St. John’s Maroon Church in Freetown – An Enduring Connection Between the Caribbean and Sierra Leone, West Africa.

I’ve been reading a book recently entitled “Back to Africa” about George Ross and The Maroons from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, by Mavis C. Campbell.  It made me think about our Maroon Church in Freetown and want to write this blog to share a few of the things I have learnt.

Ancestral links

In 2021, Sierra Leone became the first African nation to formally give people citizenship if they can prove they have ancestral ties to the country.  Recently there has been an increase in people tracing their heritage back to West Africa through DNA testing. This has revolutionised the way people understand their ancestry and connect with their past and I cannot help thinking about Dave’s lyrics when performing ‘Black’ at the Brits.  “Black is my Ghanaian brother readin’ into scriptures doin’ research on his lineage, findin’ out that he’s Egyptian”.

By analysing genetic markers passed down through generations, DNA testing can reveal detailed information about a person’s ethnic background, geographical origins, and familial connections. This scientific approach allows people to uncover aspects of their lineage that might have been obscured by time, migration, or lack of historical records.  There is of course an enduring connection between many people of Afro-Caribbean heritage living in America the Caribbean and South America.  For example the percentage of MyHeritage DNA users in Jamaica who have Sierra Leonean heritage stands at 56.5%.  Who knew there were such strong links between Jamaica and Sierra Leone?  Of course it makes sense for broader West Africa. I guess “Black is people namin’ your countries on what they trade most Coast of Ivory, Gold Coast, and the Grain Coast”.

My debut cookbook ‘Sweet Salone’ offers a very brief history of Sierra Leone from pages 13 – 17, before moving on to tell a very personal story about my family and migration within West Africa.  In this post I would like to set out another migration story. This story is one of forced migration and once again the movement of people seeking freedom and a better life. The historical links between Sierra Leone and the Caribbean are deeply rooted in the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, and the movement of peoples between these regions over several centuries.  The cultural exchange created from this movement of people to and from Africa fascinates me.

One thing I have pondered recently is the connection between Jamaican Bammy usually eaten with fried fish or salt fish and our Cassada Bred.  Bammy is a traditional Jamaican cassava flatbread descended from the simple flatbread eaten by the Arawaks, Jamaica’s original inhabitants. I believe that the similarities may show that (potentially) there is a direct connection with our popular Salone street food, cassava flatbreads with onion stew and often wonder which way this technique or recipe travelled?  One thing is for sure, and that is the presence of similar cassava-based dishes in both Jamaica and Sierra Leone highlights the culinary connections that span the African diaspora.

There are very strong connections between plate, planet, people, and culture.  I love exploring them for two reasons.

Firstly a Sierra Leonean born Chef, I love our food stories that explore the cultural, historical, personal, and social significance of food. Secondly as a migrant myself, I am sometimes aghast at the inhuman way migrants are clumsily described in the mainstream media.  “Populism defines our current political age, and migration is a pressing contemporary issue.  I believe migration should be placed at the heart of our national stories if it is to be more widely understood.  It has shaped who we are – as individuals, as communities, as countries.” Sweet Salone – Recipes from the Heart of Sierra Leone (2023) Page 91

This post is about St. John’s Maroon Church in Freetown, Sierra Leone and the enduring Connection Between the Caribbean and Sierra Leone, West Africa.  This historic landmark in our capital Freetown, was built by the Maroon community,  but who were they?  Why did they come to Sierra Leone?  How did they come to Sierra Leone?

The Black Community in London 1787 – 1807

Before setting out who the Maroons were, I would like to start a little closer to my current home.  I want to start in London, England.  On page 91 of my cookbook I mentioned a group of people often described as ‘The Black Poor” in London.  How did they arrive in London?  Why were they poor? Why did they head to Sierra Leone?

In the 1780’s there was a small Black community in London that were free but struggling to survive and thrive at the end of the American Revolution.  This was the American war for independence against the Kingdom of Great Britain.  This black community in London were freed slaves that had been brought to England from America or the Caribbean by their white masters.  This community was growing because there were many black people working on the ships sailing between Britain and America during the war that now needed to find work in England.  Many had begun the war as slaves working on plantations in America but fled to the British side on the promise of freedom and employment.  The reality was that racism prevailed and they were unable to find employment in order to feed and house themselves in London.  A British man named, Henry Smeathman who had travelled to and from Sierra Leone to England and lived for three years on the Banana Islands, just off the mainland, proposed the idea of moving the black poor in London back to Africa.  There were others from Jamaica and Nova Scotia that were returned back to Africa.

The Maroons

The story of the Maroon community in Sierra Leone also began in the late 18th century. After the Maroons’ resistance during the Maroon Wars in Jamaica, the British colonial government decided to relocate many of them. In 1796, about 600 Jamaican Maroons were transported to Nova Scotia, Canada. However, the harsh climate and difficult conditions in Nova Scotia led to their further resettlement in Sierra Leone in 1800.  Upon their arrival in Freetown, the Maroons joined other groups of freed slaves, including the Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia who had settled in the region earlier. The Maroons brought with them their strong sense of identity, cultural practices, and traditions, which significantly influenced the local community.

Establishment of St. John’s Maroon Church

St. John’s Maroon Church was established in the early 19th century by the Maroons who had settled in Freetown. The church was built as a place of worship and community gathering, playing a crucial role in preserving the Maroon cultural heritage and fostering a sense of unity among the community members.

Architectural and Cultural Significance

The architecture of St. John’s Maroon Church is a unique blend of African and European styles. Constructed with local materials and traditional techniques, the church stands as a testament to the Maroons’ adaptability and resourcefulness. Its design reflects the fusion of African motifs with elements introduced by European missionaries, creating a distinctive and harmonious structure.

The church is not only significant for its architectural beauty but also for its cultural importance. It houses numerous artifacts and records that document the Maroon experience, from their origins in Jamaica to their settlement in Sierra Leone. The church also hosts cultural events, religious ceremonies, and educational programs that celebrate Maroon heritage and promote community cohesion.

Role of St. John’s Maroon Church Today

Today, St. John’s Maroon Church continues to serve as a place of worship. The church’s congregation is dedicated to preserving the Maroon legacy and promoting an understanding of their historical contributions.  St. John’s Maroon Church in Freetown, Sierra Leone, is not just a religious institution; but  a symbol of the resilience, cultural heritage, and enduring spirit of the Maroon community. From its origins in the early 19th century, the church has remained a central pillar of Maroon history in Sierra Leone.

To this day it continues to educate, inspire, and unite people.

I hope what I have written here might inspire others to look into their linage, or perhaps start to read a bit more of the rich history of Sierra Leone and learn a bit more about our rich and fascinating culture.   It has value. Culture provides us with a sense of identity, connecting us to our heritage, history, and ancestors. It helps define who we are and where we come from.  Cultural heritage and traditions attract tourists, generating significant economic benefits for communities and countries through tourism.  Culture fuels the creative industries, including music, film, literature, and the arts, contributing to economic growth and innovation.

The value of culture lies in its ability to connect us to our past, enrich our present, and inspire our future.  This is why I mention it.