The history of Guinea-Bissau

The BBC has produced one of the best information sources on the Internet regarding the history of Africa.

Kanémbú Chief of the Bornu

Early West African Empires (700-1414)

The empire of Ghana (located some 400 miles north of the current country with the same name) existed as one of the first great West African empires. It is believed started by the Soninke leader Dinga Cisse who united the Soninke people to resist incursions of raiders searching for new grazing lands.

Both Ghana and the Tekrur kingdom to the west (from which the Fula people originated) are believed to have emerged in the Sahel region approximately 300 AD.

The empire of Ghana renowned for establishing the trans-Saharan gold trade also sold slaves and traded salt and other spices for textiles, beads, and finished goods. It developed an effective taxation system and became a great military strength in the region. Ghana is referred to by Arab historians as early as the 8th century. Ghana, however in gaining control of Berber trade forced the Tekrur kingdom into a tributary status in 990. In 1054, the Almoravids penetrated the African Sahel and begin encroaching the empire of Ghana and eventually whether by military action, or by continued incursion gained control of Ghana until 1135. The Almoravids lost control to the Susu (Soninke) in 1205. Until 1235 the kingdom of Ghana ruled from the region that today is eastern Senegal, southern Mauritania, and Mali.

In 1235, the Mali empire (located in the region surrounding the Senegal River with the capital Timbuktu) rose under the leader Sundiata Keita. Mali subjected the Tekrur and Wolof people, of both Mande and Senegambian origin. Mali's people began mining outside of the reach of Ghana and eventually Mali dominated the gold trade and surpassed Ghana's greatness with a new focus on international relations. It was the gold trade that eventually would draw the attention of Europe.

In the mid 13th century, Malian general Tiramakhan Traore, under King Sundiata, founded the semiautonomous tributary kingdom of Gabu (N'Gabu, Kaabu, Quebu). Traore brought Mali's soldiers to the Mandingo inhabited Cassamance region of today's southern Senegal (a region of historical significance to Guinea-Bissau) and to the northeastern portion of what is today Guinea-Bissau. The first king, said to be the grandson of Traore, named Mansa Sama Coli (Kelemankoto Baa Saane) appointed Mandingo leaders as administrators of the kingdom's three provinces; Pachana (Pathiana) at the headwaters of the Rio Geba, the main river in Guinea-Bissau, Jimara (Djimara) south of the headwaters of the the Gambia River; and Sama on the Cassamance. The capital city, Kansala, is in Guinea-Bissau on the northeastern border with Senegal. The artistic and wealthy kingdom of Gabu is noted for originating the West African harp call the Kora.

For those interested in learning more about Africa this is a great place to start. You can find back ground information on West African Empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay, which most relate to Guinea-Bissau. Other sources for this information are cited on our Link Page.

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Early Trade and the Colonial Period (1414-1914)

West African gold increased in importance to the European economy and comprised 10% of the world gold reserves by the 16th century. Prince Henry of Portugal encouraged European explorers to search out West Africa in hopes of finding their source of the gold supply. In 1415 the Portuguese crossed the straits of Gibraltar initiating the beginning of European trade and a colonial presence in Africa.

By 1433 Tekrur and Wolof provinces of Mali had successfully seceded as it defended itself against Songhay attacks. The capital moved to the city of Niani after the secession of Timbuktu.

In 1446 the Portuguese captains Gil Eannes and Nuño Tristão landed the Bijago Islands of Guinea-Bissau to trade slaves, gold, ivory and pepper. In that year Portugal claimed the region as "Portuguese Guinea." The rivers of Guinea, governed by the Mali's tributary kingdom of Gabu, and the islands of Cape Verde and the Bijago Archipelagos were some of the first areas in Africa explored by the Portuguese. It was the strength of the kingdom of Gabu that kept the Portuguese from inhabiting the interior as they had done on the Cape Verde Islands.

In 1534 repeated attacks by the Songhay caused Mali to make one of three requests military support from the Portuguese, who rejected every request because war increased the number of captives who would eventually be sold to them as slaves.

In 1546 the Malian capital of Niani fell to the Songhay. As a result the kingdom of Gabu became an independent state. Mandingo rule in Gabu did not last past the mid 16th century as the Serer (a Senegambian people related to Guinea-Bissau's Diola) brought independence to the tributary Sine and Salum kingdoms. Fulas moved south into the region of the Mandingo. The pastoral Fulas both influenced as well as adopted the Mandingo culture and language and became known as Fulacunda or Fula Preto "black Fula." In addition to the Fulacunda, organized sedentary Fulas moved into the region of Futa Jalon and over time launched numerous Jihad campaigns against the Mandingo government of Gabu. As many as "half of all of African slaves" from the 1550s to the 1650s came as a result of the Gabu wars. The Kingdom of Gabu and the corresponding events rising from its Mandingo led government conflicting with Fula groups, and its expansion in the region are most responsible for today's dispersions of various indigenous peoples in the region.

In 1630, an administrative office called the "captaincy-general of Portuguese Guinea" was formed to oversee governance of trade in the region. At that time several trading posts were established. The Portuguese exported large numbers of African slaves to the Western Hemisphere through Cape Verde Islands. Cacheu, in the northern part of present day Guinea-Bissau, became one of Portugal's slave trade centers. A small fort remains to this day.

By the late 17th century British, French and Dutch slave traders had joined the race to trade with West Africa, marking their own territories. Each of the countries plagued Portuguese control over the area until well into the 19th century. The Dutch attempted control of Cacheu. The French attacked Portuguese trade in the Islands. The British sought to pry possession of the Island of Bolama from the Portuguese.

In a general sense, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, slave trade which had been practiced for ages throughout the western world increased in volume and intensity. It became such an important source of revenue for imperialistic expansion, that it is estimated that 70 thousand slaves were captured from Africa and transported to the new world annually. As many as 12 million slaves were sold and taken across the Atlantic Ocean to work in the growing agriculture enterprise of the new world.

See the Globalist Explanation of Britain's role in ending Brazilian and Portuguese slave trade.

With the decline of slave trade with the Danes in 1804, the strength of slavery began to slowly dissolve. British laws against slave trade in 1807, bolstered those of the United States in 1808, and the power of the British navy brought about a steady decline in slave trade in West Africa. Portugal was the last country in Europe to abolish slavery (1869). Brazil continued for almost 20 years until 1888. During that season of illegal Portuguese slave trafficking, Guinea-Bissau's Djiu de Galinha (Island of the Chickens) remained a slavery export center for Brazil until the end (note the corresponding port in Brazil called Porto de Galinha. With the decline of slave trafficking, the city of Bissau, originally founded as a military and slave-trading center in 1765, grew to become the major commercial center.

Persistent attacks came from Futa Jallon, sometimes with alliances from Fulas in Guinea-Bissau took their toll. In 1867, the kingdom of Gabu finally fell to a 12,000 man siege from Futa Jallon.

In 1885, European powers vying for power in Africa agreed to a rules for defining borders in Africa known as the Berlin Act. The Scramble for Africa was under way. Each of the powers utilized different approaches from militarily led efforts (France) to commercial ventures (British) to maintain control of their interests in West Africa. The Berlin Act left Portugal with Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea and what are now Mozambique and Angola. Portugal started spreading inland shortly thereafter.

In 1886 Portugal began implementing a poorly funded military "pacification" campaign to consolidate it's control in the region. The political disorganization resulting from Gabu's fall made the Fula and the Mandingo peoples ready victims to protracted Portuguese military campaigns from 1891-1910. From 1913-1915 Major Teixeira Pinto waged four such campaigns. A great outcry about his excesses arose in Lisbon to such an extent that inquiry was made into the brutality of his administration. In 1915 the city of Cantchungo was renamed Teixeira Pinto, but was renamed Cantchungo after independence in 1974.

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Colonial Reform (1914-1956)

With the onset of World War I in 1914, the world interests in Africa moved slowly from commerce to reformation and development. In 1919 the first Pan African Congress in London called for peace. By the end of World War II five such Pan African Congresses had been held. Portugal lost part of Guinea to French West Africa, including the center of earlier Portuguese commercial interest, the Cassamance River region. A dispute with Great Britain over the island of Bolama was settled in Portugal's favor with the involvement of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. A statue of Grant was erected that no longer stands in the center of Bolama, the original seat of power in Portuguese Guinea.

The interior of Portuguese Guinea was brought under control after more than 30 years of fighting; final subjugation of the Bijagos Islands did not occur until 1936.

The administrative capital was moved from Bolama to Bissau in 1941, and in 1952, by constitutional amendment, the colony of Portuguese Guinea became an overseas province of Portugal.

The colonial administration was weak but repressive, and became even more brutal when the dictator Salazar came to power in Portugal in 1926. The end of W.W.II heralded cries of nationalism and independence from West African colonies and by the 1960s many Europeans had withdrawn, with some, particularly the British and French, maintaining good relations and trade links. But Portugal refused to budge. This refusal, coupled with anger over the Pidjiguiti massacre in 1959 (in which police shot 50 striking dockworkers in Bissau), prompted a bloody battle for liberation that was to last 11 years.

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Guinea-Bissau's Independence (1956-1974)

The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) was organized clandestinely by Cape Verdean, Amilcar Cabral, and Raphael Barbosa in 1956. With support from the Soviet Union and Cuba, the PAIGC, mobilized the peasants and waged a war on the Portuguese. The PAIGC moved its headquarters to Conakry, Guinea, in 1960 and started an armed rebellion against the Portuguese in 1961. Despite the presence of Portuguese troops, which grew to more than 35,000, the PAIGC steadily expanded its influence until, by 1968, it controlled most of the country. It established civilian rule in the territory under its control and held elections for a National Assembly.

Portuguese forces and civilians increasingly were confined to their garrisons and larger towns. The Portuguese Governor and Commander in Chief from 1968 to 1973, Gen. Antonio de Spinola, returned to Portugal and led the movement which brought democracy to Portugal and independence for its colonies.

Amilcar Cabral was assassinated in Conakry in 1973, and party leadership fell to Aristides Pereira, who later became the first president of the Republic of Cape Verde. The PAIGC National Assembly met at Boe in the southeastern region and declared the independence of Guinea-Bissau on September 24, 1973, electing Amílcar Cabral's half brother, Luiz, president. Eighty countries quickly recognized the new government, although it wasn't until Salazar's government was overthrown a year later that Portugal did the same. Following Portugal's April 1974 revolution, it granted independence to Guinea-Bissau on September 10, 1974. The United States recognized the new nation that day.

Article on Amilcar Cabral - An exceptional historical accounting of the steps that led Guinea-Bissau to freedom from Portuguese control.

Note: Movie "Mortu Nega" - Those Whom Death Refused - A Guinean film produced by Flora Gomes about the fight for liberation. It is shot on site in Guinea-Bissau. (http://newsreel.org/nav/title.asp?tc=CN0061) look around at the great stuff)

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Post-Liberation Guinea-Bissau (1975-1998)

Portugal's legacy to Guinea-Bissau was dismal: poor infrastructure, high mortality rate, low literacy levels, diminished industry and substantial national debt. The new government didn't really help, allocating Bissau over half the country's resources and leaving destitute rural areas already ravaged by drought. When the PAIGC tried to implement their plan of union with Cape Verde, Cabral was overthrown and unification abandoned.

In late 1980, the government was overthrown in a relatively bloodless coup led by Prime Minister and former armed forces commander João Bernardo ('Nino') Vieira (also of the PAIGC). From November 1980 to May 1984, power was held by a provisional government responsible to a revolutionary council headed by Joao Bernardo Vieira. In 1984, the council was dissolved, and the 150-member National Popular Assembly (ANP) was reconstituted. The single-party assembly approved a new constitution, elected President Vieira to a new five-year term, and elected a Council of State, which is the executive agent of the ANP. There were alleged coup plots against the Vieira Government in 1983, 1985, and 1993. In 1986, first Vice President Paulo Correia and five others were executed for treason following a lengthy trial. Vieira began to reverse his policies. He devalued the currency and began selling off almost all the state businesses. Around this time he also cut the PAIGC/army relationship, resulting in resentment on the part of the army. Despite these seeds of trouble, Vieira narrowly won the presidential election in 1994. Life for civilians improved and the country enjoyed relative political stability.

One of the quotes that best typifies the realities of post liberation Guinea-Bissau is in the film "Udju Azul di Yonta." A worker loading cashew gunnies off of a transport truck says, "when we fought for liberation we thought things would be easier, but the bags are just as heavy now as they were under the Portuguese." Poverty ravaged Guinea-Bissau.

While political strides have been small, attempts at enterprise have made notable progress. Prior to the civil crisis of 1997-1999 eleven containers of processed cashews had been exported. When Senegalese troops arrived they systematically looted all of Bissau, and with it the cashews and stocks that the young industry had managed to build. Poverty did not leave with the Portuguese. Despite the 30 years time for development, and millions of dollars of aid, Guinea-Bissau remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

One of the positive changes resulting from the war for independence came in the form of unity. The nation's 27 people groups today speak of Guinea-Bissau as one nation. More educated Guineans are often unwilling to tell a foreigner their particular ethnicity. They are many people but one nation.

Movie "Udju Azul di Yonta" - The Blue Eyes of Yonta - A Guinean film produced by Flora Gomes about the cultural changes between the generation that liberated Guinea-Bissau, and those who would come after in the 'ease' of post war Guinea-Bissau. This film is fun for anyone who has been to Guinea-Bissau, seeing sites and sounds of the central market, the port, and restaurants (most of which no longer operate).

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Citations and Notes

"Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Guinea-Bissau" by Richard Lobban, pg 74, paragraph 2, The Scarecrow Press, Metuchin N.J. and London.© 1988

Guinea-Bissau General Information


1.5 Million people.

27 distinct linguistic groups. The largest ethnicities are Balanta, Fula, Papel, Manjako, Mankanha, Bijago, Mandinka.

Only a handful of cities have a population of more than 15,000, with the largest being the capital of Bissau, with a population of 300,000. The majority of the country is made up of rural villages, and cross ethnic communities.


1,4 M km (New Hampshire)


Many rural ethnic groups have yet to have an indigenous representation of a multiplying and vibrant church. There are between 20,000 and 25,000 evangelical Christians in a nation of roughly 1.5 million. Though both the Catholic church and Islam are relatively strong within Guinea-Bissau, the national constitution forbids any state religion.


Democratic Republic, Parliamentary System.


According to reports, 82% of the world's poorest people live in West Africa. Of West African nations, Guinea-Bissau is poorest. Annual average per capita income: $173. Current UN assessments reflect PPP (household purchasing power). This figure includes the sum of multiple incomes as numerous providers help each family to survive. In Guinea-Bissau PPP figures range from $660-730 (US).

As with many developing countries Guinea-Bissau's infrastructure is limited. Poor communication, and roads make business difficult. Because of widespread poverty children must work to help support their families. Churches and schools provide alternative schedules to accommodate this reality. No capital is available to the public for business loans. This is partially the result of a weak legal system, and partially the result of investor discomfort with changing political climate in the country. View the World Bank 2000 Report.pdf

In spite of this the people of Guinea-Bissau have continued to build a life for themselves. While free market growth has progressed slowly, each year there has been an increasing number of small privately owned shops, as well as larger grocery and supply retailers. In addition, restaurants and hotels are beginning to dot the capital city of Bissau. A large rice production effort is now being developed in the central region of Bafata' which will be the first mechanized rice farm in the country. Exporters are also diversifying exportable goods. As of 2001, mangos have been exported to Europe; woodcarvings and dyed textiles exports are also growing. Research shows oil reserves off the coast of Guinea-Bissau but currently this potential resource is not being developed.


Communication networks in Guinea-Bissau are poor by almost any standard. Phone systems are analog pulse based. Long distance calls are as much as $4 US per minute. One national telephone company remains in existence since the colonial period of the Portuguese, Guine-Telecom. The Parliament passed laws allowing other telephone companies to enter the market in Guinea-Bissau. To date only one other company, SITEC, exists providing public internet service and phone service through the internet.

Shipping and mail services are not suited to an aggressive business climate. DHL is the only international package shipping company in Guinea-Bissau, and rates from the US are high by comparison to Europe or Asia. Standard mail takes approximately 3 weeks. Ocean freight from the US requires approximately 6 weeks transit time, not including customs delays. Europe remains the best source of international supplies for Guinea-Bissau.


People die each year from diseases associated with polluted water supply and poor hygiene. Cholera, which has been virtually eradicated in the rest of Africa, remains a constant threat. Infant mortality: 1 in 11 children dies at birth. Because almost every family has faced this tragedy children are typically named only after they are 1-2 weeks old. Maternal mortality: 1 in 104 mothers dies giving birth. The male life expectancy is 45 years. There are known to be less than 20 formally trained dentists and surgeons in Guinea-Bissau. Many of the national field trained doctors, though their numbers also are limited, possess very good surgical skills given their situation. Most physicians make less than $50 per month, and are paid infrequently. View the national health assessment - pdf


In 1994 the literacy rate was 12% and it has climbed to 36% in 2002. 40% primary school's enrollment is decreasing. 60% of school age children are not attending school, the rate of school dropouts is high. - According the 2003 United Nations Commission.

Humanitarian Organizations in Guinea Bissau

There are several Chinese and European medical and agricultural projects in Guinea-Bissau. However, there are virtually no US based non-governmental humanitarian and missions organizations assisting in the needs of Guinea Bissau. The Assemblies of God denomination, and the Southern Baptists have planted churches in Guinea-Bissau. Summer Institute of Linguistics has done limited work in helping develop written language in the past but as of 2000, are no longer working in Guinea-Bissau.

Most successful church planting efforts have been sponsored by the World Evangelistic Crusade (WEC Mission). In 1995 the WEC mission turned control of the national churches to nationals. YWAM, or JoCUM as it is referred to in Lusophone (Portuguese speaking) countries, has had a strong educational project in the Eastern city of Gabu but as of 2002 is faintly staffed. USAID has sponsored or funded several projects focused at building enterprise. Today none of these projects are in operation. The UN family of organizations have ongoing representation in Guinea-Bissau. Youth For Christ has a well organized opperation that is making significant impact in the nation.

Why are so few non-governmental organizations involved? Generally speaking, people are not aware of the incredible needs, nor the openness of the government of Guinea-Bissau to Christian and humanitarian organizations. Though things are improving, telecommunications and the postal system of Guinea-Bissau are costly and at times erratic. Needs are not made known until they are long past. Though resources are slowly beginning to trickle in, Guinea-Bissau exists on only two USAID recognized relief organization country rosters.

The People

Throughout every region, the Christians of Guinea-Bissau show sacrificial generosity and commitment to their people. They are much like the Macedonians of whom the apostle Paul described, "Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability." Those who have helped us in our efforts have demonstrated incredible loyalty and integrity. There are approximately 25 different ethnic groups all making up one of the most unified peoples in West Africa. It is certainly true that in Guinea-Bissau there are many peoples, but one nation.

Legal System

While the Judicial branch of the government is constitutionally independant of the executive branch, the current President sometimes steps out of his constitutional authority and fires supreme court and other high officials at his discretion. The legal structure of Guinea-Bissau while based upon continental law is relational, if not inconsistent. National government holds jurisdiction on legal disputes in the cities, and in relationship to criminal offenses.

However outside of the capital and larger cities, regional governments represent the national legal system. In villages and in relationship to land disputes jurisdiction resides in the hands of village elders. When two opposing villages or ethnic groups cannot come to an acceptable agreement, they bring their case to the regional government. A good example of kind of jurisdictional confusion can be seen in regards to the government gift of property to LEAD International. LEAD received all appropriate documentation from the Biombo Province governors office. However, when it came time to deed the property, two villages claimed ownership of the land. Seven families disputed the grant. In the end all parties had to be brought to the government to determine who actually owned the land. In our case two families actually had land rights; animal sacrifices were made to determine which family was the more dominant owner. Before the government could actually deed the land to LEAD International, both villages and the leading village elders had to agree.

Information related to national poverty based upon statistics provided by Mercy Ships, and per capita income taken from "Operation World" by Patrick Johnston, YWAM Publishing ©1993. Health related information quoted from His Excellency, Brandao Gomes Co, Minister of Health 1999.