Former JMU Prof Continues Groundbreaking Research Into Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

A story out last month in Slate outlines conclusive evidence that both Presidents Bush are direct descendants of Thomas “Beau” Walker, an 18th-century British slave trader whose brutality prompted his ship’s crew to mutiny and murder him.

Joseph Opala. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

One of the historians whose work is heavily featured in the article is Joseph Opala, an expert in the trans-Atlantic slave trade who was an adjunct professor at JMU from 1999 to 2010. The recent news about the Bushes’ ancestry is the most recent of several notable discoveries to emerge from Opala’s research on the slave trade, which primarily focuses on the West African country of Sierra Leone.

During his time at JMU, Opala uncovered records from a slave ship named The Hare that docked in Charleston, S.C. in 1756, with a cargo of West African slaves, including a 10-year-old girl named Priscilla. Because the plantation family that bought Priscilla kept detailed records, previous research had traced her lineage to living African-American descendants in South Carolina. After Opala found specific documentation of Priscilla’s voyage across the ocean, however, Priscilla’s living descendants had the distinction of becoming the first African Americans with an unbroken, verifiable document trail allowing them to trace their ancestry all the way back to Africa.

More detail about that story, and a subsequent visit by Priscilla’s descendants to Sierra Leone that Opala arranged, in this three-part series (Part 1, 2, and 3).

Earlier in his career, Opala established extensive connections between Sierra Leone and the Gullah, a group of African Americans in coastal South Carolina and Georgia who have maintained more cultural and linguistic aspects of their African heritage than any other African-American community. In the 1930s, a linguist named Lorenzo Turner made a recording of a Gullah woman from Georgia singing an African song that had been passed down in her family since they arrived in North America as slaves. The words to the song, which the woman did not understand, were soon identified as Mende, the language of one of the largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone.

In 1990, Opala was part of a research team that travelled across Sierra Leone playing Turner’s old recording, hoping to find someone who recognized the song. Eventually, they found a woman in a remote village who recognized it as a traditional Mende funeral song, which had been remarkably preserved for 200 years on two sides of the ocean. (A lot more detail on this here.)

Opala gives a radio interview in Bo, Sierra Leone. Remaining photos all courtesy of Joesph Opala.

Since leaving JMU, Opala has led an effort to preserve and interpret Bunce Island, the site of a British slave-trading castle from 1670 to 1807. Unlike other slave castles along the West African coast, Bunce Island was relatively isolated from population centers and has remained almost entirely untouched since it was abandoned, giving it tremendous potential as an archaeological and historical site. Opala refers to it as a “slave trade Pompeii,” and says that in the very earliest, preliminary excavations, one single trench already turned up a slave shackle left on the island.

An engineering crew at the ruins of Bunce Island.

“You get the sense that not much has changed … and you’re sort of forced to think about the people who suffered there,” says Opala, of the experience of walking through the tangled, overgrown ruins. “It’s a very, very powerful site.”

Workers display a slave shackle found in preliminary excavations.

Opala also says that Bunce Island has a stronger historical connection to slavery in the United States than any other West African site (only a fraction of enslaved Africans were brought to what’s now the U.S.; far more were taken to the West Indies and South America).  Now the director of the Bunce Island Coalition (US), Opala and his colleagues in Sierra Leone are working on preserving – but not reconstructing – the ruins of the slave castle and planning a museum about the site in nearby Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital.

Opala and retired JMU design professor Gary Chatelain in the men’s slave yard on Bunce Island.

“Our job, once all this is done, will be to explain to people why this is such an unusual castle, and why it is that the connection to North America is quite strong,” says Opala, whose preliminary work has been funded by a British philanthropist.

While little tangible preservation or excavation work on Bunce Island has begun, the coalition has completed a thorough engineering study and begun work on a management plan. Opala hopes to soon turn day-to-day management of the project over to Sierra Leonean staff, allowing him to concentrate on fundraising. Though much depends on funding, Opala guesses the museum and preserved historical site, complete with a nearby center for academic research, may open by 2018.

A digital reconstruction of Bunce Island when it served as a British slave castle, created by JMU colleagues Gary Chatelain and Opala. Click here for more about their collaboration.

In the few years that Opala has been working full-time on the project, the island has received attention from major U.S. media including CNN, the Christian Science Monitor and NBC, and has been tentatively listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. (Full listing, Opala says, would be a “big deal” in terms of fundraising, profile-heightening, etc.) Opala also says the prominent African-American historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. is at work on a new PBS miniseries on African-American history that will prominently feature Bunce Island.

Opala, who was awarded Sierra Leonean citizenship in May 2013, and who married a Sierra Leonean woman the month before that, hopes the development of the site will be of as much benefit to the country’s current economy as its historical record. Now recovering after a decade-long war that ended in 2002, “the country’s coming together economically and politically,” Opala says. According to a World Bank estimate, a $5 million investment in developing the site could return $400 million over the next seven years in tourism revenue.

In recognition of his work over the past several decades, Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma awarded Opala the Order of the Rokel – the country’s equivalent of knighthood – in 2012.

In recognition of his pioneering research into the slave trade between Sierra Leone and the U.S., Opala recieved the Order of the Rokel, the Sierra Leonean version of knighthood, from President Ernest Bai Koroma.

Additional resources for further reading & learning about Bunce Island:

(A) BUNCE ISLAND PROJECT (see computer reconstruction image) — African Tourism Radio)


(C) BUNCE ISLAND — PHOTOS (video) (Satellite Photo)

(D) BUNCE ISLAND EXHIBIT (information packet for teachers)

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