West Africa had long been a target for slave trading. This trade had a huge impact on the dynamics of West African politics and societies. The trade naturally had a devastating impact on the tribes particularly of the interior but also along the coast. Some tribes actually benefitted and collaborated with the trade in return for cash, manufactured goods or weapons. This often allowed them to increase their power at other tribes' expense.
Not all slaves were necessarily slaves for life. It was actually legally possible for slaves to earn or buy their freedom. Many slaves in the plantations of the Caribbean or America did earn this right. Most of these freed slaves would probably have stayed locally - if only due to the expense and difficulties of finding their way back to Africa or to a different location. However, some of these freed men would offer their services to the Royal Navy which was always short of personnel. A lesser number would join the British Army. These black warriors displayed their courage as being the equal of any white men and often earned the admiration of the officers that they served. It was with this background that in 1786 Dr Henry Smeathman proposed a scheme for founding a colony for black men discharged from the army and navy. This was the period just after the American Revolutionary War and so there were a number of veterans with no particular place to call home.
An area in West Africa was to be set aside for this purpose. In 1787 some 400 such black men and women arrived on the coast. In the year following, 1788, Nembana, a Timni chief, sold a strip of land to Captain John Taylor for the use of the free community of settlers, their heirs and successors under the protection of the British government.
The first settlement struggled in the harsh environment and with not all the local Africans being pleased to see these black men and women who had taken on many of the customs and even the language of the Europeans. Powerful backers from Britain, including William Wilberforce, lobbied for an expanded scheme with additional support. The Sierra Leone Company was formed and a larger settlement was designed at what would be called Freetown. It would receive a new infusion of black settlers from Nova Scotia - freed slaves who had escaped from America - worried that they would be re-enslaved if they remained there.
The British colony would be a victim of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars with it being raided and plundered by French fleets. However, these wars would also provide an opportunity, particularly after 1807 when the Slave Trade was abolished. After this, any slaves or black men liberated from enemy ships would be dropped off in Freetown. Theoretically, they were free to try and return to their tribal homelands - but in actual fact, few people took this option. Partly from practicality, but also because they now had more in common with the European economic model than with any tribal subsistence economy.
However, the costs of running and defending this colony were prohibitive. It was not called the white man's grave for nothing. And not all the blacks who made it their home were immune to all the nasty diseases there. Defence had to worry not just about a seaborne attack but also a land attack. The interior was volatile and unruly with many tribes vying for power over one another.
In 1833, slavery itself was to be abolished throughout the Empire. This meant that more people would make the trek to Freetown. However this attack on slavery would also mean the economic stagnation of West Africa as fewer European ships were now attracted to the coast. This was especially true after the vigorous Royal Navy's anti-slavery squadrons swung into action. Trade was becoming less and less profitable in West Africa and many traders looked elsewhere for opportunities. The only bright light in the economy was in palm oil. The Industrial Revolution had the byproduct of making people very dirty - palm oil could be turned into an effective soap. However, palm oil was not unique to Sierra Leone and plenty of other competitors rose up to supply this demand.
British control over the interior was gradually extended throughout the nineteenth century. This was usually due to the frequent intertribal clashes of the interior which unsettled the border and hampered trade in the region. Also there was a demand for more land as more and more settlers arrived - even if this land was at the expense of other Africans. Competition with the French would be another factor, especially as they started expanding from their French Guinea settlements. Indeed the French would ultimately set the limits for the expansion of the Sierra Leone colony by claiming the interior. In fact in 1893 they actually came to blows - if only by accident - when a French force attacked a British expedition that it mistook for Muslim mercenaries. After that incident, Freetown became the headquarters of the British army in West Africa, and a force of infantry, engineers and artillery was maintained there at all times. The colony itself provided a battalion of the West African Frontier Force, a body responsible to the Colonial Office.
Sierra Leonean society stayed remarkably divided. Those who returned to the colony had little in common with the Africans who lived in the interior. They tended to keep their own customs and ways of life separate from each other. In fact this division would play a significant part in destablising the country once it had attained its independence in 1961.