Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

'Slave trade ghost town': The dark history of Bunce Island

By Vladimir Duthiers and Teo Kermeliotis, CNN
updated 6:17 AM EDT, Thu May 16, 2013
Bunce Island, in Sierra Leone, was a British slave trading post in the 18th century. From its shores, tens of thousands of Africans were forcefully shipped to the American colonies. Bunce Island, in Sierra Leone, was a British slave trading post in the 18th century. From its shores, tens of thousands of Africans were forcefully shipped to the American colonies.
The history of Bunce Island
The history of Bunce Island
The history of Bunce Island
The history of Bunce Island
The history of Bunce Island
The history of Bunce Island
The history of Bunce Island
The history of Bunce Island
  • Bunce Island was a British slave trading post in the 18th century
  • From its shores, tens of thousands of Africans were put on slave ships to Americas
  • Abandoned in the 19th century, it's one of the most authentic slave trading facilities still in existence
  • One group is working to conserve the island's crumbling ruins

Every week, Inside Africa takes its viewers on a journey across Africa, exploring the true diversity and depth of different cultures, countries and regions. Follow Vladimir Duthiers on Twitter and the show on Facebook.

(CNN) -- As the boat slowly approaches the quiet shores of Bunce Island, it's hard to shake off the eerie feeling of being transported back into one of history's darkest chapters.

Located some 30 kilometers from Freetown, this tiny strip of land in the Sierra Leone river served as a major post for the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century.

For tens of thousands of Africans, this was the place where their life in the continent ended -- men, women and children were kidnapped and brought to the island's fort to be traded and eventually put on slave ships bound for the Americas.

"The African-American story is very much here," says Joseph Opala, director of the Bunce Island Coalition, a group of historians and archaeologists working together to turn the island into a national landmark that can be appreciated for its historical value.

Historical image of the British slave trading post of Bunce Island.

Upon arriving in the American colonies, West African slaves were forced to work in rice paddies, cotton fields and indigo plantations along the South Carolina-Georgia seaboard where the moist climate and fertile land were very similar to their African homelands.

Read this: African slave traditions live on in U.S.

"There are 40 big castles like this along the West African coast, but this is the only one that sent appreciable numbers of captives to what is now the U.S.," says Opala.

Map of Bunce Island. Click to expand.  Map of Bunce Island. Click to expand.
Map of Bunce Island. Click to expand.Map of Bunce Island. Click to expand.
Part 1: Rebranding Sierra Leone
Part 2: Ecotourism in Sierra Leone

'The place where history sleeps'

Stepping onto the uninhabited island, you quickly realize that this is a place forgotten by time, its ancient structures gradually decayed by the two centuries of tropical rain seeping down.

Unlike other slaving trading posts, nothing was ever built on the island after its abandonment in the mid-1800s. Its crumbling ruins, blanketed by overgrown weeds and ivy roots, remain relatively untouched to this day, serving as a reminder of the island's dark past.

"One Sierra Leonean years ago used to refer to Bunce Island as the place where history sleeps," says Opala. "And there's no better description of it -- it's a kind of slave trade ghost town."

Read this: Tracing the slaves who shaped America

Opala says that to this day, many people in Sierra Leone are not aware of Bunce Island's grim place in history. He says that the island receives just a small number of people each year, mainly foreign visitors or expatriates.

"For tourists, it means renting a boat for 500, 600, $700, or there are tourist services oriented toward tourists that will take you for $60-70," says Opala. "But for local people, it's absolutely not affordable. But at the same time, there's not a lot of local interest yet in going there because people still don't know much about it."

To change that, and remind both tourists and locals about its importance, the Bunce Island Coalition has launched a $5 million project to conserve what's left of the island. The group also wants to build a museum in Freetown as part of efforts to shed light on the island's dark past.

"There's an awakening now out here by the political elite and many ordinary citizens that this place is not just important for history," says Opala.

"But it also can serve as a source of revenue for the country, and can strengthen the links between African-Americans and Sierra Leoneans which may in the end be the most important outcome of this, because that can last forever."

Check out the Bunce Island gallery above. Images by Matthew Oldfield -- Matthew Oldfield Photography.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:15 AM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
A huge spiral in the Sahara had Google Earth users baffled by what it could be. So what exactly is it?
updated 5:27 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
A photographer took to an ultra-light aircraft to capture Botswana's savannah from above. The results are amazing.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
CNN's Zain Verjee took on Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, in a bid to see its mountain gorillas.
updated 6:20 AM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
Morocco is famous for its historic cities and rugged landscape. But it's becoming known as a surfer's paradise.
updated 5:59 AM EST, Mon March 3, 2014
"The Samaritans" is a new Kenyan comedy that takes a mocking look at the world of inept African aid organizations.
updated 5:29 AM EST, Fri February 28, 2014
A Moroccan food blogger presents her interactive guide to the country's tastiest dishes.
updated 6:59 AM EST, Thu February 13, 2014
South African photographer Frank Marshall captured Botswana's heavy metal rockers as part of his Renegades series.
You might not associate Botswana with rock music, but in recent years its heavy metal scene has been making a name for itself.
updated 6:17 AM EST, Wed January 29, 2014
The ruined town of Great Zimbabwe is part of a kingdom that flourished almost 1,000 years ago, and a bridge to the past.
updated 6:39 AM EST, Wed January 22, 2014
A Cameroon supporter smiles during celebrations after Cameroon qualified for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil after winning the second leg qualifying football match between Cameroon and Tunisia on November 17, 2013 in Yaounde.
Known for its diverse geography and culture, Cameroon could be on the dawn of becoming known for tourism.
updated 6:16 AM EST, Tue January 21, 2014
The world's only "Flying Eye Hospital" is a DC-10 jet that flies around the world carrying out sight-saving operations.
updated 6:25 AM EST, Mon January 27, 2014
Mount Etna, Europe's most active volcano, explodes spilling lava down the mountain sides and shooting ash into the sky October 30, 2002 near the town of Nicolosi, near Catania, Italy.
A Kenyan TV production set in the year 2063 imagines a world where European refugees are fleeing to Africa.
updated 5:11 AM EST, Thu January 16, 2014
Tour d'Afrique
The Tour d'Afrique is a four-month, 12,000 km cycle race across the length of Africa.
Each week Inside Africa highlights the true diversity of the continent as seen through the mediums of art, music, travel and literature.