Ibrahim Sundiata's pioneering work has highlighted the role of Creole (Fernandino) immigrants n building up a flourishing cocoa economy on the Island of Fernando Poo (Bioco) in the 1880s and 1890s, but he has been much more hesitant as to the extent, causes and periodization of their subsequent economic decline. Initially, he pointed to Spain's defeat in the 1898 war with the United States as the turning point, but in his recent book he inclines to the 1920s as the crucial decade. Spanish discrimination, internal weaknesses in the community and changing economic conditions are portrayed as contributing to the downturn. The balance between these various factors and the extent of economic decline, however, remain to be elucidated.(1) Three suggestions are made here: that the 1920s were the watershed decade; that economic decline was not marked, even after the 1920s; and that Spanish discrimination had little impact on the prosperity of the great majority of the community prior to the mid-1920s.
It is further suggested here that the role of the indigenous Bubi inhabitants in the development of the island's export economy was greater than has been acknowledged. Sundiata speaks of Bubi entrance into small-scale cocoa farming' in the 1940s, after they had recovered from the brink of demographic extinction.(2) Carlos Crespo, author of the standard colonial ethnography, makes a passing reference to cocoa cultivation in the 1940s, without indicating when production began.(3) Manuel de Teran's brief but excellent geographical survey gives more credit to the Bubi but provides little detail.(4) More recent research by Gonzalo Sanz Casas, Teresa Pereira Rodriguez, Donato Ndongo Bidyogo and Max Liniger-Goumaz focuses on the Bubi as victims of land alienation and labour recruitment rather than as successful cash crop producers.(5)
Early Creole and Bubi prosperity was based on exports of palm oil to Britain, following the British occupation of Clarence (Santa Isabel, Malabo) in 1827.(6) While much oil was imported from the mainland for re-export, Bubi also harvested and processed fruit from semi-wild palms on Fernando Poo, with Creole traders acting as middlemen.(7) Cocoa was introduced from the neighbouring Portuguese islands in 1836 or 1854, but exports remained tiny for several decades.(8) A marked downturn in palm oil prices was affecting Fernando Poo by the late 1880s, coinciding with the onset of a cocoa boom.(9) By 1894 the palm oil trade throughout Western Africa was in deep crisis, and cocoa appeared as one of the chief means of salvation for the trading community.(10) Experiments with other products on Fernando Poo, notably coffee, met with little success. In 1900 the island exported 1,152 tons of cocoa, 33 tons of palm oil and 16 tons of coffee.(11) Twelve years later, 3,994 tons of cocoa accounted for 97 per cent of Fernando Poo's exports by value.(12)
Spaniards and Creoles both rushed to plant cocoa in the 1880s and 1890s. Spanish settlers were attracted to the island in significant numbers for the first time by the boom, possibly reflecting their greater historical experience of cocoa than of palm oil.(13) As for the Creoles, Methodist missionaries complained of falling attendance at church, as members of the congregation spent ever more time on their farms. By the turn of the century, cocoa had clearly replaced palm oil as the main interest of the Fernandinos.(14)
Bubi cultivators participated enthusiastically in the cocoa boom. Catholic missionaries encouraged the planting of cocoa on their mission stations from 1887 at the latest. They extended this strategy to Catholic villages, and by the mid-1890s they were using their expertise n cocoa cultivation as a tactic to win over `pagans' in traditional settlements.(15) Bubi on Methodist mission stations were also busy with their cocoa farms by the early 1900s.(16) A Spanish commentator noted in some surprise around 1900 that `the degenerate Bubi...whom we despise, have their own cocoa plots'.(17) Cocoa cultivators were still sad to be inferior n number to gatherers of palm fruit at the end of the 1890s, but Bubi cocoa was being bartered for firearms on a fair scale.(18) The authorities, alarmed at the security implications, banned this commerce in 1906.(19) In 1909 John Holt & Co reported that the supply of palm oil and kernels was drying up in the north-east of the island `owing to the increasing attention that Bubies are giving to cocoa growing.'(20) Two years earlier, a Catholic missionary in the Concepcion area noted the generosity of Bubi farmers in funding a new church, citing a local saying: `While there is cocoa there will be money.'(21)
Precise information on the distribution of cocoa production among social groups on the eve of the First World War is lacking, but what there is suggests a rough tripartite balance. Governor Angel Barrera, an able and experienced Spanish official, estimated that Bubi cultivators accounted for around one-third of the island's cocoa crop in 1910.(22) In the same year, an employee of John Holt & Co thought that the Bubi share in the total might even be somewhat higher.(23) Gunter Tessmann, a German anthropologist who carried out detailed fieldwork on the Bubi in 1915-16, repeated the figure of one-third.(24) Incidental evidence, considered in more detail below, suggests an approximately even divide between European and Creole planters of the remaining two-thirds.
The extent of African cocoa production does not in itself reveal whether it might not have been even greater, had it not been for Spanish chauvinism. That there was widespread prejudice against Creoles among settlers and in the `official mind' cannot be denied. Thus a report by the Council for the Philippines and the Possessions of the Gulf of Guinea in 1894 expressed marked unease at the fact that so many planters in Fernando Poo `do not profess the Catholic religion, nor speak Spanish, and are not even of pure European race.'(25) A decade later, a Spaniard waxed Indignant that `the most widespread language is English...and inside all the richest homes are numerous portraits of the king and queen of England'.(26) But in 1895 the prominent Creole Richard McFoy attacked a Methodist missionary `for depicting the Fernandinos as smarting under Spanish oppression. Far from suffering, the community was, in McFoy's view, quite satisfied with Spanish justice'.(27) Dictatorial regimes after 1923 adopted more restrictive policies, but it is anachronistic to tar with the same brush the liberal monarchy of earlier decades.
As far as nationality is concerned, the British agreed to recognize only about one-tenth of the population of Clarence as British subjects on the eve of effective Spanish occupation in 1858, including a few British. The rest of the resident Creole population became Spanish by default.(28) Indeed, William Allen Vivour, a wealthy Creole planter born in Sierra Leone, greeted the Austrian explorer Oscar Baumann in North West Bay (San Carlos, Luba) in 1886 as the local representative of the Spanish crown.(29) Any Creole born on the island was considered in law to be a Spanish subject, so that the community became increasingly Spanish over time.(30) There was some continued immigration from West Africa, but never on a scale to tilt the balance towards British subjects. Discrimination on grounds of nationality appears to have been relatively unimportant, even though Madrid occassionally fulminated against the influence of English culture on the island. In 1903, the government threatened to replace the Claretian Catholics with another missionary order because of their lack of success in `hispanizing' the colony, but this turned out to be a storm in a tea-cup.(31) The influential Chamber of Agriculture, founded in 1906, technically restricted membership to Spanish subjects resident on the island.(32) However, the employees of John Holt & Co, some of whom were British West Africans, were told that they could join as `honourary members'.(33)
Nor was there any systematic anti-Protestant policy on the part of the authorities, for all the Methodist complaints. Indeed, the Claretians complained bitterly about free-thinking and masonic officials, said to include about half the governors between 1883 and 1912 and alleged to favour heretics. At the same time, the Claretians recognized that a number of Protestant Creole families had been extremely generous to them.(34) Moreover, several leading Creoles were either already Catholic or well on the road to Rome, by 1914.(35)
There was no formal legal distinction on grounds of race until 1928, when 'people of colour' had to obtain a special document to claim equal rights to those of Europeans.(36)Indeed, it was specified in 1904. that 'Spaniards of African origin' enjoyed the same rights as other nationals.(37) When the prominent Creole planter Joseph Dougan went to Madrid in 1906 to petition the government of 'the motherland', he described himself as the representative of the 'dark-skinned Spaniards from a little piece of Spain in the Gulf of Guinea'.(38) And Sundiata draws our attention to a missionary report from 1920:
When a ball is in progress at the Governor's place, we see how the elite makes merry. The select of both colours will be present, and when the band strikes up the waltz, black and white whirl off together.(39)
In the 1910s, Spanish authors stressed the eminence of the Creoles, not their decline. Saavedra wrote in 1910 of the not inconsiderable number, of well off Creoles in Fernando Poo, who tended to dress better and with more style than the Europeans. He continued, 'A few families ... have considerable fortunes which allow them to visit the capital cities of Europe, especially London', and he singled out the Jones, Kinson, Vivour, Barleycorn, Balboa, Collins, Knox and Prince families for special mention.(40) His evidence is backed up by Bravo Carbonel, writing seven years later, who noted admiringly the luxurious life styles of the leading Creoles, notably their consumption of the best champagne, cognac, whisky …