HALIFAX — Standing in the shadow of Freetown's towering Cotton Tree, Lt.-Cmdr. Paul Smith felt the weight of history as he stood in a spot that welcomed hundreds of free slaves who set out from the shores of Nova Scotia to the distant coast of Sierra Leone 225 years ago.
The commanding officer of HMCS Summerside was intent on visiting the sacred site as part of a personal and professional mission to connect with a community settled in 1792 by about 1,500 Black Loyalists who left his hometown province to settle the capital of Sierra Leone after the American Revolution.
Smith, who is the first African-Canadian to command a navy patrol ship, said he was keen to see the Cotton Tree, now at the centre of one of Freetown's busy roundabouts, after learning that settlers started praying there when they arrived.
"Getting to see the actual tree and noting that there's a plaque there recognizing the Nova Scotia settlers was a big deal to me," he said Wednesday in an interview from his ship, which was off Ivory Coast.
"I had read about it and heard about it, but to actually see it and see the plaque was a moment of pride...It was a bit overwhelming."
Smith, HMCS Summerside and crew aboard HMCS Moncton retraced the historic journey to West Africa as part of their participation in Neptune Trident, a Royal Canadian Navy training and relationship-building exercise with navies from several countries, including Senegal, Spain, France, Liberia and Morocco. The Canadian ships set out on Feb. 18 from Halifax and are due back in early May, following more at-sea exercises.
The operation also includes outreach work at schools, orphanages and youth groups, with most of the children scarred by the country's civil war and an Ebola outbreak that killed about 3,600 people, according to the World Health Organization.
In one of the more touching experiences, Smith said he and his crew made an impromptu visit to an all-girls school and were greeted by about 300 smiling elementary students who excitedly asked them about Canada and one of its famous characteristics — snow.
"Just to see everything that's happened in this culture and to the Sierra Leone people and to see a generation come through on the other side with such a positive attitude with smiles on their faces, it was that point that I got a bit emotional," he said. "For me, it all came full circle."
The 49-year-old father of two boys who lives in Halifax said the crew also fixed a generator at an orphanage where children who had lost their parents to Ebola were reading by candlelight. Smith said they also painted the orphanage, adding that he was "happy to report the colour scheme is fantastic!"
Smith said they handed out tonnes of donations they had loaded onto the ships in Halifax before leaving. That included everything from gently used clothing and pens, pencils and notepads to soccer balls, basketballs, cleats, toys and books.
The crews also helped build a new library room at a school just outside of Freetown and gave out books to the 12- and 13-year-old students, whose parents he said had to forego a formal education because of war and disease.
"One of the highlights was having the children read to us — they were actually reading in groups trying to be louder than the ones next to them so they could show off!" he said with a laugh. "It was great to see."
Smith said he hopes to return to the country, either with the navy or on his own. He said he wants to explore the eastern edge of Sierra Leone, where residents had told him he might find distant relatives with the same last name.
Smith, who was born in Jamaica and raised in Nova Scotia, said a local man told him he could be linked to the Mende tribe in eastern Sierra Leone.
"I asked him, 'How do you know?' and he said, 'Because I've seen your face over there,'" Smith said.
"Apparently there are a lot of Smiths walking around over there that look a lot like me! I have to make it to the east coast now!"
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Alison Auld, The Canadian Press