The Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme: Background information when reading Theatre Of Marvels

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Theatre Of Marvels

A Novel

by Lianne Dillsworth

Theatre Of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth X
Theatre Of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2022, 320 pages

    Apr 2023, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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About this Book

The Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme

This article relates to Theatre Of Marvels

Print Review

Black-and-white illustration of a view of Freetown, Sierra Leone on the coast of the Sierra Leone River, 1803 In Lianne Dillsworth's novel Theatre of Marvels, a settlement plan resembling the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme comes to represent the possibility of a fresh start, freedom and community for the story's heroine, Zillah, and fellow Black people living in Victorian Britain who are struggling to feel like they belong.

Located on the west coast of Africa, Sierra Leone was used as a location for British trade from the mid-17th century onward, including the slave trade, before eventually being colonized. Following the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1772, the African country was soon earmarked as a potential destination for former slaves and their descendants. The Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme was put into action in the late 18th century, earlier than Dillsworth's fictional Victorian-era version.

Ostensibly, the scheme was a gesture of goodwill to Black people, including former slaves from North America who had come to Britain to show loyalty to the Crown during the American Revolutionary War, but the British government had ulterior motives in wishing to send Black people to Sierra Leone, as it was a way of reducing the visibility of the so-called "Black Poor" in London. The plan was intended to get Black people out of the city for good, while also increasing British presence in Sierra Leone to further colonize it and strengthen trade links.

After several delays and funding setbacks, the ships of the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme set sail in 1787, taking about a month to reach their destination. Surviving passenger lists show that the majority of those on board were single Black men, but interestingly, there were also at least 18 Black women married to white men, 63 white women married to Black men, and five white women interested in the prospect of marriage — presumably to Black men. This suggests that, while Britain's Black population was seen by the government as a problem to be gotten rid of, prejudice among at least some in the white working classes may have been considerably lower.

Initial efforts to settle were not widely successful. The journey was arduous, disease was rampant, the slave trade in the area continued illegally, and conflict arose between the settlers and the indigenous population. Many of those who set sail did not survive, but further ships were sent in 1792, and other nations soon followed the British scheme, with freed Black people arriving from the United States, Canada and the West Indies. For some in these countries, the idea of being asked to abandon their homes was an insult, but to others, the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown was a beacon of hope that they could finally live in peace and establish a community that respected their heritage and worth. To this day, many of the country's residents can trace their lineage back to these early Black settlers.

Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1803, via Wikimedia Commons

Filed under People, Eras & Events

This "beyond the book article" relates to Theatre Of Marvels. It originally ran in May 2022 and has been updated for the April 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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