The great Sahel Empire of Mali, which flourished between the 13th and 15th centuries AD, included parts of present-day Guinea-Bissau.
Portuguese navigators first reached what is now Guinea-Bissau around 1450. They found navigable rivers that facilitated trade with the interior, and were soon extracting gold, ivory, pepper and especially slaves.
For centuries the Portuguese presence was limited to coastal trading stations, but with the end of the slave trade in the 19th century, the Portuguese had to win control of the interior to continue to extract wealth. To do so, they allied themselves with Muslim ethnicities, including the Fula and Mandinko, to subdue animist tribes. When right-wing dictator António Salazar came to power in Portugal in 1926, he imposed direct Portuguese rule, forcing peasants to plant groundnuts (peanuts) for export, like it or not.
By the early 1960s African colonies were rapidly winning independence, but Salazar refused to relinquish those under his control. The result: one of Africa’s longest, bloodiest wars of liberation.
The father of independence was Amilcar Cabral, who in 1956 helped found the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). In 1961 the PAIGC started arming and mobilising peasants, and controlled half the country within five years. The PAIGC built schools, provided medical services and encouraged widespread political participation. Cabral was assassinated in 1973, but freedom was inevitable. When Salazar’s regime fell in 1974, the new Portuguese government quickly recognised the fledgling nation.
Once in power, the PAIGC government faced staggering problems. Only one in 20 people could read, life expectancy was 35 years, 45% of children died before the age of five and rice production had fallen by 71%. The new socialist state made significant inroads, especially relative to other postcolonial countries. Nevertheless a coup in 1986 forced President João Vieira to abandon socialism and sell off state enterprises.
Meanwhile intractable poverty as well as growing corruption under Vieira culminated in national strikes in 1997, which quickly devolved into a civil war. Vieira was forced to flee the capital in 1999. Remarkably, military commanders handed power back to civilians. Nevertheless, several subsequent coups kept the war-weary country on edge, and separatist conflict in southern Senegal frequently spilled over Guinea-Bissau’s northern border.
Despite fears of continued factional violence, the 2005 presidential elections were deemed largely free and fair. The winner? Deposed president João Vieira, who returned from exile to run a successful campaign based on national reconciliation. While fundamental problems of corruption and poverty could yet destabilise the current peace, Guinea-Bissau nationals geneally express cautious optimism about their country’s future.