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Female Education and Social Mobility in Nineteenth-Century Sierra Leone

Silke Strickrodt

This research project explores the role of women, and particularly female education, in the creation of a Christian elite in the British colony of Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone, one of the earliest British colonies in West Africa, was of strategic importance in what A. G. Hopkins has called ‘Britain’s first development plan for Africa’. This plan, in which the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade was to play a decisive role, involved the re-organisation of West Africa’s economy and commercial relations with Europe and the Americas. It also implied the imposition of British cultural and social norms. In the realisation of the plan Sierra Leone provided not only the principal naval base but also the personnel - the ‘Recaptives’ rescued from slave ships by British men of war along the West African coast. Of 100,000 Africans taken to Freetown and liberated there between 1808 and the 1860s, about half are thought to have settled in the colony. Their education and ‘civilisation’ constituted a project of social engineering, in which Christian missionary societies turned Sierra Leone into the ‘Athens of Africa’.

Female education remains a neglected aspect of this history. I am writing an integrated history which will reconstruct the perspectives and experiences of both Africans and Europeans, focussing upon the complex relationship between the various groups engaged in the development of female education, the way in which educational models from Europe developed their own momentum in Africa and the ways in which female education was perceived by the Recaptives.