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Bissau, Guinea-Bissau (1687- )

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Bissau is the capital of the nation of Guinea-Bissau. It is located on the Geba River estuary on the Atlantic Ocean, on a peninsula that used to be an island. In 2007 its population was estimated at approximately 407,000 people.  Bissau is also the largest port in the country, and its major commercial center.

Bissau was founded by Portuguese traders in 1687 on land originally belonging to the Papei people. The island quickly became one of Portugal’s most important slave trading centers. Although lucrative, Portugal’s hold over the island was not secure until they built a large stone fort there in 1753. After the end of the legal slave trade in the 1830s, the economy of Bissau plummeted and the city was nearly abandoned. In 1941 Bissau replaced Bolama as the capital of Portuguese Guinea and the population once again began to climb.  After Portuguese Guinea achieved independence in 1974 and became Guinea-Bissau it retained Bissau as its capital.

Bissau became the capital of a nation ravaged by a short war of independence.  In 1973 anti-colonial guerrillas of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) declared the nation of Guinea-Bissau independent of Portugal. Led by Amilcar Cabral, PAIGC was at first involved in intense fighting with the Portuguese Army.  At the end of 1974, however, a military coup in Portugal led to the independence of that nation and other Portuguese colonies such as Angola and Mozambique whose pro-independence guerrillas had been fighting longer conflicts against the Portuguese.

Bissau resembles Portuguese towns in its architecture and the official language of the city and the country is still Portuguese although few Europeans live there today. The de facto main spoken language is a Cape Verde-Guinea dialect.

Most of the residents of Bissau are members of the Fulani, Mandingo, and Balante ethnic groups although there is a large Creole population who are the descendants of centuries of Portuguese intermarriage with indigenous people.  Approximately 50% of the population is Muslim, 10% is Christian, and the rest practice various indigenous beliefs.

For much of the twentieth century the economy of Bissau prospered because of the export of cashews, peanuts, palm oil, hardwoods, and rubber, all of which were grown or produced in the areas surrounding the city. In recent years production of these cash crops and natural resources has declined due to the country’s last civil war (1998-1999) as well as a government coup in 2012.  Although cashews, peanuts, and rubber remain Bissau’s main legal exports, its economy is now more reliant on the illegal drug trade and human trafficking. Foreign aid also comprised a large part of Bissau’s economy but has dropped off in recent years due to the government’s unwillingness and inability to put an end to large number of children who are sold illegally as slave labor to farms in Southern Senegal.

Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (New York: Basic Civitas Books,1999); Douglas L. Wheeler, "Bissau," Encyclopedia Americana, Grolier Online, 2014; Encyclopedia Britannica, Online, 2014; The CIA World Fact Book

Lewis, David
Independent Historian

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