The Royal Navy, Legal Pluralism, and Authority in Early Colonial Sierra Leone, 1670-1815

In his new role of Governor of Sierra Leone, Captain Edward Columbine of the Royal Navy, sent a letter in 1810 complaining to the Earl of Liverpool, the future prime minister, that “we are in fact, overwhelmed with law” due to the high number of criminal and civil litigations that were taking place in the various courts established in Sierra Leone.

Colonial legal practices in the British Atlantic World were largely built around procedures established by the Royal Navy. Naval regulations and customs implemented on warships translated into the rule of law and administration on land in the context of early colonial Sierra Leone. The Royal Navy established a common legal culture among the culturally diverse settlers of Sierra Leone: the Temne in Sierra Leone, the Black Poor from London, British abolitionists, black Nova Scotian settlers, Maroons from Jamaica, and Liberated Africans after the abolition of slavery in 1807. Examination of these legal dynamics over time contribute to an understanding of how the establishment of colonial law became formalized in Sierra Leone and served as the basis for an enduring legal system that unified Sierra Leone’s diverse population, outliving the colonial era.

The Royal Navy’s role in the creation of a legal culture in early modern Sierra Leone revises our understanding of legal history in the British Atlantic World. The role of the Royal Navy in the British Atlantic World has been understood as projecting imperial military power and guarding interoceanic trade. I will demonstrate how the Royal Navy’s influence extended to administering legal order on land, and that it laid the foundation for a constant legal presence designed to promote social order populating the new royal colony of migrants in Sierra Leone.