Sierra Leone Public Archives Collection
The Sierra Leone Public Archives include the holdings of the British colonial government and subsequently the independent Republic of Sierra Leone. Document preservation initially followed procedures found elsewhere in the British Empire. At first, departments were responsible for their own record keeping. In about 1895, the Colonial government in Sierra Leone began systematically to keep some types of official records. The government was experiencing some difficulties in keeping track of, for example, rent paid for Banana Island, as official records could not be procured in any effective manner and no specially trained or knowledgeable staff were available to assist with such issues of governance. In 1936 the British Secretary of State for the Colonies issued a circular stating that the various British administrations in West Africa must regard the preservation of historical records as one of the first duties of a colonial government.
At the outbreak of World War II, the space occupied by the Archives was required for war-related purposes, and therefore all archival records were removed by rail to storage in Moyamba, where they remained for the duration of the war. On September 29, 1942, the Colonial Secretary issued Circular No. 49/Q/15/42 stating that the departments were to take care of official records in the event of enemy attack on Freetown, which was an important British naval base. “I am directed by the Governor to invite attention to the proper custody of official records, in the event of enemy action.... It would be a serious matter if official records were destroyed and steps should be taken now to ensure that such records are secured in safe and fireproof receptacles...I am to ask that a brief report on the arrangements made may be submitted in due course.”
The archives were stored in army huts put up by the military, where they remained after World War II. The records were in a disorganized and deteriorating state by this time, piled in heaps on the floor, crying out for the need of an official archivist to deal with them before it was too late. Historian Christopher Fyfe was appointed Government Archivist in 1950, a position he held for two years. Professor Fyfe began the task of organizing and attempting to preserve the existing government records. The Colonial Secretary was faced with the task of deciding what should be done with the archives at this point. Fourah Bay College, the oldest university in West Africa, founded in 1827, offered to house the archives until the government built its own public archives office. The records were initially stored on the campus in a one-storey stone building with wooden shelves. Dr. Peter Kup, a member of the college staff succeeded Professor Fyfe in 1954, becoming honorary Government Archivist until 1967.
On September 6, 1965 the Public Archives Office was formally established with the enactment of the Sierra Leone Public Archives Act, Number 44, of 1965. This Act charged the Public Archives Office with the sole responsibility for making provision for the preservation, arrangement, custody, repair and rehabilitation of all public records which have value for posterity. The Act provides for a Director of Archives who shall be a public sector officer under the Direction of the Minister of Education, responsible for Government Records and documents and other historical matters of every kind which may be transferred to or acquired by the Public Archives Office. The Act also provides for the establishment of a Public Archives Committee to advise the Minister on all matters relating to archives in Sierra Leone. Dr. Kup encouraged members of the staff at the History Department to visit provincial archives and prepare surveys of archival records found there.
In 1991, the Sierra Leone Civil War broke out, lasting until 2002, costing tens of thousands of lives and injuring and displacing millions of others. Archival records were not at the forefront of concern at this time, with the breakdown of all state structures, and control of the country falling into the hands of arms traffickers, drug dealers and those grappling for control of the diamond industry. However, through super-human efforts a great deal of records were saved and secured despite this absolutely devastating national situation.
The Sierra Leone Public Archives are still housed at Fourah Bay College, in two buildings, under the direction of Chief Government Archivist and Co-Applicant, Mr. Albert Moore, and his staff. Despite minimal financial support from the government, the staff manages to house and protect the national records of Sierra Leone, as best possible, while allowing access to researchers under less than optimal conditions. Digital images included in this collection demonstrate the extremely endangered conditions of the Archives.
- The Harriet Tubman Resource Centre (The Harriet Tubman Institute)