Friday, March 27, 2009

Recollections of Bunce Island

I am reading the first in a series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. It takes place in Botswana. Botswana sits on top of South Africa, landlocked, surrounded by Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola and Namibia. According to the novel, the earnings from diamond mining are what fill the coffers of the Bank of Botswana.

The father of the No. 1 Lady Detective herself went off to work in the Diamond Mines of Johannesburg, South Africa when he was 18. He describes the physical he has to take before he can be sent to work in the mines: "...they put me on a scale and listened to my chest and made me run up and down a ladder for ten minutes. Then a man said that I would be a good miner..."

This reminded me of Bunce Island. Bunce Island sits in the Sierra Leone River, northeast of Freetown peninsula. It was a major post for trade in slaves from Africa. You can take a speed boat from the Aberdeen section of Freetown, as we did, and enjoy the ride past other islands on the way. Many of those islands are inhabited. Bunce Island is not.

We arrived, and, as with the boat trip to Banana Island, had to be carried from the boat to the beach. The beach is virtually untouched, except by the footprints of monkeys, and the little holes of the sand crabs. Oh yes, and the grafiti carved into the trunks of the trees. (The mate on our boat did one of these carvings while we were on the island.) There is the remainder of a shipping quay at the site where we landed.

I found the beach beautiful and said so. Our travel agency guide said it needed to be developed. I said I hoped it would never be, that development would destroy its beauty.

Of course travel agents want facilities like bathrooms and snack bars for their clients. There was no toilet on the boat (about an hour) and none on the island (about another hour, plus the extra long boat ride back because we had mechanical trouble!). There is no gift shop or tour shop or snack shop. There is a caretaker, but he does not live on the island, he does not have a cell phone, he had one of I imagine endless discussions with the tour agency personnel about how he must get a cell phone or at least have someone on his island be their cell phone contact so they can let him know when there is a group waiting for him to come give them a tour. But, to his credit, he was having none of it.

Here's how it works: you land on the island. You sit down on a "bench" made by lashing together what looks like thick bamboo branches. It works fine as a bench. Then you wait. You wait until the old man or one of his grandsons notices that there is a white speedboat anchored off Bunce. Then he gets in his dugout canoe with the grandsons to paddle for him, and he travels by canoe from his island, a good way off from Bunce, and there he is, your guide for the tour of the island. One grandson stays with the canoe. The younger comes with you and the old man. His job is to help people up and down the trails. It is quite funny to watch the old man insist on doing this helping - he is frail, rake thin, short, and, well, very old.

Off we go, then, following the man and boy, up a steep trail from the beach to the part of the island that was developed by slavers. The first building ruin we came to was, according to our guide, built by the French. We start here at the northern end of the ruin. We end here at the southern end of the ruin. It is at this southern end, at the end of our tour, that our guide says that the English and Portugese kept their cargo above ground. The French kept them underground. And he points to the entrance to a low tunnel, now surrounded by part of the trunk of a cotton tree. As we continue down a steep path and around the ruin, we see what he means.

Africans headed for the slave markets, gathered by the French, and slaves used by the French on the island, lived literally underground, in an area I think no one could stand up in.

So, the French ruin. Next we come to the main ruin, the castle. Our guide did not speak English. Our tourist agency guides translated a little of what he said, but not everything. I could catch some things but not a lot. So here is what I understand. First came the Portugese. And then the English. The English built the castle and erected the cannons to protect the island from the Portugese. Here, in the middle of the main ruin, there is a room with a fireplace. On either side of this room there are two other rooms that lead only to this central room. The smaller one, on the left, was for women. The larger, on the right, was for men.

The fire would be stoked. Irons would be placed in the roaring fire. And in their turn, the men and women would be brought into the fireplace room where they were branded. The sole purpose of that fireplace was for the fire used to brand human beings.

The tour continues. We go to where the house of the governor was - it is also a ruin, but you can see it was two stories. There are tunnels, two of them, very low, too low to stand to walk through, that lead through the ground under the governor's house. They go to the beach below. It was through these tunnels that the men and women, future slaves for England, New England, Southern America states and the Caribbean - crawled, I guess - to get to the slave boats waiting for them at the quay.

If you face the tunnels and then turn 180 degrees, you are facing two doorways. The left one leads to the open air holding yard for women slaves. This doorway is overgrown. The right one leads to the open air holding yard for men slaves. This doorway is cleared, because it is the access to the rest of the island, to the graveyards, and back to the tunnel entrance of the French house.

Here I understood most of what the old man said. Before they were put on the boats bound for slave markets, the men had to form a circle in the yard. They had to run, one round, two round, three round, four some would fall after four and be beaten until they got up...five round...those who fall now and cannot get up - machete. Six round you are sound enough to make a good slave.

It was this of which the reference above to the man in the novel reminded me: "...they put me on a scale and listened to my chest and made me run up and down a ladder for ten minutes. Then a man said that I would be a good miner...".

We went through the right hand door, to the place where the men's holding yard had been. We passed through jungle. We saw enormous cotton trees with their strange, folded trunks. And then we were at the graveyard. There are two - one for white people, one for Africans. There is a society that is trying to preserve this island, and our tour agent guides are part of that society. They themselves have come out to clean the gravestones. If you had a bit of black rubbing wax and some paper you might be able to rub the paper with wax in order to read what is on the stones. I do not remember who our guide said some of the names were on the gravestones.

Bunce Island is not, as it stands, a place you would go for a vacation. But it is beautiful in its wilderness. It is inconvenient - inconvenient to get to, inconvenient to wait for the caretaker, inconvenient in its lack of facilities, lack of literature, lack of artifacts to take back to help you remember what you are told. And for all that, I wouldn't have any of it changed. It was one of three or four highlights of the trip to Sierra Leone: the girls in the school in Waterloo, Bunce Island, the opening of the Voices of Women photo exhibit at the Sierra Leone Museum (not on our itinerary so I am especially glad to have been able to go there instead of to the market) and Banana Island, which afforded a canoe trip over the Atlantic, the people who live on the island and weaver birds in their perfectly round, woven nest communities.

That's today's post. I apologize for any inaccuracies.

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