The Portuguese first began to trade along the coast about 1500. During the next half-century, neighboring peoples subjugated many of the local peoples and established kingdoms. The British arrived in 1562 in search of slaves, and soon many Europeans were trading in the region. In 1787, British philanthropists bought land at the site of Freetown to establish a settlement for freed slaves. The colony prospered and became an important center for trade and missionary activity. In 1896 the British proclaimed a protectorate over the area that is modern Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone became independent in 1961, and throughout the 1960's was beset with political instability. Sieka Stevens came to power in 1968 and gradually imposed authoritarian rule. In 1978 he created a one-party state. He retired in 1985.

In 1991, the Revolutionary United Front engaged in fighting to overthrow the government. The ensuing civil war continued through the 1990's. In 1999, a peace agreement was reached and the United Nations established a peacekeeping operation in the country; however, fighting persisted until 2002. Later that year, peaceful elections were held.