Guinea-Bissau, a neighbor of Senegal and Guinea in West Africa, on the Atlantic coast, is about half the size of South Carolina. The country is a low-lying coastal region of swamps, rain forests, and mangrove-covered wetlands, with about 25 islands off the coast. The Bijagos archipelago extends 30 mi (48 km) out to sea.
The rivers of Guinea and the islands of Cape Verde were among the first areas in Africa explored by the Portuguese, notably Nuno Tristão, in the 15th century. Portugal claimed Portuguese Guinea in 1446, but few trading posts were established before 1600. In 1630, a "captaincy-general" of Portuguese Guinea was established to administer the territory. With the cooperation of some local tribes, the Portuguese entered the slave trade and exported large numbers of Africans to the Western Hemisphere via the Cape Verde Islands. Cacheu became one of the major slave centers, and a small fort still stands in the town. The slave trade declined in the 19th century, and Bissau, originally founded as a military and slave-trading center in 1765, grew to become the major commercial center.
Portuguese conquest and consolidation of the interior did not begin until the latter half of the 19th century. Portugal lost part of Guinea to French West Africa, including the center of earlier Portuguese commercial interest, the Casamance River region. A dispute with Britain over the island of Bolama was settled in Portugal's favor with the involvement of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant.
Before World War I, Portuguese forces, with some assistance from the Muslim population, subdued animist tribes and eventually established the territory's borders. The interior of Portuguese Guinea was brought under control after more than 30 years of fighting; final subjugation of the Bijagós Islands did not occur until 1936. The administrative capital was moved from Bolama to Bissau in 1941, and in 1952, by constitutional amendment, the colony of Portuguese Guinea became an overseas province of Portugal.
In 1956, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) was organized clandestinely by Amílcar Cabral and Raphael Barbosa. The PAIGC moved its headquarters to Conakry, Guinea, in 1960 and started an armed rebellion against the Portuguese in 1961 (for a detailed account of this struggle, see the PAIGC page). Despite the presence of Portuguese troops, which grew to more than 35,000, the PAIGC steadily expanded its influence until, by 1968, it controlled most of the country. It established civilian rule in the territory under its control and held elections for a National Assembly. Portuguese forces and civilians increasingly were confined to their garrisons and larger towns. The Portuguese Governor and Commander in Chief from 1968 to 1973, General António de Spínola, returned to Portugal and led the movement which brought democracy to Portugal and independence for its colonies.
From November 1980 to May 1984, power was held by a provisional government responsible to a Revolutionary Council headed by President João Bernardo Vieira. In 1984, the council was dissolved, and the National Popular Assembly (ANP) was reconstituted. The single-party assembly approved a new constitution, elected President Vieira to a new 5-year term, and elected a Council of State, which was the executive agent of the ANP. Under this system, the president presides over the Council of State and serves as head of state and government. The president also was head of the PAIGC and commander in chief of the armed forces.
In 1994, 20 years after independence from Portugal, the country's first multiparty legislative and presidential elections were held. An army uprising that triggered the Guinea-Bissau Civil War in 1998, created hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. The president was ousted by a military junta in May 7, 1999. An interim government turned over power in February 2000 when opposition leader Kumba Ialá took office following two rounds of transparent presidential elections. Guinea-Bissau's transition back to democracy will be complicated by a crippled economy devastated by civil war and the military's predilection for governmental meddling.
In September 2003 a bloodless coup took place in which the military, headed by General Veríssimo Correia Seabra, arrested Ialá, because "he was unable to solve the problems". After being delayed several times, legislative elections were held in April 2004.
The Bissau carnival is a feast of carved masks and coloured costumes, but during the rest of the year these are not prevalent on the mainland. The traditions are instead kept alive by the Bjango people on the islands. Seated statues of the spirit Iran, complete with jaunty top hat, witness agricultural and initiation rituals. Masks representing sharks, sawfish, hippos and bulls with real horns (the Dugn'be) are used. The hippo mask is so big, it has carved legs to hold it up.
Traditional dance and music are heavily influenced by neighbouring Senegal and Gambia. Women move frenetically to the sound of the harp-like kora and the xylophone-like balafon. Modern music mixes these roots with a Latin twist from its Portuguese heritage, and salsa is a big thing.
About 40% of Guinea-Bissau's people (mainly Fula and Mandinka) are Muslims; they are concentrated more upcountry than along the coast. Except for a few Christians in the towns, the rest follow traditional beliefs.