The forgotten queen of Guinea-Bissau who abolished slavery and fought off the Portuguese

Mildred Europa Taylor October 08, 2020
Image via AFP/Getty

Queen Okinka Pampa Kanyimpa, otherwise known as Kanjimpa, was revered for many reasons. The last queen of the Bijago people of Orango, in the Bissagos Islands of Guinea-Bissau, Kanyimpa, throughout her reign from 1910-1930, abolished slavery, extended women’s rights, and protected her people against Portuguese control until a peace agreement was reached.

Actually, she was entrusted with the task of doing the above and more when she succeeded her father, Bankajapa, and became ruler of the island. Around this same time, the Portuguese, as part of its claim to territory in Africa, was making moves to occupy the Bissagos archipelago, where women usually rule and choose their own husbands.

Located in the Atlantic Ocean off the African coast, the Bijagos archipelago is made up of twenty main islands and some smaller ones. And despite the years of influence from Portuguese colonialism, women of the archipelago have the upper hand in social welfare, the economy, and the law.

Before the days of Kanyimpa, European explorers described the Bijago people or the Bissagos “as a seafaring people, fierce and warlike, immersed in both the slave trade and piracy,” a report by CBD-Habitat Foundation said.

The Bijago defeated the Portuguese who wanted to take over their lands in the 1530s until the late 1900s when they were finally colonized. “The coming of the Europeans to the island, the British and German settlers first, and the Portuguese rule later, was a disaster for the Bijagós people… They were not able to accept the kind of work imposed by the Europeans,” writes Italian anthropologist Luigi Scantamburlo.

The Bijago, under Kanyimpa, rebelled against the Portuguese colonizers on about seven separate occasions until she concluded a peace agreement with them. 

Elected among the women of the Okinka clan, Kanyimpa became the most famous sovereigns of the Bijagos Islands, and today, the Okinka remember her “as a champion of women’s liberation and the guardian of sovereignty and peace for all.”

Nine decades after her death, she is still worshiped throughout the archipelago, and her mausoleum is one of the most widely recommended places to visit in Guinea-Bissau. What is more, her entire royal family have been considered gods by the people of Bijago.

Today, the Bijagos archipelago is inhabited by about 33,000 people living in a lush, fertile, and rich natural environment. Consisting of small villages where houses are largely made of mud and straw, women are the owners of these homes, and they even constructed them.

An island based on a subsistence economy, inhabitants own farms and grow vegetables, rice, and cashews, and women have economic autonomy, organizing labor and even working more than men.

Even at ceremonies, women are in charge of everything, from cooking, playing music, dancing to serving drinks to the men. Having an animistic religion and believing in reincarnation, most of their ceremonies come with a lot of rituals and mysticism, and women are in charge of relations with the spirit world as the society is led by priestesses who are chosen from maternal clans.  

Among the Bijago, one of the sources of power are clans, whose lines of succession are from the maternal side. Thus, the oroñô or chief of a village on the island is also chosen from these maternal clans in an activity that is regulated by a council of elders.

Despite depending on the natural resources of the archipelago including its palm forests, mangrove swamps, sandbanks and aquatic zones, the Bijago directly contribute to the preservation of the natural environment, leading to their area being declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1996.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 8, 2020


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