Africa During the Scramble: Spanish Slaves

By Gary Oswald

Of the European countries to still have territory in Africa by 1914, Spain controlled the least land. Her African Empire consisted solely of the Canary islands, Western Sahara, parts of Morocco and the two parts of modern day Equatorial Guinea, then known as Spanish Guinea. Those two parts are some islands of which the largest is Bioko (then known as Fernando Po and inhabited by the Bubi) and the mainland enclave of Rio Muni (inhabited primarily by the Fang).

Spain had obtained Spanish Guinea from the Portuguese in 1778 and had originally left administration of it to the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, modern day Argentina, a sign of how much the Spanish Empire was focused towards the Americas and not Africa. For the first 40 years of holding the territory the Spanish, or rather the Argentinians, did nothing but build one trading port to buy slaves for their New World plantations. And when they ended up losing a lot of those New World territories and also the Atlantic Slave Trade began dying out, even that lost a lot of its use.

Both Colonies were largely an afterthought for the Spanish Government, there were attempts to set up penal colonies there and private ventures to expand its borders, but little came of any of it. The vast majority of their claimed land in Rio Muni they simply never exploited and would end up being ceded to their more powerful French Neighbours, becoming parts of modern day Gabon and the Republic of Congo, when Spain was distracted by their war with the USA. Spanish settlers or even government officials on the ground were few, the Spanish government largely left control to private companies, often English or German, and it wasn't until the 1920s that the Fang people of Rio Muni were properly bought under the Spanish Flag rather than being de facto independent and even after that, the interest was more in using the Fang as labour elsewhere rather than exploiting the land. Even by the late 1950s, less than 3% of Rio Muni was cultivated.

The topic of this article, however, is the Island of Fernando Po (modern day Bioko), where Spanish control was much more serious. But even that was leased to the British as a naval base from 1827 to 1843. It was one of their original bases for their anti slavery patrols during the Blockade of Africa and as a result English speaking ex slaves, known as the Fernandinos, came to the Island where they became the dominant ethnicity in the port town of Santa Isabel, modern day Malabo. As a result of this, and Spanish disinterest, most of the residents of Fernando Po weren't either Spanish or Bubi, meaning the place was a genuine melting point of a staggering amount of cultures. Indeed the main struggle the colony faced in the early 20th century was finding new sources of immigrant workers.

For most of the 19th century the trade in palm oil and palm wine was Fernando Po's main economy but that market crashed hard in the 1890s. Fortunately from the 1860s there was a possible alternative, when cocoa seeds were bought from nearby Portuguese São Tomé, thus allowing cocoa cultivation to take of in time for the late 19th century cocoa boom. By 1910, Fernando Po was able to produce nearly three millions kilos of cocoa in plantations and smaller farms. But Fernando Po suffered from a lack of labour which meant in order to farm the Cocoa effectively, labour would have to be imported. Migrant workers from Nigeria, Cameroon, Liberia, Rio Muni and Ghana had been travelling to the island for work since, at least, the 1840s and that trickle sped up as the cocoa boom happened.

But it wasn't just the labourers, there was still a lot of land unexploited that could be bought and so a lot of the plantation and farm owners were also from elsewhere in Africa. The Fernandinos of Santa Isabel saw regular new immigration from Sierra Leone, (and in the 1840s directly from newly emancipated Jamaica as part of a Baptist organised settlement) as the ex slaves of the British Empire saw a chance of earning their fortune in the wild west of unregulated Spanish Guinea by buying and selling palm wine and oil. In the 1870s these merchants started buying land instead and by the turn of the century, a lot of the largest land owners on the Island were born in Sierra Leone. For most of the early 20th century, there was no real discrimination against non Catholics, or non whites (that was first introduced in 1928) and so it was an escape from racist structures in place elsewhere. Even escaped slaves from Portuguese São Tomé sometimes ended up as land owners while some of the most notorious plantation overseers were female ex soldiers from Dahomey. The largest single source of new land owners and managers, however were the hundreds of troublesome slaves from Cuba who were deported to Fernando Po from the 1860s to the 1890s. These were largely adopted by the Fernandinos and so soon spoke English like them, but bought with them their own music and other cultural signifiers.

King Malabo I of the Bubi

There were also white land owners as well, of course, they owned about a third of the land by 1900, and were primarily Spanish but also included Portuguese, English, German and Lebanese. However thanks to both the relatively small number of white landowners compared to the amount of land and the lack of racial discrimination in terms of getting contracts or loans, there was a real opportunity for African land owners, with some of the Creole growing genuinely rich as a result. Even the Bubi, the native islanders whose 22 villages united in the 1870s into one Kingdom that could deal with the Spanish as equals, got into this game. Their numbers had been reduced by diseases and slavery and they'd found themselves largely driven off the best land by these new arrivals, but, with the Spanish unwilling to fund an invasion, they were recognised as the legitimate land owners of the interior. And so many sold land and then used the profits to buy their own cocoa, so they also owned around about one third of the cocoa plantations by 1900. This was despite a slowly worsening legal position: they were all made Spanish citizens in 1868, then conversion to Christianity was made a prerequisite of equality in 1888 and then in 1928 they were unemancipated entirely. As a result from the 1860s to the 1920s they could participate in the island's economy and they gained the money to buy guns and build churches for the first time.

But, despite genuine opportunity, things weren't easy for these new land owners. Spanish neglect meant infrastructure was non-existent and the lack of roads slowed down transport. More than that Fernando Po was a monoculture of cocoa farms, by 1912 cocoa was 97% of the Island's exports, and so tied strongly to the fluctuating cocoa market, a bad harvest or a bad market and farmers could be ruined. In 1898 Spain put a new import tax on cocoa from their African lands, to pay for the costs of the war with the USA, and this new cost was largely born by the cocoa farmers, though they eventually organised around it by selling to one farmer who could then supply enough in one delivery to qualify for the tax being waived. The result was still that an increasing number of landowners struggled with debt and that meant they often couldn't afford to pay for labour. Portuguese São Tomé was similarly struggling for plantation labour but they, unlike the Spanish, had an African empire elsewhere to tap, with them routinely bringing in slave labour from Angola and from their allies in Dahomey, where they owned a fort.

Slavery, labour without pay, was also the solution settled on in Fernando Po. The Bubi, in 1907 were asked to provide three months of free labour on the plantations instead of taxes but there simply wasn't enough of them left to meet the shortage (only around about 7,000 after numerous disease epidemics) and a revolt in 1910 saw Spain relent and withdraw the law. There were also attempts to import slaves from British Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Many of the interior Kingdoms still had domestic slaves, as discussed previously, and these could be bought from the Chiefs, while many others were in dire economic straits and could be bought to the Island under false pretences. The British banned all labour exportation to either São Tomé or Fernando Po in 1900, as they both had their own labour shortages and were concerned about the increasingly persistent rumours of labour abuses on the islands. The French did the same shortly after.

But independent Liberia did not. Their government couldn't really afford to, they were desperately poor and the country needed the money it got from exporting labour. Instead they used their position as the only possible source of labour to negotiate a contract with Spain, that meant the wages due to be paid to the labourers instead went to the Liberian government. But there was increasing pressure from Britain for Liberia to reduce the number of workers it allowed to travel to Fernando Po. This was partly for moral reasons, there were attempts at a cocoa boycott in the UK over labour conditions, but mostly because Britain also relied on low paid Liberian labour and didn't want the Spanish to steal them (letters from British governors about the problem tended to emphasise the missing labour rather than the moral aspect).

Moreover the Colonial government of Nigeria began to complain about people smuggling in the Igbo region, where men were kidnapped or taken under false promises by Spanish gangs to Fernando Po. As a result, the British Navy was ordered to patrol the Island for smugglers and stop ships at random. This led to increasing bad blood between the Spanish government and the British. Britain promised to loosen their blockade if the Spanish would enforce better labour standards in their colony and a law to that effect was passed in 1913. The people of Freetown complained that this was killing the business of their kin on the Island, who tended to have a smaller profit margin than the Spanish landowners, and the British Foreign Office replied with general indifference. To quote: "The extinction of the small planters, if it really happens, will be an unexpected result of our efforts and in some respects an unfortunate one. If, however these men can only keep these farms going by giving their labourers less than is necessary, I am afraid there is nothing to it but that they must go under."

German trenches in Garua during the Kamerun Campaign

This tension fed into larger conflicts when WWI broke out. Fernando Po was an Island very close to both German Cameroon and British Nigeria and so became a minor battleground. The Spanish Governor-General of the Island, having clashed consistently with the British, overtly sympathised with the Germans and so both smuggled arms to them and allowed them to use his island as a radio base, much to British annoyance. In return British stirred up rebellions among the Fang in Spanish Guinea. When the German colony was entirely conquered by France and the UK, the German Governor crossed to Spanish Guinea with around 16,000 Germans and Cameroonians. The Spanish, instead of interning them, moved them to Fernando Po, where they had complete freedom of movement and many thousands ultimately joined the Island's labour force post war.

Despite the new labour code barely being enforced, the inter war years still saw the decline Freetown had predicted. New voluntary emigration to the Island from elsewhere in Africa practically ended and many of the African land owners, whether Bubi or Creole, sold up to the Spanish, in particular to a new wave of Spanish arrivals hoping to get rich quick, and left the Island. The inter war years also saw increasing poverty in Liberia, as their economy had been largely sustained by trade with the now absent Germans and so the Monrovian government lurched towards bankruptcy.

Spain reacted to this recession by redoubling their recruiting methods in Continental Africa. They had aimed to fill the labour roles primarily with the newly conquered Fang from Rio Muni, with corvée labour demanded there from the entire male population too, but like the Bubi there simply wasn't enough of them. Instead they had to go keep going back to Liberia, where the Liberian government kept demanding more and more money as a recruiting fee, seeing this as the chance to get their finances back in order.

As a result, the situation quickly deteriorated. The minority rule aspect of Liberian governance meant the opinions of those in the interior was immaterial and quickly, labour recruitment turned into the commissioners flat out raiding villages for slaves to sell to the Spanish, with the government turning a blind eye as long as the money came in. A local governor called Allen Yancy in particular earned a fearsome reputation as a slave trader. This not surprisingly led to backlash. The local Kru, seeing men taken away in chains and not returning, rebelled under Juah Nimley in what became known as the Sasstown War. The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, who essentially ran Liberia and used slave labour obtained from the interior in their rubber plantations, saw this trickle of slaves away from Liberia as robbing them of an asset and so began feeding reports of it to the press. And the Liberian opposition leader, Thomas Faulkner, who despised the True Whig government, raised the issue on a global scale, bringing it to the attention of Washington and the League of Nations.

The League of Nations investigated Liberia in 1930 and found villages being rounded and sold as labour against their will at gunpoint, with those who resisted killed. This was forced labour and blackbirding and the report showed that. Liberia's President, Charles D.B. King, resigned as a result. But Liberian society was divided between those who were horrified by this scandal, slave trading being the ultimate sin in a society of ex slaves, and those who felt their country had been unfairly scapegoated. This was, after all, during the Pacification of Libya, where Italy put the Cyrenaican population into concentration camps resulting in mass deaths. Why was Liberia investigated and Italy wasn't? Why wasn't Portugal over the slave trading they were doing? How was this any different to what happened throughout the Colonial Empires?

And, most importantly, why had the League of Nations never investigated Spain? If it was wrong of Liberia to sell slaves to Spain, the argument went, then surely it was equally wrong for Spain to buy slaves from Liberia, but because they were European, they just got away with it, without any similar scandal.

And Spain during in the 1920s, under Primo De Rivera, was am increasingly repressive and conservative regime. They had bought in laws that discriminated against the Bubi and Creole and turned Fernando Po into another white supremacist colony like British South Africa with white landowners and black workers. And it was in Spanish Fernando Po that the worst abuses happened, not in Liberia.

We have avoided talking about the exact labour conditions so far. But they were appalling on every level. The work days were twelve hours long and workers were locked into crowded barracks while off duty so they could not leave the site. Food supplies were deliberately limited and the overseers routinely punished workers with brutal flogging sessions. Some workers were flogged to death, others died of exhaustion and malnutrition and disease was rampant. And once workers arrived, the contracts dictated by the new labour code could be discarded. Many were never paid and others were kept for years after their contract was up and not allowed to leave. In 1933, Spain passed vagrancy laws on the Island, meaning those who were not in work and could not pay for their own deportation, could be arrested for vagrancy and forced back into the fields as prison labour, effectively trapping many migrant workers as slaves.

And stopping the supply from Liberia didn't stop this abuse, because Spain just turned elsewhere. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s they went to other countries looking for cheap labour, sending recruiters to, among others, Haiti, China, Portuguese Angola and São Tomé, Dutch Indonesia, Romania, Morocco, British India and the Belgian Congo. But their most profitable destination was British Nigeria.

Despite the law banning British labour being exported to Spain illegal recruiters operated throughout Nigeria. A staggering 10% of the Nigerian work force, both male labourers and female sex workers, ended up in Fernando Po, which quickly gained a reputation as the Island you did not return from. The recruiters lied about not only the conditions of work on the Island but also the very nature of the work, with many recruits thinking they'd work as traders rather than labourers. And once word got about Fernando Po, many workers were told false destinations instead, with them thinking they'd be working in Cameroon.

Nigerians wrote articles in the local press, warning others about the actual conditions, and the British attempted to stamp down on it through bureaucracy but Nigeria was undergoing an economic recession and there were many desperate people. Quickly a black market in false passports and permits took off which recruiters bought and provided to new workers (at the cost of it coming out of their wages, of course).

The same place that in the 1870s had seen large voluntary migration, due to the opportunities it afforded, now only got immigrants by trickery. British Colonial Government never really managed to get this flow of labour to end despite numerous efforts and by the 1950s two thirds of the population of Fernando Po was migrant labour from Nigeria. When Independence for Equatorial Guinea began to be discussed in the late 1960s, there was a half serious call for Fernando Po to be included in Nigeria instead because of these demographics.

Given the eventual post independence fate of Equatorial Guinea, and the appalling dictatorships of Francisco Macías Nguema and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, they might have been better off if they had been.

But Fernando Po, much like the Cape Colony, did have many years of racial equality and relative prosperity, where Africans migrated there because there were opportunities. Could that have continued?

Well that prosperity was always limited to a small elite. Social mobility existed but was limited by the amount of land available, while the direction of travel was towards that land being consolidated into larger plantations. And the Labour conditions for the landless were always awful, long before the discriminatory laws of 1928 were introduced. You can probably keep a black elite much more prosperous but that doesn't do much for the average plantation worker. Having black bosses didn't often translate to less abuse, as Yancy and his ilk proved in Liberia, and the material conditions that drove the brutality in our timeline are hard to change.

But to even keep that prosperous black elite, you need to change Spain more than Spanish Guinea. The discriminatory laws came because of a change in emphasis in Spain in the aftermath of the humiliations of the Spanish-American War and the Battle of Annual (the topic of the next article). Enrique Martinez argued that the motivation of the increasing racism directed towards black Africans by Spain during the 1920s to 1940s, in both rhetoric and action, was as a way of redeeming Spain by distancing themselves from the 'other'. Spain had, in the mind of many Europeans, proved itself weak and there was a fear that the other European powers wrote them of as half African savages. So the Fang and Bubi were increasingly portrayed as the worst savages, cannibals and devil worshipers, as an other for the Spanish to compare themselves to and defeat, thus proving they still belonged in the European club. Which is why the Bubi lost their rights in 1928.

And this was the case for both the left and the right in Spain during the 1920s and 30s. The Second Spanish Republic after all not only maintained the 1928 race laws but strengthened them by banning the sale or purchase of property by natives and passing the Vagrancy laws. They also increased the colony's military presence and attacked Fang Kingdoms who refused to supply corvée labour. During the Spanish Civil War, which saw some fighting in Spanish Guinea, the Fang and Bubi largely supported the Nationalists due to their disappointment with the Republicans not reversing their loss of citizenship. And Franco did eventually bring in a citizenship law for Spanish Guinea in 1945, it was weak with numerous steps needed to gain citizenship and enforced a racial apartheid which banned mixed race marriages but it did exist, which was more than anything the Second Spanish Republic did. Francisco Macías Nguema's famously deranged 1967 rant wherein he argued that Hitler and fascism had tried to defend Africa against racist liberal Europeans, emerged from that History.


Discuss this Article


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.