The Bulom are the earliest known inhabitants of the territory, with the Krim and Gola people arriving by AD 1400. The Mende and Temne settled in the 15th century, and the Fulani moved into the northern region.
Around that time the Portuguese were exploring the coast – Pedro de Cintra gave the country its present name in about 1462 – and built a fort on the site of Freetown. Europeans traded along the coast without formally establishing themselves. In 1787 Granville Sharp and other British abolitionists settled 400 people, formerly slaves, on a strip of land bought from Naimbana, a local chief. Over the following years more settlers arrived, many of them freed slaves from Jamaica and Nova Scotia. The British parliament declared the slave trade illegal in 1807, and a British naval station was established at Freetown to intercept slavers continuing to operate; people rescued from the slave-ships were also settled in Sierra Leone. Freetown became a British colony in 1808 and the coastal and inland area a protectorate in 1896.
During the 19th century the colonial rulers forged administrative links with The Gambia, the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Lagos in Nigeria.
In 1863 a legislative council was created. It was progressively enlarged and made more representative in 1924 and 1951, evolving in 1956 into the House of Representatives. By 1957 most men were eligible to vote; women who were taxpayers or owned property were also enfranchised. A new constitution came into force in 1961, establishing formally a unicameral parliament and Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign. On that basis Sierra Leone became independent on 27 April 1961.
At independence, two main parties shared the votes in a multiparty political system. First in office was the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) during 1962-67 under Sir Milton Margai. The 1967 elections were won by the All People’s Congress (APC) under Dr Siaka Stevens. Almost immediately, Stevens was arrested in a coup, followed days later by another army coup which imposed military rule until the next year. Then, after a further coup, Stevens was reinstated as prime minister.
In 1971, the country became a republic with Stevens as executive president. The general election of 1973 was boycotted by the SLPP and easily won by the APC, which also won the following elections in 1977 after a campaign which sparked violence. In 1978 the country became a one-party state, led by the ruling APC. Single-party elections in 1982 were once again violent. In 1985 Major-General Joseph Momoh succeeded Stevens as president. By the end of the 1980s, economic conditions were continuing to deteriorate and there was a growing demand for constitutional reform. The government responded by setting up a constitutional review commission. The commission’s recommendation of a return to a multiparty democratic system was overwhelmingly endorsed in a referendum in August 1991.
A new constitution was adopted, allowing for a transition towards multiparty elections. Political parties started to register in preparation for elections.
Civil war The 1991 multiparty constitution was not, however, implemented. Fighting with a rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which had started in March 1991, escalated, and there were incursions from neighbouring Liberia, the RUF in the south of the country being loosely in alliance with Liberian rebels.
In April 1992, Captain Valentine Strasser took control after a coup by junior army officers, and the constitution was suspended. The war escalated and, despite air and ground support from Nigeria, and troops provided by Guinea, by 1995 at one point the government was in secure control only of the capital. In January 1996, Strasser was overthrown by his deputy Brigadier Julius Maada Bio.
Multiparty elections and peace Parliamentary and presidential elections under the 1991 multiparty constitution were finally held in February 1996. Of the 68 parliamentary seats, the SLPP won 27, the United National People’s Party (UNPP) 17, People’s Democratic Party 12, the APC five, the National Unity Party four, the Democratic Centre Party three. In a two-round presidential election the SLPP candidate, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, defeated UNPP’s Dr John Karefa-Smart and Kabbah was sworn in as president at the end of March 1996.
In talks between the government and RUF leader Corporal Foday Sankoh, agreement was reached in November 1996 to end the war that had caused the displacement of 2 million people and over 10,000 deaths. The agreement allowed the RUF to register as a political party and permitted it access to the media. In 1997 RUF leader Sankoh was arrested while on a visit to Nigeria.
In May 1997 the Kabbah government was overthrown in a military coup led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma, but in October 1997, in a deal brokered by ECOWAS in Conakry, Guinea, the rebel Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) regime agreed to a six-month transition to restore the legitimate civilian government. Apart from a few skirmishes in the area of the diamond mines, the transitional period was reasonably peaceful until early February 1998 when renewed fighting broke out between Nigerian peacekeeping troops and Koroma’s forces in Freetown and a few days later, on 12 February, the Nigerians captured Freetown and detained many members of the military regime, though not including Koroma himself. After nine months in exile in Conakry, President Kabbah returned to Freetown in March 1998. Parliament reconvened and about 50% of its members attended. Within a few days thousands of people had returned to their homes in Freetown.
In July 1998 the UN agreed to establish an observer mission to monitor the military and security situation in the country and to advise the government on the rebuilding of the police and security forces. Sankoh was returned to Freetown from detention in Lagos to face charges of treason and was sentenced to death in October 1998. On news of Sankoh’s death sentence RUF and AFRC rebels launched a campaign of severe brutality in the towns and villages they took over as they advanced rapidly on Freetown and in January 1999 Nigerian troops halted their advance very close to the capital. A wider peace agreement was signed in July 1999, which included a power-sharing arrangement between Kabbah and the RUF (with four RUF leaders appointed to ministerial portfolios in November 1999), annulment of Sankoh’s death sentence and the release of those sentenced for their role in the 1997 coup. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommended the deployment of 6,000 troops to Sierra Leone to guarantee the peace agreement and this was increased to 11,000 on the departure of the Nigerians in 2000.
In May 2000, as the UN peacekeepers moved into the diamondproducing region and began to demobilise the rebels, the peace agreement collapsed when the rebels took 500 UN troops hostage and fighting resumed between the Sierra Leone Army and the rebels. Power-sharing ceased and Sankoh was arrested, though the hostages were released unharmed in due course. In July 2000 the UN resolved to ban trade in uncut diamonds from Sierra Leone until the government had established an authentication system but the illicit trade continued into 2001, when there were signs that the ban was beginning to be effective.
In June 2004 special courts with Sierra Leonean and UNappointed judges began trying those both on government and rebel sides of the civil war accused of war crimes.