Sierra Leone Public Archives: Records of Colonial Governors, Police and Court Officials in Freetown and Neighbouring Villages

This project focused on preserving rare archival sources in the Sierra Leone Public Archives through digital photography, and builds on the digitisation programme undertaken through the earlier project EAP443. The focus of digitisation was on sources from the nineteenth century relating to the population composition and administrative history of the British Crown colony of Sierra Leone. The evidence digitised ranges in date from 1808 to 1901. This spans a period from the formation of the British Crown colony of Sierra Leone to the formation of the Sierra Leone Protectorate. The significance of the source material lies in the detailed evidence it yields on the inhabitants of the colony in the nineteenth century. As such, these archives collectively provide a rare insight into the life experiences of former slaves and their descendants. By the mid nineteenth century, the population was comprised mainly of Liberated Africans (and their descendants) drawn from across different provenance zones of the slave trade in West Africa. The digitised records reveal the practices used by successive colonial governors to re-settle tens of thousands of Liberated Africans in Freetown and surrounding colonial villages, including Regent and Wilberforce. In the course of EAP782, a long series of police and court records were digitised. These records of legal proceedings in the colony include extensive testimony by individuals of African origin and descent. This includes the depositions of witnesses, as well as those brought before the court for different offences. Testimony from former slaves is particularly rare, and provides a basis for reconstructing biographical information on individuals uprooted and displaced by the Atlantic slave. This evidence provides a means of tracing the adaptation of formerly enslaved individuals to their new circumstances in Sierra Leone, as statements include reference to their occupations, places of residence and networks of family and friends. The digitised evidence includes reports from colonial governors about policies followed in the Colony. The reports sent back to government in Britain include detailed reference to inhabitants in the Colony, policies for the management of Liberated Africans, as well as relationships with neighbouring African societies.

This collection in the Sierra Leone Public Archives includes a number of long-running series of records (written mostly in English) documenting the activities of colonial governors, police and court officials in Freetown and neighbouring colony villages. These records offer an insight into the governance and administration of the British Crown Colony of Sierra Leone, and the impact of official policies and systems on its inhabitants. Police and court records also include extensive and invaluable testimony by male and female inhabitants of the Colony. The records include the testimony of males and females in connection with different types of criminal offences, including theft and assault. As such, the Police Court Records provide rare biographical information on the names, identities and life experiences of Liberated Africans and their descendants in the Colony. Information on occupations and social and cultural life can be gleaned from the testimony of defendants, plaintiffs and witnesses in court cases. Sentencing patterns are recorded for some offences. Court records dealing with claims for debts also reveal patterns of economic activity in this growing port-city in West Africa.

Custodial history: The Sierra Leone Public Archives include the holdings of the British colonial government and subsequently the independent Republic of Sierra Leone. Document preservation initially followed procedures found elsewhere in the British Empire. At first, departments were responsible for their own record keeping. In about 1895, the Colonial government in Sierra Leone began systematically to keep some types of official records. The government was experiencing some difficulties in keeping track of, for example, rent paid for Banana Island, as official records could not be procured in any effective manner and no specially trained or knowledgeable staff were available to assist with such issues of governance. In 1936 the British Secretary of State for the Colonies issued a circular stating that the various British administrations in West Africa must regard the preservation of historical records as one of the first duties of a colonial government. At the outbreak of World War II, the space occupied by the Archives was required for war-related purposes, and therefore all archival records were removed by rail to storage in Moyamba, where they remained for the duration of the war. On September 29, 1942, the Colonial Secretary issued Circular No. 49/Q/15/42 stating that the departments were to take care of official records in the event of enemy attack on Freetown, which was an important British naval base. “I am directed by the Governor to invite attention to the proper custody of official records, in the event of enemy action.... It would be a serious matter if official records were destroyed and steps should be taken now to ensure that such records are secured in safe and fireproof receptacles...I am to ask that a brief report on the arrangements made may be submitted in due course.” The archives were stored in army huts put up by the military, where they remained after World War II. The records were in a disorganized and deteriorating state by this time, piled in heaps on the floor. Historian Christopher Fyfe was appointed Government Archivist in 1950, a position he held for two years. Fyfe began the task of organizing and attempting to preserve the existing government records. The Colonial Secretary was faced with the task of deciding what should be done with the archives at this point. Fourah Bay College, the oldest university in West Africa, founded in 1827, offered to house the archives until the government built its own public archives office. The records were initially stored on the campus in a one-storey stone building with wooden shelves. Dr. Peter Kup, a member of the college staff succeeded Professor Fyfe in 1954, becoming honorary Government Archivist until 1967. On September 6, 1965 the Public Archives Office was formally established with the enactment of the Sierra Leone Public Archives Act, Number 44, of 1965. This Act charged the Public Archives Office with the sole responsibility for making provision for the preservation, arrangement, custody, repair and rehabilitation of all public records which have value for posterity. The Act provides for a Director of Archives who shall be a public sector officer under the Direction of the Minister of Education, responsible for Government Records and documents and other historical matters of every kind which may be transferred to or acquired by the Public Archives Office. The Act also provides for the establishment of a Public Archives Committee to advise the Minister on all matters relating to archives in Sierra Leone. Dr. Kup encouraged members of the staff at the History Department to visit provincial archives and prepare surveys of archival records found there. In 1991, the Sierra Leone Civil War broke out, lasting until 2002, costing tens of thousands of lives and injuring and displacing millions of others. Archival records were not at the forefront of concern at this time, with the breakdown of all state structures. However, a large number of records were saved and secured despite this absolutely devastating national situation. The Sierra Leone Public Archives are still housed at Fourah Bay College, in two buildings, under the direction of Chief Government Archivist and Co-Applicant, Mr. Albert Moore, and his staff. Despite minimal financial support from the government, the staff manages to house and protect the national records of Sierra Leone, while allowing access to researchers under less than optimal conditions.

Extent and format of original material: 7 Series, 94 volumes.

Owner(s) of original material: Sierra Leone Public Archives.

This collection contains the following 8 series.

  • EAP782/1/1: Court for the Easy and Speedy Recovery of Small Debts, 1838-1878
  • EAP782/1/2: Police Office Session Case Books, 1865-1869
  • EAP782/1/3: Police Court Records, 1837-1898
  • EAP782/1/4: Police Magistrate Records, 1839-1897
  • EAP782/1/5: Despatches from the Governor to the Secretary of State, 1818-1901
  • EAP782/1/6: Rough Fees and Fines Books, 1864-1869
  • EAP782/1/7: Court of Requests, 1881-1892
  • EAP782/1/8: Despatches from the Secretary of State, 1822-1833.