Sierra Leoneans mourn fallen tree that had symbolized liberation from slavery

The Freetown "Cotton Tree", before and after it fell. Photos: @barmmyboy

A giant tree that towered over Sierra Leone's capital for centuries and symbolized freedom to its early residents came down overnight during a heavy rainstorm.

The kapok tree stood in the middle of a roundabout in central Freetown near the national museum and the president’s office.

President Julius Maada Bio called the toppling of the famed tree “a great loss to the nation” as crowds gathered to look at the wrecked trunk.

Passerby Victor Tutu Rogers told Reuters he saw the tree fall around 9:40 p.m. (2140 GMT) on Wednesday, May 24.

By Thursday, the branches and debris had been cleared away, leaving only a stump.

The kapok (Ceiba pentandra) tree, known as “Cotton Tree”, was the most important landmark in the West African country, which was founded by freed American slaves.

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The tree’s exact age is unknown, but it is attested to have been there in 1787, when freed American slaves, mostly former Black Loyalist soldiers ( also known as Black Nova Scotians, on account of having for a period of time resided in Nova Scotia in modern-day Canada), arrived on the spot that today is the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown. It is believed that when those former slaves arrived, they gathered under its branches to offer thanksgiving prayers before moving into their new home.

“It was regarded as a symbol of liberty and freedom by early settlers,” President Bio wrote on Twitter.

“We will have something at the same spot that bears testament to the great Cotton Tree’s place in our history. All voices will be brought together for this.”

“As a municipality it was very much symbolic, the place where we hold our annual thanksgiving every November to offer prayers and for many other events,” the city’s Chief Administrator, Festus Kallay, said.

“The Freetown skyline will hardly be the same again.”