Material culture and Sierra Leone’s civilising mission in the nineteenth century
in The cultural construction of the British world
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By the mid-nineteenth century, trading networks between London and Freetown, Sierra Leone, were well-established. White and black businessmen and women were beginning to profit from the shift from the slave trade to “legitimate” commerce. Sierra Leone’s emerging, property-owning middle class lived in comfortable two-story stone houses. These homes were decorated with articles of material comfort and markers, in the imperial cultural complex, of accumulating wealth: mahogany chairs, tables, sofas, and four-post bedsteads, pier glasses, and floor cloths. Sierra Leoneans consumed the products of Empire, dressing as British subjects, building houses with British brick, and buying British luxury goods. But how did different groups of Sierra Leoneans adopt and adapt British material culture? Did trading connections foster a sense of British identity, or were these products used in particularly “West African” ways? How did the growth of the project of “legitimate trade” contribute to a sense of the British imperial project amongst Sierra Leoneans? This chapter will explore the ways that material culture and commodities shaped the lives of settlers in this colony and their interactions with both the metropole and the rest of West Africa.


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