By James Knight and Katrina Manson

BUNCE ISLAND

Sierra Leone (Reuters) — The ivy-clad ruins perched on a strip of mud in the Sierra Leone river hide a dark past, but have become an unlikely symbol of hope for many African Americans seeking slave forbears.

As a departure point for thousands of Africans on the perilous crossing to the New World, the once proud castle on Bunce Island is a crumbling monument to the horrors of the Trans-atlantic slave trade.

“There are probably tens of thousands of African Americans trying to trace their roots to Sierra Leone right now,” U.S. professor Joseph Opala of James Madison University told Reuters.

Opala has worked for 30 years on the links between descendants of slaves and their West African origins.

“Sierra Leone is the most frequent result for DNA tests in the U.S.,” he said.

European merchants and American plantation owners got rich on a ruthless trade in humans in which more than 10 million Africans were transported to North America, the Caribbean and Brazil between 1550 and 1850. Millions perished on the way.

Captives from Sierra Leone fulfilled a special purpose. The colonies of South Carolina and Georgia badly needed skilled rice planters to cultivate the latest cash crop, and the Mende and Vai farmers of the fertile, lush Sierra Leone hinterland were ideally suited to the task.

Detailed records kept by slave-ship captains who weighed anchor from Bunce Island and other Sierra Leone forts have sketched a path for thousands of African Americans in search of their roots.

In May 2005, a 250-year-old paper-trail led Thomalind Polite, from South Carolina, to her seventh generation grandmother, Priscilla, shipped from Bunce Island aged 10.

“I felt like I was coming home,” said Polite. “I stepped off the plane and saw people who looked just like me.”

LINK TO ANCESTRY

Genetic testing and renewed interest in their roots are leading ever more African Americans to the former British colony, also known as a dropping-off point for returned slaves.

“The African-American populace have been robbed of their identity,” said Amadu Massally, a U.S.-based Sierra Leonean planning slave-history trips to Bunce Island for Americans.

“Unlike native-born Africans, slavery is the essence of the African American. Linking to their ancestry will bring that sense of belonging.”

Among visitors is television star Isaiah Washington, who came after tracing his DNA back to Sierra Leone’s Mende people. In May, Washington will accompany other African American celebrities with Sierra Leonean origins on a similar pilgrimage.

As the walls of Bunce Island fort crumble away, historians are finding new ways to reconnect with the past.

Opala is working on a three-dimensional computer reconstruction of conditions in the castle in 1805, drawing on archaeological studies and historical documents.

“Unlike the Jewish holocaust and other terrible crimes of the modern era, the Atlantic slave trade took place before the advent of photography, and thus we can only imagine its horrors,” said Opala.

“Our computer animation will allow us to go beyond the imagination and actually see how the Atlantic slave trade was carried out.”

The reconstruction will include period furniture, slave trade cargo and a reconstructed slave ship docked at the island. Isaiah Washington is donating $25,000 to support the efforts.

“The stories of innumerable Sierra Leoneans who were forced into slavery have yet to be extensively told,” Washington said in a statement. “I believe this project will begin to shed some much-needed light on the region, both past and present.”

“SENSE OF BELONGING”

As Britain marks the bicentenary of its abolition of the slave trade on March 25, Sierra Leone also occupies a special position as a promised land for repatriated ex-slaves.

British abolitionist Granville Sharp landed on its shores in 1787 with 411 settlers, including freed slaves from Britain and dozens of “women of ill-repute”. Disease-ridden swamps and the harsh climate killed more than 200 of them in the first year.

Slaves who fought for the British in the American War of Independence in return for their freedom and later settled in Nova Scotia, Canada, sailed back across the Atlantic to found Freetown, the present capital, in 1792.

“Sierra Leone is special. It’s where people came out of slavery,” British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott told Reuters on a visit to Freetown ahead of the bicentenary.

At Pepel, the mainland fishing village that fronts the ruins of the Bunce Island slave fort, local caretaker Braima Bangura, an elderly Krio-speaking man, offers tours crossing the murky waters by a creaky wooden boat.

But it is the diaspora community which is taking on much of the task of cultural preservation. For example, Massally’s firm Heritage Tours will offer Americans trips to Bunce Island from 2008.

“The onus is upon us as Sierra Leoneans primarily, and Africans in general, to educate people,” he said.

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