Exploring the history and experiences of mixed heritage persons and inter-racial relationships across the world

African Atlantic ‘Mestizo’ Islands

January 14th, 2011

Writing the chapters on the islands of Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe off the West coast of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean, I was struck by the fact that the islands were said to be uninhabited when discovered in most cases by the Portuguese. My research into Zanzibar and other Indian Ocean islands made this seem unusual so I took a little detour and looked at the other islands off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic.

Eastern Atlantic Islands

Eastern Atlantic Islands

Most of the islands were indeed reported on discovery as being uninhabited. The result of this is that many of these islands now have a mixed population due to European settlement and the importation of slaves and/or workers from mainland Africa. Whilst on some of those islands this has resulted in a majority ‘mestizo’ population in others such as the Azores and Madeira that is not the case, at least on the surface. It would appear that either the slave population was small or there was a large settler population on the two island states. Either way, the mixed members of the population have been assimilated into the Portuguese ethnicity. In Azores, mtDNA studies have determine that some 13% of inhabitants have sub-Saharan and about 4% have Arab/Berber ancestry.

A little further south and much closer to the African coast, the Canary Islands did have an indigenous population thought to have originated in the Arab/Berber communities on the mainland. Today, this Spanish enclave does not have a discernable mixed race population though like the rest of Europe, multicultural pairing are very likely considering the sizeable Arabic and Latin American presence which is said to number around 100,000 individuals. The islands proximity, like the Azores and Madeira, to Europe means a high level of migration from Europe is maintained.

Further south are the Cape Verde islands which I have covered in a chapter. Needless to say, the majority of the population is of mixed ancestry.

The Bissagos Islands very close to the continental shoreline in Guinea-Bissau did have an indigenous population that due to its trading and naval power kept the Portuguese out until 1936. Only twenty of the 18 major islands and dozens smaller ones are inhabited. The late colonisation of the islands suggests a limited, if any, racially mixed society.

In the Gulf of Guinea, two of the islands of Equatorial Guinea were inhabited; Bioko which currently has a population of 124,000 most of whom belong to the indigenous Bubi people and Corisco, originally settled by the Benga people and now said to have a majority ‘mestizo’ population which only numbers in the hundreds. Corisco was acquired by Spain in 1843 via some arrangement with the then King. Bioko and the other island of Equatorial Guinea, Annobón were passed to Spain in 1778 as part of an exchange in which Portugal received territory in Brazil. Annobón was also apparently uninhabited and today’s inhabitants are of mixed Portuguese, Spanish, and Angolan descent. Early anti-Spanish sentiment and isolation from mainland and its proximity of São Tomé and Príncipe has meant the island has maintained its Portuguese character including its main language which is a Portuguese creole. Spanish remains the official language and is also widely spoken. The other islands of Equatorial Guinea are the tiny islands of Elobey Grande and Elobey Chico which are to this day sparsely populated.

São Tomé and Príncipe is also covered in one of the MIDS chapters. It has a majority mestizo population.

Further out into the Atlantic are the British controlled islands of Ascension Island and Saint Helena, debateable about whether they should be included in this post. Ascension Island has no indigenous or permanent population and has historically had little appeal for passing ships except for collecting fresh meat. Saint Helena was uninhabited when discovered by the Portuguese in 1502. It is one of the most isolated islands in the world but with an abundance of trees and fresh water encouraging settlement. A British naval station established to suppress the African slave trade was based on the island and some 15,000 freed slaves were landed there in the 1840s though many did not remain for long, returning to mainland as opportunity arose. The population is currently around 3,800 down from a high of over 9,000 in the early 1900s; 50% of the population is African, 25% is Chinese, and a further 25% is White British. What is not clear from the statistics is how many of the ‘black’ population is actually mixed taking into account British ex-colonies’ tendency to record non-white, non-Asian people as black as happens on the other side of the Atlantic in the Caribbean.

Apart from the habitable status of these islands, another striking difference from the Indian Ocean islands is the noticeable lack of the Arab influence. Granted the Arab influence may have been limited in earlier times depending on whether you regard Berber people – who include the Moors – can be regarded as Arab but they were a sea faring people eventually occupying the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain) for some time. There is some recognition that the original inhabitants of the Canary Islands, prior even to the indigenous Guanches, may have been Berber in origin and that Arabs may have visited the Cape Verde islands to extract salt from the salt pans. You will notice this difference that when I write about the Indian Ocean melting pot soon.

You may also notice the use of the Mestizo term rather than the more correct term of Mulatto which was originally coined for an African/European mix. The Portuguese appeared to have avoided the Mulatto term in its African colonies probably due to its negative connotations whilst still using it in the Americas, where there may have been a need to differentiate between Amerindian and African mixes.