,’ because of the shape formed by the hills surrounding the harbor.  The  rendering of this geographic formation is Sierra Leone, Leone being the Italian for Lion, while Sierra is Spanish for hills or mountain, thus the name. In reality, it is said that it was leona in Spanish which was accidentally changed to Leone; so the origin should be Spanish. Sierra Leone has the third largest natural harbor in the world.  Archaeologically, that area has been inhabited continuously for the past 2500 years, from successive movements from other parts of Africa.  In 1495, the Portuguese established a port there, and were later joined by the Dutch and French, who used the area as a slave trading point.  In 1787, a first settlement of those called Black poors was founded in the Province of Freedom.  They were later decimated by the indigenous population.  A second settlement came in composed of Nova Scotian settlers, and Jamaican Maroons.  Sometime, at the beginning of the 19th century, Sierra Leone became a British colony.  Sierra Leone today is a true melting pot of Temne, Mende, Limba, Fula, Mandingo, Kono, and Krio (descendants of African American, West Indies slaves, etc) people.  In 2006, the country was featured in the movie Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio.

So there goes the story of a British colony, English-speaking country, predominantly Muslim, with an Italian name in an area where no Italian explorer had set foot.  Enjoy this video on Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

15 thoughts on “Sierra Leone: Why the Name?

  1. Pingback: “Seche Tes Pleurs” de Bernard Binlin Dadie / “Dry your Tears Afrika” by Bernard B. Dadie « African Heritage

  2. manol

    This is really attention-grabbing, You are a very professional blogger. I’ve joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your great post. Also, I have shared your website in my social networks!


  3. Pingback: Why the name: Liberia? | African Heritage

  4. Hello! I’ve been following your blog for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Humble Texas!

    Just wanted to mention keep up the fantastic job!


  5. Rasheed A. MD

    Excellent Blog. Nice piece. I was wondering if you know where someone can find the picture of the Mountains that the explores saw back in 1492 that led them to the name SL


  6. Fabiana

    Sierra Leone is not an Italian name. Leone is an Italian word, Sierra is not. Apparently the name comes from the misspelling of the Spanish rendering of the name ‘Sierra Leona’


    1. James McCourt

      Thank you, Fabiana, I was writing the same thing, citing “monte” and “colline” and “Sierra” s in California’s High Sierra.”Leone” as in the opera “Otello,” where Iago contemptuously cries over Othello, who has fallen to the ground in a seizure, “Ecco il leone!” “Othello,Lion of Venice” is from Shakespeare, but Venice does not appear in the opera — but perhaps you know all that.


  7. Virgilio Soares

    ” ‘Serra de Leão,’ which means ‘Lion mountains’”. Something is wrong! “Serra de Leão” in portuguese means “Hills(mountains) of the Lion”. The question is quite simple. The original portuguese name of those shores is “Serra Leoa”, wich means: Serra – Hills, Mountanis ; Leoa – Lioness .Sierra Leone is a misspeling of the portuguese words, maybe with some spanish influence, but no doubt about the original Serra Leoa.


    1. Thanks Virgilio for the comment. I meant mountain of the lion (hills is more appropriate in this case). I will make the correction. And yes indeed, there is some Spanish influence in there as well.


  8. I did wonder about the name. I didn’t know about the history of the name. I did see Blood Diamond years ago. One thing I didn’t know was that Idris Elba was of half Sierra Leonean descent until very recently when he did business in that country.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s