How Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea came to have their names

Nii Ntreh March 28, 2021
The sprawling coast of Bissau in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa. Photo Credit:

The name “Guinea” repeats itself in what we call four different countries on the face of the earth. There is an explanation for that and it will not surprise many to find out that this explanation is rooted in imperialism and colonialism.

Three of the four Guinea-named countries can be found in west and central Africa. They are Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea. All three countries were formerly of interest to Portugal, then a European power involved in the trade of enslaved Africans as well as other commodities from around the 16th century.

The Portuguese came up in the 15th century with the name that was anglicized as Guinea. It was Guiné and it was in description of the darker-skinned people who lived between the mouth of the Sahel and the tropical forest region, down to the coast. This is modern west-coast Africa where the Atlantic Ocean, or better, the northern region of the ocean from Gabon to Liberia, is still popularly referred to as the Gulf of Guinea.

The name Guiné was essentially to differentiate between these darker-skinned Africans and their lighter-skinned (although not in any way Caucasian) neighbors to the north, the Berber peoples. As such, this can be read as a precursor to theorizing race in early modern European scholarship and consciousness.

By the late 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, the Guinea region was subdivided into zones controlled by different European interests. It was therefore usual to see British Guinea, Portuguese Guinea, Spanish Guinea and French Guinea. These zones were later administered as colonies after the end of the international trade in enslaved Africans.

The natives of this region possessed their own rich culture and history before colonization. This is the region where one could find in ancient history, the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire. This was the zenith of West African civilization.

But by the middle of the 19th century, what we know in contemporary times had begun to form. French Guinea became Guinea; Portuguese Guinea became Guinea-Bissau and Spanish Guinea became Equatorial Guinea.

Last Edited by:Nii Ntreh Updated: March 28, 2021


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