(excerpts from "The Ethnography of the Bijagos People of the Island of Bubaque" (1978),
written by the researcher of anthropology, Luigi Scantamburlo *)


Population of the Bijago Archipelago

According to a recent estimate, the archipelago is inhabited by 15,000 to 20,000 people, 90% being Bijagos. In the census taken in 1950, the Bijagos numbered 9,200, being about 2% of the total population of Guinea-Bissau. This figure is the lowest ever recorded as previous counts have given a much greater number. In 1935, Landerset Simoes calcutaed 25,000, and in 1889 the Governor Joaquin da Graca Correia e Lanca estimated their population at 50,590. This was perhaps an exaggeration, but why such a great decrease?

Some of the elders of Bubaque told me that the coming of the Europeans to the island, the British and German settlers first and the Portuguese later, was a disaster for the Bijagos people. They were used to a free and independent life in the islands, with plenty of fruit and with enough cleared land around the villages for cultivating mandioca, peanuts, beans, and other kinds of fruit and vegetables. They had ample rice cultivated by means of the slash and burn technique. They were not able to accept the kind of work imposed by the Europeans. They could not satisfy the demands of the newcomers who were more powerful. The Europeans requested laborers for their experimental farms and for palm oil production. The bijagos were requested to help build houses, roads, and the port for the center of Bubaque.

This caused a psychological stress on the people, and broke forever the agricultural cyclic rhythm the Bijagos had had for centuries. They were accustomed to hard agricultural work during the rainy season, and fishing, picking fruit, and performing the mandatory religious ceremonies during the dry season.

At present, they have been unable to stop the encroachment of wild plants in the woodland close to the villages. Today, almost every village of the island is surrounded by the wild forest. Fruit trees are scarce, and the fruit is often eaten by monkeys who can arrive close to the houses because of the many trees. Further evidence of the decline of the Bijagos' economic life is the ruins in some villages which indicate the prosperity they'd enjoyed just two or three generations ago.

Since independence, there has been more efficient medical care and primary schools are available for the first time for all children. Some villages are regaining new vitality and hope for future prosperity and growth.


The island of Bubaque, with an area of 48 sq. km. of which 18 are swamps and covered by the ocean during high tide, is located in the southeast corner of the archipelago. It's the island most affected by the presence of Europeans, chosen by the German settlers before World War I and by the Portuguese Government after 1920, as the main center for their activities in the archipelago. The Germans built a factory for the extraction of palm tree (Elaeis guineesis) oil; a port for ships of small and middle tonnage in the northern part of the island; and an experimental farm in Etimbato. During the colonial occupation, which ended in August 1974, Bubaque was the center of the administrative offices of the archipelago, with a resident Portuguese administrator and other officials. In 1952, a Catholic church with a permanent missionary and a Protestant mission started operating on the island. The construction of a small hotel for tourists increased the presence of Europeans. The long beach of Bruce, situated on the southern part of the island, is a special attraction for tourists and is linked to the administrative center of Bubaque by a paved road built in 1976.

Communications with Bissau are possible by small airplanes and by ship. One vessel with a capacity of 200 passengers comes to Bubaque every Saturday and returns to Bissau the following day. More hotels and a large airport are now being built to increase the tourist capacity of the island.

The climate is subtropical with an abundant rainfall, with an average annual precipitation of 1500-2000 mm, during the rainy season, from mid-May until mid-November. The average temperature is about 33 C (94 F) during the dry season and 25 C (77 F) during the rainy season, but the daily temperature range is quite variable. At night, especially between December and February, the temperature drops 20 to 30 degrees F and people must take shelter in their huts to warm themselves.

Most of the island is covered by oil palms, whose cultivation and growth was improved by German settlers at the beginning of the century. The other vegetation, of the woodland type, includes a variety of plants of the subtropical region. the most important big trees, often the sacred centers for religious cerimonies, are the so-called wool trees (Eriodendrum anfractuosum) and the baobab (Andansonia digitata). Around the outskirts of the villages, the most common fruit trees are mangoes, cashews, oranges, lemons, and pawpaws. The game found in the islands (gazelle, wild goat, hippopotamus, crocodile) have disappeared from the island of Bubaque. However, monkeys and weaver birds (Proceus cucullatus), so dangerous for agriculture, are still numerous.

In November 1976, the island contained 2,172 people. About 757, half of them not Bijagos, lived in the center of Bubaque and 1,415 lived in the island's twelve villages.

The average stature of the Bijagos is 1.70 meters for men and 1.63 meters for women. Like most people of the West Atlantic group, their skin color is brown with some gradations of very intense brown. They have little body hair, and the young males wear long hair, usually kinky and braided in the same fashion as the women. Because of the presence of administrative offices and schools built in the last thirty years, Bubaque has the highest percentage of literacy in the archipelago.

The Bijagos agree that two or three generations ago the villages of the island were more heavily populated.

( * - The present ethnographic material was collected while I lived among the Bijago people between May 1976 and November 1977. I have carefully avoided describing some details of the Bijago culture which the elders desire to be kept secret. I think this would be a good policy. Among the people of Guinea-Bissau, secrecy gives meaning and power to many elements of their culture.)

The Bijago People's Economic Life

 Return to "The Bijago People"                                                                                               Return to Home