The Sierra Leone Web


(ca. 1710-1793)

Nembgana, often written Naimbana, was regent of the Koya Kingdom from 1775 to 1793. It was Nemgbana who signed the treatyNemgbana making way for the establishment of the British colony on the Sierra Leone peninsula. He was a progressive ruler who was opposed to the slave trade, though he could do little to fight it under the circumstances. He joined the advance of Western influence by sending two of his sons to Europe to be educated.

Nemgbana became regent of Koya at the death of the Koya king in 1775. By Koya custom, when the Obai (king) died, the leading sub-rulers became rulers as regent in turn until the last of them died, when a new Obai was crowned.  Nemgbana was sub-ruler of Rogbana up the Sierra Leone estuary. He was described in one account by the name of Panabouro, but all other accounts call him Nemgbana. It seems clear that "Gbana" was his title as sub-ruler of Rogbana, "ro" being a Temne prefix meaning "to" or "at". One account indicates that when Europeans first wanted to record his name and asked for this in English, he replied "name Gbana ("my name is Gbana"), and this was recorded as Nemgbana.

Nemgbana was a ruler ahead of his time. Against the increasing suspicion of his elders, he continued to allow the British to stay in the peninsula which had been unwittingly ceded to them by his sub-chief, Tom. Nemgbana later signed the treaty in 1788 giving this land to the colony. He, himself, may have done so unwittingly, as he could not read or write, and may not have realised that the British meant to take permanent possession. In any case, his other actions showed that he was not totally opposed to the presence of the colony in his territory. In fact, in 1785, before the colony was founded, he had granted a French officer land on Gambia Island, close to what is now Hastings, though the French had abandoned the island soon after. Nemgbana was, however, opposed to the slave trade, and expressed his resentment on a few occasions to colony officials. Many of his subjects and the European traders on the coast did, however, depend on it, and he wisely realised that there was nothing he could do at the time to halt it.

Nemgbana did not stop at verbal protestations of interest in contact with Europeans. While negotiating with the French, he sent one of his sons to be educated in France. He also later sent another son, John Frederick Nemgbana, under the care of the directors of the Sierra Leone Company, to be educated in England. A third son was sent northwards to acquire an Islamic education. Nemgbana must, thus, have had foresight as to the usefulness the education his sons acquired would have in dealings with his neighbours, both the Europeans at the colony and his Islamic neighbours further north. In fact, he employed one of the settlers from the colony, one Abram Elliot Griffith, as his clerk and later, chief adviser. Griffith was given one of his daughters, later named Clara, in marriage.

Nemgbana has become something of a folk legend over the years, and his name is recognised by many who do not know exactly who he was or what he did. Nemgbana was, in fact, the last traditional Temne ruler in the area that ultimately became the city of Freetown.


(ca. 1738-1792)

Thomas Peters was a courageous Afro-American whose efforts made possible the founding of Freetown.Thomas Peters

He was born a slave in the North American colonies and worked in his master's flour mill in North Carolina. During the American Revolution, Peters ran away and joined the British Army, becoming a sergeant in the Black Pioneers. When the British lost the  war, they evacuated Peters and hundreds of other Black Loyalists to Nova Scotia—but after seven years in Canada, the former slaves had still received no land and were living only on a meagre government ration and suffering from the cold.

Peters, though poor and uneducated, found the courage to travel to England in search of help for his people. He was in grave danger from the moment he left Canada, as he was still legally a slave in the newly-independent United States, and could have been taken there and sold back into slavery by an unscrupulous sea captain. But Thomas Peters managed to reach London, and he convinced the Sierra Leone Company to send ships to help his people establish a colony in Africa.

He then returned to Nova Scotia and, by sheer force of personality, persuaded over eleven hundred former slaves to join him in the voyage to Sierra Leone. Thomas Peters and his "Nova Scotians" founded Freetown in 1792 near the site of the Province of Freedom, which had been destroyed several years earlier.

But problems soon developed when the white men of the Sierra Leone Company insisted on running the colony as they saw fit. Thomas Peters confronted the English commander, demanding that his people run their own affairs through an elected committee, but he was unsuccessful in his attempt to establish self-rule. He died shortly afterwards, a victim of malaria in the colony's first rainy season.

Thomas Peters was totally committed to freedom, and fought for it until the very last day of his life. More than anyone else, he exemplifies the spirit of hope and determination that gave birth to the city of Freetown.



Pa Demba was a simple village headman whose generous offer of help may have saved the Pa Demba Freetown colony.

When Freetown was founded, Pa Demba ruled a small village near the junction of modern Campbell Street and Pademba Road; and his little town was probably the closest Temne village to the Freetown settlement. In  September, 1794, five French warships sailed into the harbour and attacked the tiny colony. The French fired their great cannons time and again at the fragile houses, driving the British officers and Nova Scotian settlers into the surrounding countryside. Then they landed and looted the houses and storerooms and set fire to every building, including the church, governor's house, and apothecary shop.

The Nova Scotian settlers were in a desperate situation. The rainy season had not yet ended, and they had no shelter and no food to last them until the harvest. Worse still, they were in constant danger of attack by the Koya Temne, who felt the British had cheated them to obtain land for the new colony. The settlers were helpless and surrounded by enemies, and in this volatile situation, Pa Demba stepped forward. He offered his little village as a refuge for the Nova Scotian school mistress and all the children of the colony, and agreed to take in as many of the other homeless as he possibly could. He made this compassionate gesture despite the fact that it was the hungry season for his own people and despite the bitter feelings of the other Temne chiefs who would have liked to see the Freetown colony destroyed. Pa Demba set aside political differences and did what was humanly right. He is a  powerful symbol of reconciliation among the ethnic groups, and his example shows that when times are difficult, Sierra Leoneans come together as one people, and one nation.


(ca. 1750-1820)

Gumbu Smart was ruler of Rokon in Masimera Country by the end of the 18th century. By dint of hard work and enterprise, he Gumbu Smart 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.


(ca. 1770-1842)

Dala Modu should be remembers as the single most important liaison between the British Colonial Government and the local Dala Modu Dumbuya rulers in the interior in the early decades of the British Colony at Sierra Leone. His efforts helped in solving many a conflict  between the Colony and interior rulers. His reputation as a major commercial force was enhanced in the process, and he built up the prominent Soso community around Lungi in the Kafu Bullom country.

Dala Modu was born into a family of traders at Wonkafong in Sumbuya near Conakry, where his father, Fenda Modu, had been advisor to the King of Sumbuya and Headman of Wonkafong. Dala Modu first came to Freetown with his father in 1794. Desirous of fostering his commercial contacts with the new colony, Fenda Modu sent his son Dala Modu with fifty followers in 1795 to settle on the outskirts of Freetown. The town Dala Modu built up there, named Dalamodiya after him, quickly became a commercial centre, and he became landlord for many traders from the interior, mostly from his own Soso ethnic group. Dala Modu was welcomed by the governor, who was also keen on developing the trade with the interior on which the colony's survival depended. In Freetown Dala Modu learnt English and studied the colony's monetary system and weights and measures.

Dala Modu's business activities became very extensive, involving colony officials, both European and African, and the local traders, for whom he acted as agent. He became the primary landlord to visiting traders from the distant interior, giving them advice and assistance on how to get the best out of their trade goods in the colony. In this process, he developed close contacts with the Freetown merchants to whom he directed the interior traders.

Dala Modu became the local agent to the European firm of Macauley and Babington in 1826. The European agent of that Company, Kenneth Macauley, was a close associate of Dala Modu when he acted as governor in that year. Modu organised the felling and processing of timber for the company from his base at Madina on the Bullom Shore, where he had lived since 1806. This was done with a large band of servile labour he retained there. For the 1826 season alone, he received £1,000 as partial payment. In 1834, many gold traders from the interior came to the colony through him, bringing him much wealth in broker's fees.

Dala Modu used his wealth and business contacts to build for himself a prominent position in the relations between the colony officials and the local rulers in the interior. He was helped in this by his powerful family connections in the Northern River areas (north of the Scarcies), where his family owned parts of the major trading islands. These came in handy in treaties of cession he negotiated in 1818 and 1825 with the colonial government, which was eager to use these islands, like Matacong and the Isles de Los, as customs posts.

But Dala Modu's personal qualities of diplomacy undoubtedly played a major role in winning the favoured position he came to enjoy. As early as 1802, soon after the rebellion of the Nova Scotian settlers in the colony, Dala Modu was instrumental in convincing the Mandinka chiefs to withdraw their support for the rebels and to hand over the leaders of the uprising to the British. But, in 1806, he was accused of slave trading and other charges. When called to answer these charges, he appeared in Muslim robes rather than the European dress he was used to wearing in Freetown. This angered the British authorities, who proceeded to expel him from the colony. Dala Modu then moved to Madina on the Bullom Shore from where he continued his business activities. It was there that he built up the Soso community with migrants coming from the interior. Dala Modu thus because effectively the King of Kafu Bullom and Loko Masama, but his influence extended as far as the Port Loko areas. In fact, he became ruler of Rokon on the Rokel in 1837.

The colonial government in Freetown soon realised that it needed Dala Modu's services in settling disputes in the interior. From 1818, when he arranged the cession of the Isles de Los to the British, he started receiving an annual payment from them. Between 1820 and 1841, Dala Modu arranged peace talks on a number of occasions to settle local disputes the Colony Government felt were inhibiting trade. These included the rebellion on the north Rokel in 1835, and the Temne/Loko war in 1836. Though he did not get along well with some of the governors, succeeding ones were quick to realise his worth and do business with him. Governor Henry Dundas Campbell visited him in 1835 and was struck by his intelligence and affluent style of living.

When Dala Modu died, over eighty cows were slaughtered during his funeral ceremonies, attended by British and African officials from the colony and by many local rulers from the interior. Dala Modu was among the first indigenous entrepreneurs  to take advantage of the new business  opportunities arising after the abolition of the slave trade. His dynamism, commercial acumen, and sound political judgment remain as examples for us today.