Constitutional Development in Sierra Leone – The Blackhall Experience

The Colony of Sierra Leone

Henry Smeathman, the botanist, recommended Sierra Leone as the most advantageous place for the establishment of a settlement.1 Established as a Crown Colony in 1808, the Sierra Leone peninsula and the areas directly to the south of it were governed by a Governor-in-Council who combined both Executive and Legislative authority. This system prevailed until 1863 when the Executive and Legislative functions were divided between an Executive Council and a Legislative Council. Though the new councils marked a step away from the earlier form of colonial autocracy, it is argued that they were not intended as a move towards self-government.2 The Colony of Sierra Leone then was inspired by the humanitarian opposition to the institution of slavery and nurtured by the British determination to end the Slave Trade. By the middle of the eighteen century, the system of slavery was not too popular with the English. On several occasions, public attention was drawn to the question as to whether a slave should become free after arriving on English soil. The philanthropist Granville Sharp struck an effective blow in 1772 when “a test case was provided in the case of a slave named James Somerset, who had been brought to England from Jamaica by his master and had subsequently run away from him”3. The principles laid by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield of the English High Court in the case Somerset v. Stewart implied that any slave setting foot in England should be deemed a freeman. He noted that “the state of slavery… is incapable of being introduced on any reasons…I cannot say this is allowed or approved by the law of England and therefore the black man must be discharged”.4 This famous Mansfield Decision stimulated the Christian philanthropy of men like Sharp and Wilberforce.

The consequence of this judgement was the liberation of hundreds of slaves living in England. During the American War of Independence (1776-1983), the British encouraged slaves in America to desert their masters to join the British army in return for freedom and land. After the War – which Britain lost- some of these slaves went to Nova Scotia (Canada) and some to London. In London, these former slaves were beset with many problems. Their freedom definitely did not mean equality with British subjects. Often destitute, most of these freed slaves wandered about the streets of England distressing the kindhearted and men of property. They posed an awkward social problem. The victor and hero of the Somerset case, Granville Sharp, maintained a growing number of these slaves collectively referred to as the Black Poor. It did not take long for Granville Sharp to realize that the problem was more than private charity would cope with. As a remedial agency, a considerable number of philanthropists formed a Committee for relieving the Black Poor in 1986 known as the Committee of the Black Poor. This Committee was chaired by Jonas Hanway. It was during this period of uncertainty that a certain individual Dr. Henry Smeathman, alias …