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The Slave Coast: 15th - 19th century

From the viewpoint of European history the Guinea Coast is associated mainly with slavery. Indeed one of the alternative names for the region is the Slave Coast. But the link is entirely the result of the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century. Before that period the slave trade, centuries old in the interior of Africa, is not yet a significant feature of the coastal economy. The change occurs after the Portuguese reach this region in 1446.

The Portuguese use slave labour to grow cotton and indigo in the previously uninhabited Cape Verde islands. They then trade these goods, in the estuary of the Geba river, for slaves captured in local African wars and raids. The slaves are sold in Europe and, from the 16th century, in the Americas.


The local African rulers in Guinea, who prosper greatly from the slave trade, have no interest in allowing the Europeans any further inland than the fortified coastal settlements where the trading takes place. The Portuguese presence in Guinea is therefore largely limited to the port of Bissau.

For a brief period in the 1790s the British attempt to establish a rival foothold on an offshore island, at Bolama. But by the 19th century the Portuguese are sufficiently secure in Bissau to regard the neighbouring coastline as their own special territory.


It is therefore natural for Portugal to lay claim to this region, soon to be known as Portuguese Guinea, when the European scramble for Africa begins in the 1880s.

Britain's interest in the region has declined since the ending of the British slave trade in 1807. So Portugal's main rivals are the French, their energetic colonial neighbours along the coast on both sides - in Senegal and in the region which now becomes French Guinea. The Portuguese presence in Guinea is not disputed by the French. The only point at issue is the precise line of the borders. This is established by agreement between the two colonial powers in two series of negotiations, in 1886 and 1902-5.


Colonial rule: 1886-1874

As with the other Portuguese territories in Africa (Angola and Mozambique), Portugal exercises control over only a small coastal area of Portuguese Guinea when first laying claim to the whole region as a colony. For the next three decades there are costly and continuous campaigns to suppress the local African rulers. By 1915 this process is complete, enabling Portuguese colonial rule to progress in a relatively unruffled state - until the emergence of nationalist movements all over Africa in the 1950s.

In 1956 the PAIGC or Partido Africano da Independencia da Guiné ê Cabo Verde (African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde) is founded by Amílcar Cabral, who comes from the Cape Verde islands.


In 1961, when a purely political campaign for independence has made predictably little progress, the PAIGC adopts guerrilla tactics. Although heavily outnumbered by Portuguese troops (approximately 30,000 Portuguese to some 10,000 guerrillas), the PAIGC has the great advantage of safe havens over the border in Senegal and Guinea, both recently independent of French rule. By 1971 the PAIGC controls most of the interior of the country, confining the Portuguese to the coastal and estuary towns.

In 1972 Cabral sets up a government in exile in Conakry, the capital of neighbouring Guinea. Here, in 1973, he is assassinated outside his house - just a year before a coup in Portugal dramatically alters the political situation.


The new government in Lisbon is disinclined to prop up Portugal's collapsing and by now very expensive empire. All the Portuguese colonies in Africa are rapidly granted their independence.

Portuguese Guinea is the first, in September 1974. Portuguese East Africa follows in June 1975, taking the new name Mozambique. The republic of Cape Verde is established in July. And Angola, in the middle of civil war, becomes independent in November 1975.


Independence: from1974-1975

Portuguese Guinea and the Cape Verde islands become separately independent , in 1974 and 1975, as the republics of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Leading members of the PAIGC provide the two presidents - Cabral's brother (Luis Almeida de Cabral) in Guinea-Bissau, and Aristides Pereira in Cape Verde.

The original intention on both sides is to merge the new states, but Cape Verde changes its view after Luis Cabral is ousted in a coup in Guinea-Bissau in 1980. Pereira changes the name of his party from PAIGV to PAICV (Partido Africano da Independencia da Cabo Verde).


The coup in Guinea-Bissau brings to power a major in the army, João Bernardo Vieira. He rules first through a revolutionary council and then, from 1984, through a council of state supported by an assembly of 150 appointed members.

The PAIGC remains as yet the only political party, but in 1991 a multiparty system is introduced in a new constitution. Ten opposition parties are registered before the elections, which are eventually held in 1994. The PAIGC wins 64 of the 100 seats in the new assembly, but in the race for the presidency Vieira only narrowly defeats Kumba Iala, leader of the Party for Social Renovation.


In 1998 the country is briefly on the brink of civil war after President Vieira dismisses his army commander Ansumane Mane. Fighting breaks out between the general's supporters and forces loyal to the government.

Senegal (which has in 1995 reached agreement with Guinea-Bissau for the exploitation of a shared offshore oilfield) sends in troops in support of Vieira. Several hundred people die before the rebellion is contained.


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