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Equatorial Guinea - Background information
Abridged from the History section in Equatorial Guinea: the Bradt Guide
Discovering Fernando Po – early Portugeuse and Dutch rule
In 1469, King Afonso V of Portugal granted the Portuguese merchant Fernão Gomes a monopoly on trade in the Gulf of Guinea, under the condition that he explore 100 leagues (555km) of uncharted coast every year over the course of five years. At that time the most southerly point reached by European navigators on the African west coast had been Cape Palmas, a headland on the coast of Liberia.
Fernão Gomes’s hope in exploring this area was to find a route around Africa to the Far East, and all the spices, silks and precious gemstones available for trade there. At the time it was believed that Africa was a large oval-shaped island on an east–west axis. This is how it was shown on the famous Fra Mauro world map of 1450, a copy of which was sent to Portugal in 1459 for King Afonso V to view.
To help him with his endeavour, Fernão Gomes recruited a crack team of navigators, including Fernão do Pó, Pêro de Sintra, Lopes Gonçalves and Pêro Escobar. By 1471 Fernão do Pó (sometimes referred to as Fernando Pó) had discovered that the African coast began to curve southwards after Nigeria, rather than continuing eastwards towards India as they had first hoped. In the same year Pó became the first European to sight Bioko, which he named Formosa Flora (‘beautiful flower’). In 1494, the name was changed to Fernando Pó in his honour. While Fernão Pó was busy with the islands, between 1473 and 1475 his fellow navigator Lopes Gonçalves sailed along the African coast from Ghana down to Cape Lopez (modern day Port-Gentil in Gabon), likely making him the first European explorer to visit Río Muni.
The first 350 years of European interaction with Equatorial Guinea revolved around trade, with a focus on slaves, palm oil and sugar. In the second half of the 16th century, when Portuguese Brazil’s larger, more efficient and better-located plantations came online, the sugar plantations of Bioko and Annobón slowly shut down, shifting their focus to other forms of agriculture.
In 1641, the Dutch established trading posts on Río Muni, and the following year on Fernando Pó, without Portuguese consent. This incursion formed part of the Dutch–Portuguese War, which lasted for much of the first half of the 17th century. On Bioko, many of the Bubi managed to remain undisturbed for quite a while, their reputation for savagery keeping European slavers and explorers at bay. However, with the gradual encroachment of Europeans on the island, many clans began to move away from their exposed coastal settlements and into the safer interior. As if violence from the native population was not enough, there was also a very high mortality rate on the island for Europeans, caused by diseases such as yellow fever, sleeping sickness and malaria. This meant that the Portuguese never attempted to settle there in great numbers, although in 1648 they did set up their own trading base on Corisco, building the Ponta Joko fort. In collaboration with the local Benga population, they used this island to manage slaving operations on the mainland.
While the Europeans were establishing themselves in the region, the Bubi clans were slowly coalescing and forming the core of a Bubi kingdom on the island of Fernando Pó. Leaders such as Chief Mölambo (1700–60) contributed to the Bamöumá dynasty and his successors helped to unify the Bubi in the face of later Spanish imperialist intrusion.
Although a relatively small country, Equatorial Guinea contains an incredible wealth of biodiversity. Situated in the globally significant Gulf of Guinea, the country encompasses Congo Basin forests, extensive coastal and marine areas, and a number of islands harbouring high diversity and endemism. It has the fourth-highest primate species richness in all of Africa, including chimpanzees, the critically endangered western lowland gorilla, and drills, among many others. Bioko island, with an area of just 2,017km2 , is a true ‘hotspot within a hotspot’, and is considered among the most important sites in the world for the conservation of primate diversity and forest bird species. The island is home to 11 types of primate, of which seven are found only on Bioko, and one of these, Pennant’s red colobus, is often considered among the most endangered primates in the world. It is also a critical nesting site for four species of marine turtles (leatherback, green, olive ridley and hawksbill), and contains numerous unique birds, at least 40 endemic plants and a host of other rare wildlife.
Music and dance
Music and dance are an integral part of many of the indigenous cultures of Equatorial Guinea, and also form an important part of the modern artistic landscape. Bubi farmers carry out the abira celebration in order to cleanse their community of evil spirits, offering up a pot of clean water to the good spirits for protection of the village. The balélé dance is carried out in coastal communities year-round and on Bioko during the Christmas season and some other holidays. The Bubi also dance the cachá. The Fang national dance is known as the ibanga and is quite suggestive. Those who perform it often cover their bodies with white powder. A famous Ndowe dance is called the ivanga and involves painting the face.
Dances usually have musical accompaniment, including drums, wooden xylophones and the mbira or sanza, which is a hand-held thumb piano made of wood. The Fang are also known for the mvet, which is a stringed instrument sometimes called a zither. Mvet is both the name of the musical instrument, and the folklore tales that are often told to the musical accompaniment. Their music also involves a side-blown trumpet, made either from wood or ivory.
Much of the mainstream art of Equatorial Guinea is the art of the dominant Fang ethnic group. Mask making, a tradition that spans much of Central and West Africa, is an important part of Fang culture, with many masks designed to depict animals. Masks have a variety of uses, from celebratory to religious and funerary. Masks also play an important ceremonial role in some of the secret societies of Equatorial Guinea. Fang artworks are highly prized by collectors, with the Ngil mask from Gabon selling for US$7.5 million in a Paris auction in June 2006. This was a mask said to have inspired Pablo Picasso, and fetched the highest price ever paid for an African ethnographic piece of art.