The North American slave trade was effectively launched from Freetown in 1560, and by the 18th century Portuguese and British trading settlements lined the coast. In the late 1700s, freed slaves from places such as Jamaica and Nova Scotia were brought to the new settlement of Freetown. Soon after, Britain abolished slavery and Sierra Leone became a British colony. Many subsequent settlers were liberated from slaving ships intercepted by the British navy and brought here. These people became known as Krios and assumed an English lifestyle, together with an air of superiority.

But things didn't run smoothly in this brave new world. Black and white settlers dabbling in the slave trade, disease, rebellion and attacks by the French were all characteristics of 19th-century Sierra Leone. Most importantly, indigenous people were discriminated against by the British and Krios, and in 1898 a ferocious uprising by the Mende began, ostensibly in opposition to a hut tax.

Diamonds Are Forever

Independence came in 1961, but the 1960s and 1970s were characterised by coups (once there were three in one year, an all-African record), a shift of power to the indigenous Mende and Temne peoples, and the establishment of a one-party state (which lasted into the 1980s). By the early 1990s, the country was saddled with a shambolic economy and rampant corruption. Then the civil war began.

It's entirely possible that buried in the depths of Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was a desire to end the corruption and abuses of power committed by the ruling military-backed elites in Freetown, who had turned the country into a basket case. But any high ideals were quickly forgotten, replaced by a ferocious desire for Sierra Leone's diamond and goldfields, with looting, robbery, rape, mutilation and summary execution, all tools of the RUF's trade. While their troops plundered to make ends meet, Charles Taylor in Liberia and the RUF's leaders enriched themselves from diamonds smuggled south.

The Sierra Leone government was pretty ineffective and tried using South African mercenaries against the RUF, who, bolstered by disaffected army elements and Liberian irregulars, were making gains across the country. In 1996, elections were held and Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was declared president, but a year later, after peace talks had brought some hope, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) grabbed control of government and decided to share power with the RUF. By this time fractionalisation and desertion on both sides had led to an utter free-for-all, with the civilian population suffering atrocities at every turn.

Hopes & Fears

In March 1998, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), a Nigerian-led peacekeeping force, retook Freetown and reinstated Kabbah. Some sort of peace held until January 1999, when the RUF and AFRC launched 'Operation No Living Thing'. The ensuing carnage in and around Freetown killed 6000 people, mutilated many more (lopping a limb off was an RUF calling card) and prompted the government to sign the Lomé Peace Agreement. A massive UN peacekeeping mission (Unamsil) was deployed, but 10 months later it came under attack from the RUF. Three hundred UN troops were abducted, but as the RUF closed in on Freetown in mid-2000 the British government deployed 1000 paratroopers and an aircraft carrier to prevent a massacre and shift the balance of power back to Kabbah's government and UN forces. By February 2002, the RUF was disarmed and its leaders captured. Elections were held a few months later; Kabbah was re-elected and the RUF's political wing was soundly defeated.

Unamsil became the largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission in UN history up until that time, and also one of its most effective. The last of the 17,500 soldiers departed in 2005. Peace had won.

The road to justice, however, was just beginning. The Special Court for Sierra Leone, a UN-backed judicial body charged with investigating war crimes during the conflict, was set up in 2002 and headquartered in Freetown. It took 10 years for proceedings against more than 15 people to be completed; among them Issa Sesay, the RUF's senior military officer and commander, who received 52 years – the court's highest sentence – behind bars in Rwanda. Of course, the court's most famous convictee is Charles Taylor, the former president of next-door Liberia, who received a jail sentence of 50 years in 2012. An appeal was rejected in 2013.