|Species||Kapok (Ceiba pentandra)|
|Location||Freetown, Sierra Leone|
|Height||70 metres (230 ft)|
|Diameter||15 metres (49 ft)|
|Date seeded||c. 17th century|
|Date felled||24 May 2023|
The Cotton Tree was a kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) that was a historic symbol of Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone. The Cotton Tree gained importance in 1792 when a group of formerly enslaved African Americans, who had gained their freedom by fighting for the British during the American Revolutionary War, settled the site of modern Freetown. These former Black Loyalist soldiers, also known as Black Nova Scotians (because they came from Nova Scotia after leaving North America), resettled in Sierra Leone and founded Freetown on 11 March 1792. The descendants of the Nova Scotian settlers form part of the Sierra Leone Creole ethnicity today.
On 24 May 2023, a heavy rain storm felled the cotton tree with only the lower part of its enormous trunk still standing.
The exact age of the Cotton Tree is unknown, but it is thought to have been about 400 years old. It was mature prior to the foundation of Freetown and there are records of its existence in 1787 when settlers from Britain came to the peninsula. In March 1792, a group of former slaves who joined the settlement are said to have gathered under the Cotton Tree to pray and a white preacher named Nathaniel Gilbert preached a sermon. The Cotton Tree was also an important landmark for the Temne people who marked territory based on whether it was visible from the tree.
There are many legends concerning the Cotton Tree. Stories relate that the tree was planted by freed slaves from a seed taken from the Caribbean or that a slave market was held in the tree's shade. Another legend related that catastrophe would come if the tree ever fell.
The 70-metre (230 ft) tall, 15-metre (49 ft) wide Cotton Tree was the oldest of its kind in Freetown and one of Sierra Leone's most famous landmarks. It stood in a roundabout near the Supreme Court building, the music club building, and the Sierra Leone National Museum, which was established in the former Cotton Tree Telephone Exchange and had "Cotton Tree, Freetown" as its postal address. A booklet of Sierra Leonean heritage sites described the tree as standing,
like a colossus, in the middle of the city keeping watch, and 'protecting', the capital, as it has done for over two hundred years. Its gnarled and spiky trunks, sturdy bole and massive shady branches also give it the look of a sentinel, "standing in the centre of the oldest part of Freetown, surrounded by, yet dominating the principal buildings of Church, Law, and Government."
A 1933 Sierra Leonean two pence stamp, designed by a Roman Catholic missionary and issued as part of a set commemorating abolitionist William Wilberforce, portrayed the Cotton Tree along with text reading "Old Slave Market". After Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961, the tree was visited by Queen Elizabeth II. The Cotton Tree has been celebrated in children's nursery rhymes and was featured in Sierra Leone's first banknotes in 1964. Sierra Leonean poet Oumar Farouk Sesay composed a poem about the tree, comparing it to major world landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben.
The British ethnographer and colonial administrator E. F. Sayers wrote of the Cotton Tree in 1947:
How many human joys and human sorrows has our Freetown Cotton Tree not seen, and how many tragedies and comedies must have been enacted within the sight of it and within its sight? ... Freetown's Cotton Tree stands today for a sense of continuity in our corporate life, a symbolic link between our past and our future.
The trunk of the Cotton Tree was reinforced with steel straps and concrete. Thousands of fruit bats roosted on the tree's branches. At some point, it was partially scorched from a lightning strike. It also caught fire in 2018 and again in January 2020. In 2019, the Freetown City Council authorized rental allowances for the relocation of 62 people who had been begging and living around the Cotton Tree.
On 24 May 2023, a heavy rain storm felled the cotton tree with only the lower part of its enormous trunk still standing. President Julius Maada Bio mourned the loss, saying there was "no stronger symbol of our national story than the Cotton Tree, a physical embodiment of where we come from as a country". He vowed to include diverse voices in creating a new monument including remnants of the tree.
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- Mednick, Sam (25 May 2023). "Centuries-old cotton tree, a national symbol for decades, felled by storm in Sierra Leone". San Diego Union-Tribune. Associated Press.
- "Sierra Leone's symbolic 'Cotton Tree' goes up in flames". News24. 31 January 2020.
- "FCC settles relocation package for Cotton Tree beggars". Politico SL. 27 June 2019. Archived from the original on 1 July 2019. Retrieved 26 May 2023.
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- "Cotton Tree – Freetown, Sierra Leone", Atlas Obscura.