Ruins of John Newton’s House and slave barracoons, Plantain Island

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Except from ‘Monuments and Relics Commission Annual Report’, Sierra Leone: Freetown, 1949 (p.7-8):

The ruins of John Newton’s House and the Slave Barracoons on the Plantain Island – The Plantain Island it is said, was first occupied by one Captain John Plantain and took their name from him and not from the presence of groves of plantains of which there are non now and by local tradition never have been any in the past.

At the present day there is a large fishing village, the headquarters of the local Bonga Industry. The remains of the slave factory on the small peninsular forming the northern tip of the Island consists of:

  • An L shape piece of the outer wall of the compound about 7 to 8 feet high with a coping on the top of which pieces of broken glass are embedded.
  • Another smaller portion of a wall by the side of which is built a depression now silted up which may be either the entrance to the underground barracoon described by Ross in 1926, or a well.
  • The remains of the foundation of a building.
  • A well preserved cannon.

John Newton, the son of a Captain in the Mercantile Marine, was born in 1725 and died in December, 1807, within a month of the transfer of the Colony from the Chartered Company to the Crown.

He frequently went to sea with his father and became a wild and turbulent youth. In his old age from the pulpit of St. Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London, he spoke of himself “that one of the most ignorant, the most miserable, and the most abandoned of slaves should be plucked from the forlorn state of exile on the coast of Africa and at length be appointed Minister of the Parish of the first magistrate of the first city in the world.”

Destined by his parents for a post in a merchant’s office in Jamaica, he was seized during a drunken orgy by a Naval Press Gang in 1743. His father instead of buying him out had him made midshipman. His bad behaviour soon caused him to be degraded to the forecastle and in 1744, he sailed as an ordinary seaman in H.M.S. Harwich for Madeira. There the Captain on account of his continued unruly behaviour gladly exchanged him for a sailor off a Guineaman bound for Sierra Leone and the West Coast of Africa.

Arriving at Sierra Leone and seeing the wealth to be made out of the slave trade, he obtained his discharge without pay and landed on the Banana Islands where he entered the services of a white slave trader who soon transferred to the Plantain Island.

Here he stayed about a year, during which time, in the absence of his master he was very badly treated by the master’s wife who half starved him, and generally treated him worse than a slave. However, he managed to smuggle some letters to his father in England. Meanwhile he was able to transfer to another white master on the Boom Kittam River and it was here he was rescued by a ship sent out by his father, and after a very bad voyage reached England in 1748. The perils and salvations of this last voyage played a large part in turning his thoughts to religion. But the urge of the sea was still in him and between 1748 and 1754 when he gave up the sea, he made at least three voyages to West Africa as a slave trader, going on with its human cargo to the West Indies and the Southern States of America. During these voyages, he was noted for strict religious studies and observances.

After leaving the sea, he became a Tide Server at Liverpool, and continuing his religious studies eventually became curate of Olney, Bucks. Here he became a friend of the poet Cowper, and collaborated with him in the “Olney Hymns.” Newton will perhaps best be remembered by posterity as a hymn writer... [notably for hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds”.]

He was at Olney for sixteen years and then became Rector of one of Wren’s City Churches, St. Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street.

On his death in 1807, he was buried in the Churchyard but his remains were subsequently removed and reinterred in the Olney Churchyard.

Connection with Sierra Leone summarised

  • First voyage to Sierra Leone about 1744, when he stayed on the Banana Islands, the Plantain Island and the Boom Kittam River.
  • Paid at least three more visits between 1748 and 1754.
  • Captain Butt Thompson reports that when Granville Sharp, the first of the Abolitionists was looking for a place to which to send the “Poor Blacks,” he was introduced not only to Dr. Smeathman, the naturalist who had resided on the Banana Islands, but also to John Newton in his Olney days, and the decision to plant a new Colony at Sierra Leone was largely due to their recommendations.

Excerpt from ‘Monuments and Relics Commission Annual Report’, Sierra Leone: Freetown, 1958 (p.4):

[Easter 1958, while on other business near Shenge on behalf the Monuments and Relics Commission, Guy Massie-Taylor made a short visit to Plantain Island to inspect the monument:] ... we decided to hire a boat and make a short inspection of the slave barracoons on Plantain Island. Virtually all that remains of this factory is one wall stretching across the North end of the Island and used, as was most evident by the number of “Saraka” (pieces of white cloth hanging from the trees) as a place of sacrifice by the man’s society (this information was given by the town speaker).

Inspection 2007:

As a result of coastal erosion, the tip of the peninsular referred to in the Monuments & Relics Commission Annual Report for 1949 is now completely separated from the mainland of Plantain Island, though it can be reached at low tide on foot. Local informants say that the peninsular was once heavily forested. The L-shaped piece of the outer wall mentioned in the Report is still standing, although the ground on which the arm extending in the direction of Plantain Island is being undercut by tidal currents and the wall is here collapsing at a fast rate. Dislodged sections of masonry similar to that of the wall can be seen in the vicinity at low tide. No trace of the smaller section of wall, foundations or cannon could be found. (PB)


Further Reading

  • Ross 1926 ? (Sierra Leone Studies?)
  • See ? 1927. Sierra Leone Studies (O.S.), 11