Letter from Dublin: The Sierra Leone island with an Irish name and a slave-trading past
The tourist island near Freetown is lush and green but needs funds to preserve its heritage
Tourists board a boat on the coast of the Banana Islands. Photograph: Sally Hayden
The small, wooden boat is named “We all live by God”. Get on board at the southern part of Sierra Leone’s Freetown peninsula, and it will take just 30 minutes across choppy waves to reach Dublin.
“Welcome to Dublin, Banana Islands,” reads the rusty sign that new arrivals walk under as they leave the beach. “The centre of tourism in Africa. ”
This surprising Irish namesake is a lush, green island, home to a few hundred Sierra Leoneans. It’s also a former slaving port, though most of the reminders of that painful history have almost disappeared in the absence of funding to preserve them.
From around 1747 to 1807, slave traders who bought captives from warring tribes on the mainland would gather them on Dublin, shackling and containing them until it was time to move this human cargo to nearby Bunce Island, which shipped Africans to the West Indies and America.
About 50,000 slaves left from Bunce Island, but it is not clear how many of them came through Dublin first. According to local guides, each slave would be branded on the chest with “RAC” – the initials of the Royal African Company. This was a sign they were Sierra Leonean and had experience planting rice, which meant they could fetch a higher price.
Still visible are a few cannons, which the slave masters used to protect themselves, and some stones that made up part of the slave fort. There is also a well, where guides say slaves were “quarantined” when they were sick; if they survived, they were later sold at a lower price.
Locals are seeking donations so they can maintain what remains of the island’s past, but a worn box covered in a plastic bag bearing the words “Towards Relics Banana Island Organisation”, seemed pretty empty. In contrast, the more well-known Bunce Island recently received a $500,000 (€423,000) grant from the US government for refurbishments.
Today, Dublin is visited by wealthy Sierra Leoneans and foreigners working in the capital city, Freetown, and the surrounding provinces. There are a few places that offer accommodation, from luxury tents at Bafa Resort, to Daltons Guesthouse, which has a private beach.
You can go snorkelling, spear-fishing, hiking and free-diving, or eat fresh seafood, including lobster. But international tourism is limited, after the country suffered a series of disasters. Sierra Leone experienced a brutal 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002 and was fuelled by the illegal diamond mining trade. From 2014-15, it became one of the three countries worst hit by the west African Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 11,000 people.
Now, the coronavirus pandemic has halted most travel again. Sierra Leone’s international airport was shut for four months from March 2020, in an effort to protect its fragile healthcare system from an influx of Covid-19 cases. As of now, fewer than than 4,000 cases and only 79 deaths have been registered, in a country with a population of roughly eight million.
We have a very easy life. Some fish, some do farming, some tap poyo [palm wine]. At night, for a few hours, we have time to get together and listen to reggae music
A new Ebola outbreak in neighbouring Guinea hasn’t spread across the border, and it is unlikely to become anywhere near as bad as the previous one due to the availability of vaccines and therapeutic treatments.
Ebola didn’t touch Dublin the last time anyway, according to resident Moses Williams (58). Neither did the war, except that locals welcomed refugees from the mainland who wanted to shelter there during it.
Williams said the island is a perfect place to live – it’s beautiful and very quiet.
“I have enough fresh air,” he says. “If I’m in need of something I don’t have, I ask my close neighbour or friend. We have a very easy life. Some fish, some do farming, some tap poyo [palm wine]. At night, for a few hours, we have time to get together and listen to reggae music.”
The oldest resident is an 80-year-old, he says. The island is led by a “head woman”, Veronica Sackey. Educational opportunities are limited; there are 20 children enrolled in the local primary school, but students are sent to family on the mainland if they want to continue learning after that.
Osman Kamara, a tour guide with Freetown-headquartered IPC Travel, says he would strongly encourage everyone to visit the Banana Islands, and describes Sierra Leone as a “paradise on earth” full of “open-hearted people”.
It is unclear how Dublin got its name, though historian Liam Hogan suggested it could be linked to Thomas Corker, an Anglo-Irish Royal African Company agent who married into a powerful family from the Sherbo tribe, which controlled the islands. Corker is said to have arrived in Sierra Leone from England in 1684.
“Up until now we still maintain the name,” says Kamara, gesturing around him as he stands on one of Dublin’s many secluded beaches. “I’d encourage the Irish people to come and visit Dublin and to learn more about this island, which is part of their history.”