A large island off the Guinea coast (the site today of Malabo, capital of Equatorial Guinea) becomes known in history as Fernando Po – because it is first reached, in about 1472, by the Portuguese navigator Fernão do Pó. The island and the neighbouring coast are mainly visited by Portuguese traders, giving Portugal certain rights in the area (rights recognized at any rate by Catholic Europe, since the pope has granted Africa to Portugal in the treaty of Tordesillas).
In 1778 Portugal assigns these rights to Spain. The intention is to give Spain a foothold in Africa from which to conduct her own slave trade. In return Spain recognizes Portugal’s rights in the interior of Brazil, far to the west of the Tordesillas line.
The Spanish, daunted by yellow fever, make little use of this new opportunity in Africa. In the first half of the 19th century they lease harbours in Fernando Po to the British (for their campaign to suppress the slave trade). Finally, from the 1850s, they begin to establish a Spanish presence in their African colony. Minor explorations are made inland from the coast. From 1879 Fernando Po is used as a penal settlement for troublemakers deported from Cuba.
When the scramble for Africa begins, in the 1880s, Spanish activity in this part of Africa is feeble compared to that of immediate neighbours – Germany to the north in Cameroon, France to the south in Gabon. Spanish Guinea wins recognition as a colony, but it is a decidedly pinched area.
Spanish colonial interest centres at first on the healthy and fertile Fernando Po (with its cocoa and coffee plantations), but after decades of neglect the mainland also begins to receive some attention in the 1930s.
During the 1960s progress towards independence is smooth. In 1968 the Spanish government proposes a constitution for an independent republic. Within months, before the end of the year, this constitution is approved in a plebiscite. Parliamentary elections are held. Independence is proclaimed.
Independence: from AD 1968
The first president is Francisco Macías Nguema, who soon makes it clear that he intends his rule to be absolute, long-lasting and unforgettable. In 1972 he introduces a new constitution, naming himself president for life. In 1973 he grants himself absolute power, takes control of press and radio, prevents his people from travelling abroad, and – to emphasize the drift of his argument – gives Fernando Po a new name, Macías Nguema.
A reign of terror follows, bringing international protests, until in 1979 Macías is toppled in a military coup led by his nephew, the defence minister Teodoro Obiang Nguema.
President Obiang remains in power for the rest of the century and achieves a human rights record little better than that of his uncle.
During the 1990s, in the spirit of the times, the promise of democracy is constantly in the air. But opposition leaders are continually harassed and persecuted. Elections are widely agreed to be fraudulent. In 1996 the president claims to have been re-elected with more than 99% of the vote. Meanwhile Fernando Po has acquired another new name. When Macías Nguema falls from power, in 1979, his eponymous island goes the same way. It becomes Bioko.