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.

Libreville: Why the Name?

Libreville today
Libreville today, 2012

Two capitals in Africa share the same name: Freetown in Sierra Leone, and Libreville in Gabon; one in English, the other in French.  I always knew that Freetown was named the way it was because it was a city founded in 1792 by freed African American Slaves also called Nova Scotian who had fought on the side of the British during the American Revolutionary war.  The land was named Freetown as a land for freed slaves.

Libreville in 1846
Libreville in 1846

But why on earth is Libreville named free town?  Since, there were apparently no freed slaves returning from the colonies, or running away from slavery?  I recently found out that the story of Libreville is very similar to that of Freetown, as it does involve slaves!  Yes… that’s right!  In the old days, i.e. prior to French occupation (the French acquired land there in 1839), the area that is today Libreville was inhabited by the Mpongwé people since the 11th century.  In 1846, l’Elizia, a slave ship en route for Brazil, carrying slaves for sale was captured by the French navy near Loango, offshore from the Mbongwé’s kingdom.  260 negroes were thus freed and taken to the Island of Gorée in Senegal in 1846.  After an intervention from Paris, 30 – 50 of these slaves will return to Gabon, where the French governor Bouët-Willaumez will take advantage of this, and found Libreville (French for ‘free town’ or ‘free city’) in 1849, in close proximity to Fort d’Aumale, where the French navy was installed to “fight” against slavery.  The small town, Libreville, was then organized as a “French christian village” around 5 places: the Mpongwé’s place, the freedom place, the Bakélé place, the Pahué place, and the Bulu place, after the main tribes in the area at the time.