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Sierra Leone's iconic Cotton Tree destroyed by storm

May 25, 2023

The centuries-old tree that towered over the skyline of Freetown was a symbol for the country's resilience. The President of Sierra Leone has vowed to erect a monument in its place.

Workers clearing the wreckage around Cotton Tree in Freetown
Cotton Tree, a national symbol of Sierra Leone, was reduced to a stumpImage: TJ Bade/AP/picture alliance

A giant, 400-year-old tree that served as a symbol of freedom in Sierra Leone has been destroyed in a storm, authorities said on Thursday.

Lovingly referred to as "Cotton Tree," the 70-meter (230-foot) tall, 15-meter (50-feet) wide Ceiba pentandra has long been a symbol of the country.

It is believed that the enslaved people who won their freedom by fighting with the British in the American War of Independence prayed under the tree when they eventually settled in West Africa in the end of the 18th century.

"All Sierra Leoneans will pause for thought at the loss of such a prestigious national symbol as Cotton Tree," President Julius Maada Bio said on Thursday.

An excavator operating near Cotton Tree
Workers cleared rubble from the Freetown intersection on ThursdayImage: TJ Bade/AP/picture alliance

"For centuries, it has been a proud emblem of our nation, a symbol of a nation that has grown to provide shelter for many," he added.

Freetown residents continued to pray beneath the tree in the decades that followed as it towered over a busy roundabout near the national museum, the central post office and the country's highest court.

An icon of Freetown

Cotton Tree has appeared on bank notes, is celebrated in children's nursery rhymes, and was visited by Queen Elizabeth II to mark the country's independence in 1961.

Government press agency Zabek International compared the loss to the fire that destroyed the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in 2019.

After diggers cleared the wreckage on Thursday, all that was left behind was a stump.

"The Freetown skyline will hardly be the same again," said Freetown's Chief Administrator Festus Kallay.

Cotton Tree in 2015
Cotton Tree towered above the skyline of Freetown for centuriesImage: Michael Duff/AP/picture alliance

Preserving the spirit of Cotton Tree

Bio promised to include "all voices" to create a new monument at the same spot, and also discussed preserving remnants of the tree.

"There is no stronger symbol of our national story than the Cotton Tree, a physical embodiment of where we come from as a country," Bio told the Associated Press.

"Nothing in nature lasts forever, so our challenge is to rekindle, nurture, and develop that powerful African spirit for so long represented."

zc/lo (Reuters, AFP, AP)