Redeemed, Indentured, Fostered: Children in 19th-Century Sierra Leone

AHA Session 122
Friday, January 8, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 304 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Colleen Vasconcellos, University of West Georgia
Colleen Vasconcellos, University of West Georgia

Session Abstract

What was it like to be a child in 19th century Sierra Leone? This panel explores the experiences of several different groups of children who lived, learned and labored in Freetown, the Colony of Sierra Leone and its surrounds through the 1800’s. Colonial Sierra Leone has come under increasing historical scrutiny in recent years as a site of experimentation in abolitionist practices; an early African foothold of the British Empire; and as vibrant, cosmopolitan community with global links. This research has demonstrated the diverse roles played by Sierra Leoneans in the formative years of the transition to legitimate trade, the early years of imperialism in Africa and shaping the region’s culture and politics. Children’s experiences formed an integral, but as-yet largely unexamined, part of this dynamic history.

Children of the colony were diverse and active. This panel draws on the experiences of children liberated from slave ships, the children of traders (including slave traders), children of settlers and colonial officers and children from surrounding communities to uncover their roles in the early stages of the colony. As well as drawing on historical research about children of different backgrounds, it also traces the experiences of the children of Sierra Leone from their arrival in the Colony (whether they were rescued from a slave ship, migrated with their family or sent from their home in the region) through their experiences of schooling or apprenticeship. It brings together research on children’s experiences in the school-room, at work and in the home to present a more holistic picture of the lives of children in 19th century Africa. By zooming into one particular place and time and focusing on children, together these different research topics highlight the diversity of children’s experiences and understandings of childhood.

Together the papers demonstrate how widely divergent Sierra Leonean expectations of children and childhoods were in the colonial period. The panel engages with the cultural specificity of definitions of ‘childhood’ by comparing and contrasting the competing notions brought together by the slave trade and migration in this small colony. The chair, Colleen Vasconcellos, brings an expertise in the history of children in the wider Atlantic frame and the ways in which ideas about slavery and abolition were entangled with notions of childhood.  

By highlighting children’s’ experiences, this panel addresses several key questions:


  • How did children experience and understand this abolitionist project and the relationship between slavery and freedom?


  • What were the competing notions of the future of the Sierra Leone colony embedded in practices of child labor, childcare and education?


  • What were the tensions and contradictions in different African and European notions of childhood?
See more of: AHA Sessions