Sierra Leone’s historic Cotton Tree falls in storm

It stood for centuries as a towering symbol of freedom, but was brought crashing down this week by torrential rain.

Sierra Leone has been dealt a “great loss,” the country’s leader said Thursday, after its iconic Cotton Tree was felled in the storm.

The giant tree loomed over the capital, Freetown, for about 400 years. At 70 meters tall and 15 meters wide its physical stature was surpassed only by its status as a national symbol.

Crowds gathered in the center of the capital to see the wrecked trunk for themselves.

“It was regarded as a symbol of liberty and freedom by early settlers” in the West African country — which was founded by freed American slaves — according to President Julius Maada Bio, who joined the crowds at the site on Thursday.

“The Cotton Tree wasn’t just a tree,” Bio said on Twitter. “It was a connection between the past, present and the future.” 

Sierra Leone Cotton Tree Falls
The centuries-old cotton tree in the capital Freetown in 2011.Tommy Trenchard / Alamy Stock Photo

The great shade of the Cotton Tree had offered returning Black freed slaves a resting place and prayer ground when they arrived by boat in the 1700s, the country’s Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs said on its website.

While it stood strong in the face of landslides driven by climate change and a lightning strike, a heavy downpour Wednesday night left nothing of the Cotton Tree but a stump. It was “damaged beyond repair,” said Zebek International, a press agency working with Sierra Leone’s government. 

“Its entire trunk sheared off a few meters above the ground.”

The weight of the loss “is comparable with the 2019 fire that destroyed the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris,” Zebek said.

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