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Freetown Cotton Tree

Freetown Cotton Tree, SIERRA LEONE
Freetown Cotton Tree / postcard, from the Website of Dragan Buškulič, ""

WorldBlue  In short

In the very center of Freetown, in a roundabout surrounded by a concrete fence stands enormous tree – the famous Freetown Cotton Tree.

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GPS coordinates
8.4872 N 13.2356 W
Location, address
Africa, Sierra Leone, centre of Freetown, crossing of Siaka Stevens Street, Pademba Road, Independence Avenue and Walpole Street
Species
Cotton tree, ceiba (Ceiba pentandra var. guineensis)
Height
> 30 m
Girth
> 12 m

Map of the site

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WorldYellow In detail

Freetown Cotton Tree serves as a symbol for the whole nation of Sierra Leone.

Ceiba pentandra

Cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) grows both in tropical America and tropical Africa. It is not entirely clear where the tree appeared naturally and where it was brought by people – but it is possible that ceiba originally grew in Western Africa and could be brought elsewhere by ocean streams. Or vica verse… by streams from America to Africa. Who knows?

Ceiba (kapok, cotton tree) grows up to 77 m tall (unchecked height of one tree in Costa Rica) and has impressive buttresses characteristic of rainforest trees. Trunk above the buttresses often exceeds a diameter of 3 m.

Seed ponds of this tree contain strong and light fiber, which gave a name to the tree – "cotton tree". The collection of this fiber is not easy work but the fiber serves as an excellent filling for mattresses, children’s toys, pillows.

Cotton Tree in Freetown, Sierra Leone
Cotton Tree in Freetown / Christian Trede, / CC BY-SA 2.0 Germany

Return of slaves to Africa

Thousands of black people (then slaves) participated in the American War of Independence. They got a promise that veterans of war will be free people – but white people were filled with prejudice and too often the promise was broken.

Many war veterans with their families decided to return to their home country in Western Africa. A group of such people arrived at the site of present-day Freetown, founding the city on March 11, 1792.

The giant tree of Freetown

According to a legend the black settlers disembarked from the ship and went up to a giant tree. They held a thanksgiving service under this tree, thanking God for their deliverance to free land. Now this tree is in the center of Freetown.

There are older stories about slave markets held under this tree – but there is also a contradicting story that the tree was planted by the freed slaves who brought it from America.

It is assumed that this enormous tree is at least 500 years old. Wondermondo could not find any figures of its size – but Cotton Tree dominates above the surrounding houses and seems to be higher than 30 m. A bat colony lives in the tree.

Symbol of Sierra Leone

Today the Cotton Tree is seen as a historical symbol of Freetown. Even more – it is seen as a symbol of Sierra Leone by its natives who live abroad.

This silent giant has been a witness of the history of Sierra Leone indeed. The National Museum of the country was founded under the tree in 1957, in the former Cotton Tree Station. Tree saw the suffering and hope of people in the dark times of the Sierra Leone civil war in 1991 – 2002, including the brutal invasion in the city in January 1999.

Many local people attribute Cotton Tree to magical properties. Ceiba trees have a special meaning for local cultures, e.g. they were planted along the fortifications, which were built in the times of the slave trade.

References

  1. Ferdinand de Jong and Michael Rowlands. Reclaiming Heritage – Alternative Imaginaries of Memory in West Africa. 2007.

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When twenty-two-year-old Patrick O’Leary stepped off the plane in Sierra Leone, West Africa in January 1967, he was dressed for the snowstorm he had left in Freeborn County, Minnesota a few days earlier. It didn’t take long for him to realize his rural Catholic upbringing, training for Tanzania, his original Peace Corps assignment, and an earlier road trip to Key West Florida–in a Cadillac hearse–had only partially prepared him for two years living alone in the village of Binkolo.


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