Old Fourah Bay College Building

Mirroring the evolution of Freetown

The building that produced West Africa's Victorian-era graduates is being lost to Nature

A run-down structure standing on Ross Road once served as an important institution in Freetown’s history. Fourah Bay College’s original building, now a national monument, has evolved several times since its creation in 1845. The evolution of this iron-trimmed, four-story building made of laterite blocks in many ways represents Freetown’s own evolution. What began as Western effort of ideological expansion became a center of West African educational and societal advancement. The effects of the Sierra Leone Civil War in 1999 and a fire shortly afterward have left the building in poor condition. Today, it serves only as a reminder of its past cultural significance.

In 1827, the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) created a grammar school in Freetown known as The Christian Institution, then developed it into a training center for ministers. Its name changed to Fourah Bay College when this building’s 1845 construction began in the Clinetown neighborhood under the supervision of its first principal, by Rev. Edward Jones, an African-American from Charleston who graduated from Amherst College. Timber from slave ships was repurposed to form the building’s roof. In this way, the journey of the Liberated Africans was represented as a story of resilience and prosperity. Imported glass fashioned its many windows, including dormers on the top floor.

Its first student was Samuel Ajayi Crowther (ca. 1809-1891), a Nigerian-born Yoruba enslaved when he was about twelve, and rescued by the British Royal Navy’s West African Squadron for resettlement in Freetown. Fourah Bay emphasized Classical studies, and Crowther studied Greek and Latin, as well as Temne. He taught at the school for some time, then became a missionary in Nigeria, famed for his Yoruba translation of the Bible. His facility for languages led him to also create primers in Nupe and Igbo, and he became West Africa’s first Anglican bishop, completing a doctorate at Oxford University. Christian Cole, another Fourah Bay graduate, had already become Oxford’s first African graduate in 1876. He later became the first African lawyer practicing in the English court system. Numerous other Yoruba graduates of the school became prominent missionaries and education leaders in Nigeria.

CMS was responsible for the management and cultural metamorphosis of the Liberated Africans, freed West and Central Africans the British transported to the colony from their interceptions of other nations’ slave ships, once they had ended their own participation and began to suppress the slave trade.

CMS felt it imperative that the new British colony be founded on Christian morals and Western traditions and intended that Fourah Bay College should serve as a self-supporting Christian center, served by members of Sierra Leone’s own clergy. Fourah Bay College drew students from other colonies, including what are now the nations of Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Nigeria.

Eventually, Freetown developed into a stronger community as the Krio settlers—freedman of mixed African backgrounds who left British colonies in North America and the Caribbean, as well as London itself—and Liberated Africans began to intermingle. This growing sense of unity motivated CMS to advance further, and educational issues became a topic of discussion. Citizens desired a place of learning where one could obtain a full university degree. In 1874, Reverend Henry Seddall documented the impact of higher education on society. He stated that “educated Africans are beginning to long slip away from their European leading strings, and they are proving themselves perfectly capable of discharging all their duties as citizens, and as Christians without foreign aid.”

In 1876, the college became an affiliate of England’s University of Durham, and it remained the only West African tertiary educational institution until World War II. Those Freetown citizens who were former slaves or their descendants had entered a new class of educated elite.

Fourah Bay College’s legacy was significant throughout Anglophone West Africa, since many of its graduates established educational institutions in Nigeria and elsewhere. The British colonial government did not establish even an elementary school in Sierra Leone until 1908, so the CMS and other missionary efforts spoke to a cooperation between church and civic efforts for development.

During WWII, the university was temporarily relocated to S. B. Thomas Agricultural Academy outside Freetown, then was moved to former army barracks in the Mt. Aureol neighborhood of Freetown from 1945 until 1962, where its current buildings were constructed.

The university’s move away from Clinetown changed the original building’s function. In 1945, it became the Sierra Leone Railway Corporation’s headquarters, then in 1980 served as a Magistrate Court, falling out of use a decade later. During the Sierra Leonean civil war, it housed citizens displaced by the conflict.

Since 1999, it has remained a roofless ruin, although squatters made their home there, despite missing wooden floors and board windows. The Bunce Island Coalition, a group that proposes to restore that island’s slave fort, had wanted to use the building for a future museum about the slave trade, but has abandoned these plans.

Since 2012, the Sierra Leonean Office of the Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs has sought to have the building placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, but it remains on the “tentative list.” In late 2017, the Sierra Leonean Monuments and Relics Commission—which had remained moribund for some time after the civil war—cleaned the site, removing vines and other vegetation that were attacking the building’s surface. Unfortunately, they have returned and are actively destroying the structure. The laterite stone is breaking down due to chemical weathering because of heavy rainfall, high temperatures, high humidity, and the salty air from the nearby ocean.

Hope that restoration funding will be forthcoming remains alive.