This gorgeous, large format and historically important work was perhaps the best known early map of the British Colony of Sierra Leone, home to one of the Empire’s most curious socio-political experiments. The map embraces what are today northern Sierra Leone and the southeastern extremity of Guinea. It shows that while the coastlines are mapped with trigonometric accuracy (by the Royal Navy), the European knowledge of the interior is uneven, with some corridors having been recently explored and well mapped, while adjacent areas are left blank, being completely enigmatic. The area of British colonial control, around the capital Freetown, is outlined in yellow, and features numerous villages and roads, as well as the routes of ‘proposed roads’ into the interior. Beyond, the country is shown to still be under the control of the named indigenous nations, with each of their territories outlined in it own bright hue.
Interestingly, the map marks the routes of four major British exploring expeditions into the interior. The dotted ochre line marks the route of Thomas Masterman Winterbottom, who in 1794 followed a route in the north, from southern Guinea to the city of Timbo. The green line follows the 1821 outward and return routes of Brian O’Beirne, an army surgeon, pursued from Port Locca up to Timbo. The red line follows both of Major Gordon Laing’s 1822 expeditions, the first being from Freetown to Malacoore (Guinea) and the second from Freetown to Fembo. Finally, the yellow line follows Jack Le Bore’s route from Malacoore to Fembo. The map is replete with interesting explorers’ annotations on the nature of the countryside.
The Sierra Leone Experiment
Britain’s 1807 decision to ban the international slave trade left it with many new responsibilities and problems. Not surprisingly, slave traders did not accept the ban, and the Royal Navy had to expend vast resources enforcing a blockade of the West African coast to enforce the edict (not always successfully). Britain was also left with the charge to care for large numbers of free former slaves who had no place to go. Britain was under pressure to develop new bases to suppress the slave trade along the West African coast, while creating new colonies specifically designed to accommodate displaced freed slaves.
Just as the United States would develop Liberia, from the 1820s, to accommodate free slaves, Britain developed Sierra Leone. While Sierra Leone’s coasts had been frequented by Europeans since the 15th Century, until the end of the 1700s there was no permanent European presence in the region, which was still controlled by its traditional indigenous nations. In 1792, the British Sierra Leone Company founded Freetown and the Sierra Leone colony to accommodate displaced ex-slaves, in advance of the 1807 slave trade ban. After 1807, this mandate attained greater urgency. Freetown was ramped up as naval base, and an elaborate scheme was developed to settle and employ thousands of former slaves.
In what was to be a novel and highly controversial experiment, the British establish an ‘apprentice system’ for former slaves in Sierra Leone, assigning them to work for European settlers in employment that supposedly accorded to their abilities. In practice, this system proved to work poorly, as the British proved remarkably incompetent at assigning apprenticeship positions. Often people who had no experience with farm labour were sent to the fields, while experienced field workers were assigned to run craft workshops for which they had no training. Moreover, the apprentices were not permitted to leave or switch employment without their boss’s permission, and were paid so little that their new situation was akin to slavery. While some people experienced better treatment and living conditions than they suffered under formal slavery, the apprenticeship system revealed itself to be patronizing and misguided, showing a squalid understanding of the needs and ambitions of formerly enslaved peoples.
An interesting feature of the map is the table, in the lower right, ‘Returns of the Trade Population & c. of Sierra Leone 1817 to 1825’, which details the demographic and economic situation during a critical time in the colony’s history. The present map was made around 1840, at the height of the apprenticeship system, when the British were investing ever-greater resources into making it work, in the wake of the 1838 ban on slavery throughout the Empire.
James Wyld the Younger: Leading Mapmaker of the Victorian Age
The present map was made by James Wyld the Younger (1812 - 1887), one of the preeminent mapmakers of Victorian era. Wyld assumed control of the family business in 1836, while only at the age of 24, upon the sudden death of his father James Wyld the Elder (1790 – 1836), who had literally worked himself to death. The elder Wyld was the successor to the legendary map publisher William Faden (1749 - 1836), having purchased the former’s business in 1823. The younger Wyld was appointed as the Official Geographer to Queen Victoria upon her ascension to the throne in 1837. He published many highly important and continually updated map series of parts of the British Empire, such as Canada, Australia, West Africa, South Africa and India. He also made special maps of key theatres of British warfare or economic activity, such as the present map, as well as works such as A Map to Illustrate the War in China (1842), one of the best geographic records of the First Opium War.
A Note on the Present Example of the Map
Wyld’s map of Sierra Leone was issued both separately and within various editions of his atlases (the present example was evidently extracted from an atlas, which accounts for its magnificent condition). While the map is not rare, the present offering in a stellar example, with far more resplendent original colour than any of the other examples we have seen.
References: OCLC: 381039252.