Female Voting in Sierra Leone by 1792: A Centuries-Long Journey for the US to 1920
How does it feel when you are not allowed to express your thoughts and your opinions while at the same time, other people are allowed to share their opinion? Not only are they sharing it, but it is being taken into consideration in vital decision making processes. It sort of feels like you are being forced to listen to the others as they contribute in making decisions, while someone is sealing your mouth shut so as not to join in, doesn’t it? That’s how the United States suffragettes’ movement came to be.
The women’s suffrage campaign began before the civil war during the 1820s and 1830s, a time when all white men were allowed to vote regardless of their financial assets. At that time, women also started to make movements against the concept of “True Womanhood”, which basically promoted the idea that a “true” woman is a pious, submissive wife and a mother with no concerns or responsibilities other than looking after her home and family.
All in all, the movement was slowly revolutionizing how American society perceived women and their roles in the community. It was to achieve the concept that women were much like men, citizens of the same country, and thus have the right to retain political identities. However, the road wasn’t that rosy. The movement was at risk of crumbling down due to internal reasons such as disagreements over strategy and tactics, as well as external reasons such as the beating and the imprisonment that some suffragists have gone through simply because they were seeking their right to vote.
“There will never be complete equality until women themselves help to make the laws and elect the lawmakers“
Susan B. Anthony [1820 – 1906]
(American social reformer, women’s right activist, anti-slavery activist)
The suffrage movement lasted for nearly a hundred years before the women won their right. At last, in 1920 after the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the constitution, and for the first time, more than 8 million women across the United Stated voted in elections. That was not the end of the story though. That was the happy ending to only a fraction of the women and those were the white women in the United States. Black women on the other hand, were still denied the right of voting along with many other discriminatory acts that lasted until the 1960s.
“A Negro woman has the same kind of problems as other women, but she can’t take the same things for granted”
Dorothy Height [1912 – 2010]
(Civil rights and women’s rights activist with special focus on African-American women)
If we go back in time, almost one hundred and forty five years before that glorious day for white women in the US, we will witness another historical event taking place as well. During the American Revolution in 1775, the British colonial military unit known as Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment (not related to the current day country of Ethiopia), offered freedom to African American slaves who were willing to join the British lines in fighting rebels of the American War. After losing the war, by 1783, the British deported about 4000 ex-servicemen and slaves to colonies such as Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. Alas, many of the ex-service men and ex-slaves who made it through the war didn’t get the chance to establish a new life as the smallpox disease killed off most of them upon arriving to Sierra Leone.
But how did Sierra Leone become the destination for freed slaves?
After 1778 when Britain outlawed the slave trade on its isles, the number of freed slaves was rapidly growing, and they needed a place to start their new lives and settle down. It was agreed then that they ought to settle in lands of their ancestors, or their original homelands. With that, in 1787 a naval vessel was senbt to Sierra Leone from London carrying 331 freed slaves, passing through a 20-mile secured coast (secured by the local chief of the Koya Temne tribe, known as King Tom), which is an infamous slaving region. A hundred and one of those on the vessel were women, 41 were freed slaves and 60 were white wives to black men.
Things unfortunately didn’t go well at the beginning, while still in the first year, there was a high rate of death, and then to make things worse, King Jemmy, the successor of King Tom attacked the settlement and burnt it down. Afterwards, it was re-established and the “Province of Freedom” was founded, which was later renamed “Freetown” denoting the fact that it was considered as the base for suppressing the slave trade.
Almost 5 years later, 1200 freed slaves from Nova Scotia were brought to Freetown to join the settlers, and 8 years later in 1792, another group of rebelled slaves came in from Jamaica. By that time, Freetown became a crown colony, and it was decreed that in the 1792 elections of Freetown, all the heads of a household had the right to cast their votes, by which one third of those people were ethnic African women.
On one hand, the colony committed to efforts to make Sierra Leone a base working towards the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. On the other hand, it was committed to representing the values of Christianity, the British view of civilization and commerce through missionaries. By 1855, over 50,000 freed slaves were settling in Freetown.
Freetown was one of other colonies that were allowed to govern themselves independently, but later at some point, Britain set borders around those sovereign states. What was then a number of independent sovereign states is today’s Sierra Leone after it gained independence from the UK on the 27th of April 1961. Today, Sierra Leone is a multi-ethnic country with English as the official language and the national Krio language widely used throughout the country.
It’s quite interesting when one compares and contrasts things that some people are entitled to while others are not. For instance, during colonization, in the majority of the colonized countries, African natives of those countries were not allowed to vote such as in Zimbabwe and South Africa. While at the same time, in countries such as the UK, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Japan, US, Russia and Italy, women of those countries who were once looked down on as unworthy to vote, and upon reaching their aim to claim that right with the eventual success of the suffragettes’ movement (which spread across many countries), they now had more rights compared to both African men and women, who were denied that right in their very own land.
If we take a look at the present day opinions and claims of countries such as the UK, Spain, Portugal, Germany and the US that they have always been promoting democracy, and that many other nations could learn a thing or two from them when it comes to fair ruling and listening to their people, it all sounds pretty decent doesn’t it? Now, what about if we compare that current situation to the one that was happening around one hundred years ago (and lasted for a long time), when the leaders of some of those same nations, namely the colonial governors, were suppressing the voting rights of Africans for a period of over 70 years? Women in Freetown could vote in 1792, one hundred and twenty eight years before women in the United States.