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Sierra Leone - History & Background

cms colony education schools

Sierra Leone, a relatively tiny country on the west coast of Africa, totals 28,000 square miles, or 71,470 square kilometers. A 1994 population estimate puts the country at 4.2 million people (53 percent female, 47 percent male). Sierra Leone is bounded on the west and southwest by the Atlantic Ocean, on the northwest, north, and northeast by Guinea, and on the east and southeast by Liberia.

It was a Portuguese sailor, Pedro da Cintra who, on a visit to this land in 1462, named the place he saw as Serra Lyoa (lion range or lion mountain). On approaching the mountainous peninsula, Pedro da Cintra saw the mountains poised like lions. The name Serra Lyoa gradually acquired its present form, Sierra Leone. What is known as Sierra Leone today came into being only in 1896. Before 1896, the name only referred to the mountainous peninsula and its adjacent islands.

Sierra Leone has witnessed a series of external invasions and influences that make it what it is today. Before the advent of Europeans and other groups, the people of this land lived in small communities. Even before Portuguese traders began to appear on the west coast of Africa in the mid-fifteenth century, many of these small communities had already established themselves in certain parts of the country. The Baga, Bullom, Krim, and Vai were communities that had established themselves on the coast before the Portuguese arrived. The Temne and the Loko lived in the northwest, and the Limba lived further to the north; the Kissi and the Kono lived in the East. It would seem that these various groups lived in isolation from one another and that internal migration was minimal. The first of the external influences came from European traders, soon to be followed by the Mane, a group of Mandespeaking peoples. In the seventeenth century, black Muslim groups started to infiltrate the country from the north. By the close of the nineteenth century, Islam had become the religion of many Sierra Leoneans.

As the first Europeans to visit the west coast of Sierra Leone, and indeed Africa, the Portuguese became the pioneers of the trade between Europe and West Africa. Sierra Leone and Portugal traded in goods, for example, exchanging kitchen utensils for ivory or gold. This normal trade was soon to be replaced by the most inhumane trade in human history, the Atlantic slave trade. The need for labor on the New World plantations (the Americas) triggered the buying and selling of humans, and Sierra Leone became an important center in this trade. The Portuguese, and later other Europeans—English, French, Dutch, Danish—sought slaves in Sierra Leone to ship to the plantations of the New World. During the Atlantic slave trade, certain islands and places on the Sierra Leone coast became important slave centers. Bunce Island, located on the Sierra Leone river was one of those important centers. Slaves taken from Sierra Leone were taken to South Carolina in North America. Since slaves from this country were known to be rice planters, it was good business for anyone to bring slaves from Sierra Leone. Research has shown that descendants of slaves taken from Sierra Leone and its environs today live in the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia. They constitute a distinctive group called the Gullah, and their language is mutually intelligible with the Krio language, Sierra Leone's lingua franca. They have preserved much of their Sierra Leonean culture, songs, stories, and names (Alie).

In 1786, the Abolitionists, including a leading member of the British parliament, William Wilberforce, founded the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The consequences of the anti-slavery movement led to the establishment of the Sierra Leone Colony. Many of the freed slaves were languishing in Canada and England and needed a place to live their new lives. Freetown, now the capital of Sierra Leone, was chosen as the new world for the freed slaves. On April 8, 1787, the first group of freed slaves left for Freetown to found what became the Sierra Leone Colony. Later, other groups—Nova Scotians, maroons, and recaptives—were also settled in Freetown. As a British Colony, Freetown's street names were given British names to affirm the settlement's close connection to Britain. The colony's currency of dollars and cents was changed to pounds, shillings, and pence. Postal services were established between the colony, Europe, and West Indies. It was inevitable that a British form of education would be introduced in the colony. In 1814 when governor Charles MacCarthy became the colony's governor, he pushed for education and religion, which he thought would bring the colonists within the pale of Western Civilization.

The Church Missionary Society (CMS), a Church of England institution, was then to play a key role in bringing western type education to Sierra Leone. Through the influence of people like William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton, and Zachary Macaulay, the CMS sent its first missionaries in 1804. In 1816, the British government and the CMS entered into an agreement that obligated the government to build churches, schools, and parsonages, while the CMS was to staff villages with ministers and school masters. By 1824, some 2,460 children were receiving education in the colony schools. But the colonial government was not pleased with the kind of education provided by the CMS; it was said to be too bookish. The CMS was also accused of discriminating against those of different religions. After 1824, the British government decided to assume control of the colony schools in order to raise standards and open the schools to every child. To produce local teachers and missionaries, Fourah Bay College was established in 1827. In the meantime CMS decided to start and run their own schools. By 1841, the CMS, WMS (Wesleyan Methodist Society), and the British government each had fourteen primary schools to their credit. A total of 8,000 pupils of the colony's population of 40,000 attended these schools.

In 1845, the CMS founded the Grammar School to provide religion and general education for boys. A separate department was created to train professional primary school teachers. Both Fourah Bay College and Grammar School were the first of their kinds in Sub-Saharan Africa and attracted students from all over West Africa. The CMS female counterpart was also opened in 1845 and was renamed Annie Walsh Memorial School in 1849. The Wesleyan Methodist Society opened the Methodist Boys High School and Methodist Girls High School in 1874 and 1880, respectively. Many more schools were opened after these. The language of instruction was English, and the structure of education was basically British.

Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961. After independence, Sierra Leoneans maintained both the content and structure of the British education they inherited. English was declared the official language of the country; it was to be the language of instruction in schools, colleges and university, and of the media and administration. Besides having Sierra Leoneans heading most of the institutions, no major substantial changes were made to the structure and content of education handed down by the colonial administration. Although the standards were high especially up to a decade after independence, it became clear that the curricula at the various levels of the educational structure did not meet the current needs of Sierra Leone.

In 1994, through a decree, (Decree No. 4) the military government, National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), established the National Commission for Basic Education to support the new educational system, dubbed, 6-3-3-4. The new system grew out of a desire to make the educational system answerable to the needs of the country.


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over 3 years ago

Thanks a lot for this kind of wonderful information .

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over 3 years ago

Thanks a million for this short and brief history of Sierra Leone. I would have loved to know whether there was any form of (formal) education during the slave trade era, before the colonial era and the advent of the missionaries...and how was it like??

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over 4 years ago

I am so happy about this brief history,think more should be put on the internet. And above we should try to preserve ancient and relics,but we are not doing that. We allow it to perish and disappear. This is what other countries are using to boom tourism and it plenty revenue. Lastly our Government at least should and preserve the peninsular from deforestation and land grabbers,because they are destroying it natural beauties. Thanks.

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about 4 years ago

This is a real important piece of material to get. But I want to know what was the name or how was Sierra Leone called before Pedro Da Sintra's arrival? Thank you and keep it up.
Best Regards,
Amadu Bah.

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over 6 years ago

Farah,thank you for our very concise history.Ihope this will enligten all sierra Leoneans and people around the world who wish to know more about this proud nation.

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over 6 years ago

Sierra Leone - History Background