While Equatorial Guinea has several ethnic tribes, it was colonised over centuries by the Dutch, English, Portuguese and Spanish interested in trade in slaves, sugar and palm oil. The country has absorbed people from such nations as Liberia, Nigeria and Cuba. Its straight-line borders were established during the late-19th-century 'Scramble for Africa' and it is the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa.

The Early Days

Bantu tribes, including the Bubi, came to the mainland in the 12th century from other parts of West and Central Africa. The Bubi are said to have fled to Bioko to escape the Fang, who are believed to have become the dominant ethnic group in the 1600s. Europeans made their first contact on the distant island of Annobón, which was visited by the Portuguese in 1470. In the 18th century, Bioko, Annobón and parts of the mainland were traded to Spain in exchange for regions in Latin America. Bioko subsequently became an important base for slave-trading in the early 19th century and was later a naval base for England, which by then was trying to stop the slave trade. Cocoa plantations were started on the island in the late 19th century, making Malabo Spain's most important possession in equatorial Africa.

Equatorial Guinea attained independence in October 1968 under the presidency of Macías Nguema. Months later, relations with Spain deteriorated rapidly and Nguema's 10-year dictatorship began. Thousands of people were tortured and publicly executed or beaten to death in the forced-labour camps of the mainland. Much of the violence was tribally motivated – the Bubis were particularly sought. By the time Nguema's regime was finally toppled in 1979, only a third of the 300,000 Guineans who lived there at the time of independence remained. In August 1979 Nguema was overthrown by his nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who then ordered his uncle's execution.

Independence & Coup Attempts

Though it's not far from the warm waters of the Atlantic, the whitewashed prison at Playa Negra (Black Beach) is one of Africa's most notorious hellholes. It's here that South African mercenary Nick du Toit and fellow coup plotter Simon Mann were locked up for their roles in a 2004 attempted coup, an operation that aimed to overthrow President Obiang and install exiled opposition leader Severo Moro in his place. Oil rights were promised to the coup's financiers and plotters, among them Mark Thatcher, the son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. But the coup attempt failed spectacularly: in March 2004 Mann, du Toit and 60 others were arrested when their Boeing jet landed in Harare, Zimbabwe, on a weapons-gathering stop. While du Toit was sent to Black Beach immediately, Mann served four years in jail in Zimbabwe before being extradited to Malabo in 2007, where he was handed a 34-year sentence. President Obiang released Mann, du Toit and other accused prisoners in early 2009, citing good behaviour.

Perhaps hoping to avoid further coup attempts, the president commissioned the building of Oyala, a new capital deep in the central jungle, in 2011. It will house 200,000 people and is expected to be finished in 2020. So far there are six-lane highways, hotels, an airport, shopping centres and the American University of Central Africa.