GUMBU SMART (ca. 1750-1820) LOKO RULER AND ENTREPRENEUR
Gumbu Smart was ruler of Rokon in Masimera Country by the end of the 18th century. By dint of hard work and enterprise, he built up a large and thriving centre at Rokon. Though Loko, he did not hesitate to join the Wunde, a Kpaa Mende secret society, or to settle in the heart of Masimera Temne country.
Smart’s real name was Koko and he hailed from Kalangba in what is now the Gbendembu – Gowahun Chiefdom in Bombali District. He had accidentally killed his brother as a boy and had fled from home. Captured and sold as a slave to British slave traders on Bunce Island, he displayed so much industry there that his new masters gave him the name of ‘Smart’ and kept him as an employee, rather than selling him off like the other slaves.
The British traders regularly advanced goods to Smart to go inland as a slave-buying agent, after they had built up a lot of confidence in him. Instead of always buying slaves for his British owners, he sometimes bought his own Loko people, not to be sold as slaves, but to become his own followers. By this process, he built up a powerful force around the middle Rokel River, and ultimately severed connection with his former British masters at Bunce Island. He had become too powerful for them even to ask him for a refund of the goods they had advanced him. In fact, in 1806, one of the British employees of Bunce Island visited Gumbu Smart at Rokon and then wrote about him admiringly in a book he published the following year.
To enhance his military skills and build up alliances, Smart joined the Wunde society, which specialises in military training. He then took the name of “Gumbu” meaning “fire” in Mende. When war erupted between the Temne of Masimera and Marampa, Gumbu Smart was called to help Masimera and, as a reward, was given control of the Town of Rokon, where he settled with his followers. Rokon under Gumbu Smart became a large, well-laid-out town with wide streets and well-built houses. It became the most powerful settlement in the area and a major commercial centre. Gumbu Smart played an important role in regulating the commerce passing down the Rokel River on the way to the Atlantic coast. After the founding of the Freetown colony, he was also engaged in active trading with the new settlement. Gumbu Smart, an accomplished diplomat, was careful to maintain alliances. In the 1790s, he made friends with the officials of the Sierra Leone Company which ruled the Freetown settlement. European missionaries of the London Missionary Society were sent to Rokon, and Gumbu Smart received them warmly. Though the missionaries did no conversion, one of them, Henderson wanted to marry Gumbu Smart’s young daughter. Smart even helped the Sierra Leone Company in its wars against the Koya Temne, led by King Tom in 1801.
Gumbu Smart died about the 1820s and he left behind a rich legacy of dynamism and enterprise. Indeed, it is not surprising that the Smart family, descended from Gumbu, has given Sierra Leone so many outstanding leaders down through the years.