By Richard Stowell
Hosting a university brings a town economic benefit alongside a certain degree of social disruption. Less perceptibly it can over time change the demographics. In the many years that Reading has welcomed students from Sierra Leone, not least into the Agriculture Department, small numbers have stayed on such that Reading can now boast the largest Sierra Leonean population in Britain outside London.
Sierra Leone, of course, is much in the news these days as it battles the Ebola virus. It is ironic therefore that the first known Sierra Leonean to visit Reading, Mary Smart in 1848, died less than a year later aged 17 from a skin infection, Erysipelas, and is buried at Cemetery Junction. In those not-so-far off, pre-antibiotic, days ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’ as it was called claimed many victims, including John Stuart Mill, Charles Lamb, and Princess Amelia (daughter to George III). Reading in Victorian times was a particularly unhealthy town whose local councillors were unwilling to spend money to deal with the cesspools and open drains.
Mary Smart’s family history illustrates all too well the close connection developed between Britain and Sierra Leone. The granddaughter of a Nigerian nobleman released from slavery into Freetown, she was taken under the wing of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) who sent her to a seminary on the Bath Road in Reading, while other members of her family sought converts on the West African coast. Back home, and under the paternalistic, and sometimes authoritarian British rule, a strong Krio culture and society developed, and by the 1860s the Colony was considered such a success that there was even talk of the British leaving the Krios to govern alone. By the turn of the century however much had changed, as the pseudo-scientific racism emanating from England, combined with a wish to destroy commercial competition, saw the Krios shut out of the newly-declared Protectorate established over the hinterland of Sierra Leone.
Krio loyalty to Britain remained strong however, with many volunteering to fight for the ‘motherland’ in two world wars, and Freetown – the third largest natural harbour in the world – providing a vital base for Atlantic convoys. Once the war ended however few colonialists expected Sierra Leone to become independent soon, if ever: it was too small, too poor, and, in the Protectorate that covered most of the country, few had an education or any notion of democratic practice in a system of British rule applied through frequently autocratic paramount chiefs. Yet the world was changing and by the 1950s London was pressing its West African colonies to prepare for self-government, none too fussy who took over in Sierra Leone so long as they were anti-communist and prepared to accept a defence agreement and continued British exploitation of the country’s mineral assets. Successive post-independence governments, led by politicians raised under British tutelage and quite willing to extend the more destructive aspects of colonial rule to the point of destruction, created economic chaos, serving only to exacerbate divisions opened up during colonial rule. The decade-long civil war that scarred the country in the 1990s was eventually brought to an end, in no small measure thanks to British army intervention.
The troops were sent to Sierra Leone by Tony Blair who, as a boy, had visited Freetown on occasions when his father was a visiting law lecturer from Durham University. This was at a time when despite its long and distinguished past – Freetown’s Fourah Bay College was established in 1826 – the University of Sierra Leone still had no history department. When the subject finally began to be taught, African history found no place in the curriculum. Paradoxically, it was visiting British history lecturers who began charting the country’s history, now taken up by people in the Sierra Leone diaspora anxious to learn the lessons of their own past. Perhaps there is more to be gained by British and African universities collaborating and, as the University of Reading seeks to strengthen its teaching of African history, maybe we can take a lead.
Richard Stowell has recently completed his Master’s Dissertation entitled ‘Born to Fail? The independence of Sierra Leone 1947-1967’. He is also the author of ‘From Regent to Reading: The story of Mary Smart 1832- 1849’.
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