The Legacy of Africa’s first golf course

golf8-675x386Some of my African ancestors may have witnessed a golf match as they were taken in chains on cargo ships from Bance Island (now Bunce) in Sierra Leone to work in the rice fields in lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia.

A black girl separated from her mother and father might have seen a long putt made just before she cried herself to sleep.

At this British slave trading port outside Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown, where some 13,000 slaves were shipped mainly to low country South Carolina between 1748 and 1884, there was a two-hole golf course that was frequented by merchants and captains with an interests in the slave trade.

When the London-based merchant firm, Grant, Sargent, and Oswald, took over the tiny island in the mid-18th century it built for its employees an English country house and the course, which was surrounded by mangroves.

The golfers, who wore white Indian cotton, divided themselves into two teams and took turns driving their team’s ball toward the opposite hole. The African caddies wore tartan cloths. The balls were the size of tennis balls and the clubs were wooden.

Henry Smeathman, a Swedish botanist and abolitionist, kept a diary during his four years studying plant life in Sierra Leone in the 1770s. He played the course on his first day on the island.

“We amused ourselves for an hour or two in the cool of the afternoon in playing at Goff, a game only played in some particular parts of Scotland and at Blackheath. Two holes are made in the ground at about a quarter of a mile distance, and of the size of a man’s hat crown . . . That party which gets their ball struck into the hole with the fewest strokes wins.”

When the game was over, Smeathman and the businessman moved indoors, where they dined on ape, antelope, boar and fish. Following dinner, they drank Madeira wine and smoked Virginia tobacco.

Yet, the golf and merriment didn’t make Smeathman insensitive to the atrocities committed by some of his playing companions during the working hours.

“Alas, what a scene of misery and distress is a full slaved ship in the rains? The clanking of chains, the groans of the sick and the stench of the whole is scarce supportable . . .there was Mr. Berlin sick; a Captain too, both in the cabbin (sic), delirious; two or three slaves thrown over board every day dying of fever, flux, measles, worms all together. All the day the chains rattling or the sound of the armourer riveting some poor devil just arriving in galling heavy irons. The women slaves in one part beating rice in wooden mortar to cleanse it for cooking. Here the Doctor dressing sores, wounds & ulcers, or craming the men with the medicines and another standing over them with a cat to make them swallow.  . . The gangway is crowded with black and white sailors—belonging to boats & canoes along side. Here is fire & smoke, chopping, killing, skinning, scalding, boiling, roasting, broiling, frying and scolding.”

Before he died in 1786, Smeathman led a movement to set up a free Black colony in Sierra Leone. Nearly 700 Black loyalists in England signed up for the journey to West Africa. Eventually, 344 Blacks and 115 whites made the voyage in 1786 to the country, where they established the Province of Freedom and a settlement they called Granville Town.

The site of Bance (Bunce) Island, a small island just 1650 feet long and 350 feet wide and the two-hole golf course is now home to a major exhibit that commemorates the lives that were torn from those shores over 200 years ago.

Joseph Opala, a James Madison University historian, has led a team that’s created a 3-D animation of the island based on period drawings.  Groups from the Gullah people of lowcountry Georgia and South Carolina, descendants of those slaves that were taken from Bance Island, have made several pilgrimages to the island.

In ” The Book of the Negroes,” a BET miniseries on slavery that premiered on February 16, an early scene shows two Englishmen wearing felt hats playing the game on the island much the way Smeathman describes in his diary.

The Freetown Golf Club is now the only golf course in Sierra Leone. Near the border of Guinea in Yengema, there was once a course but it was gutted for diamond mining.  Founded in 1904 by British colonists, the 17-hole Freetown club, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean at Cockerill Bay, didn’t accept a Black member until independence in 1961.

The greens (shown above) are called “browns” because they consist mostly of sand and oil.

Before independence, many Sierra Leoneans with an interest in golf built waterside mongoes along the salt marsh, where they found sticks that they shaped into golf clubs. For balls, they used crushed condensed-milk cans.

The Freetown Golf Club was once host to a Safari circuit pro event, but golf and much of what constituted normalcy and progress begin to fade with the start of the country’s civil war in 1991.

In ’97, when Sierra Leone’s president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, was deposed, the junta planted a bomb on the fourth hole at Freetown. A year later, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council used the roof of the club to mount an antiaircraft offensive against Nigerian alpha jets.

This country of 6 million is still reeling from that 11-years Civil War that ended in 2002 with an estimated 50,000 deaths. The survivors have endured rape and the murder of countless loved ones and one of the most underdeveloped economies in the world.

The golf club was no sanctuary from this chaos, but it endures because there are people there who love the game.

Did my ancestors like and understand the game when they first saw it on Bance Island?

Those black caddies must have been envious of the joy that Goff  brought to Smeathman and the slave merchants. Some of the caddies were probably very confident that they could play better than their bosses. They would develop a fascination with the game as they got an opportunity to play in the waterside mongoes and at Freetown.

Still, how different would the world be if those black men, women and children had been able to play the game on Bance Island before the history of their people was changed forever?

When those slaves looked back toward the island and all that they knew for a strange and scary new world, they likely didn’t see golf in their future or that one of their ancestors would ever grow to love this game Smeathman called goff.

—Farrell Evans


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