Why the Name: Malabo?

View of Malabo (3rdWorldProfashional.com)

How many Spanish cities do you know have a British heritage? How many do you know were named after English kings? How many cities do you know have had three different names in their history? Malabo, the capital of the Equatorial Guinea is such a city.

Since its origin, Malabo has been known by three different names: Port Clarence or Clarence City from 1827 to 1846 under British occupation; Santa Isabel from 1846 to 1973, under Spanish occupation; and Malabo since 1973 as the capital of the independent country of Equatorial Guinea.

Malabo is located on the northern part of the island of Bioko (island previously known as Fernando Po), 32 km from the coasts of Cameroon. Similar to the island of La Réunion, the island of Bioko is volcanic with its mountain Pico Basile towering at 3000 m, which can be seen from Limbe in Cameroon on a clear day.

Malabo4In 1472, in an attempt to find a new route to India, the Portuguese navigator Fernão do Pó, discovered the island of Bioko, which he called “Fermosa“. Later the island was named after its discoverer, Fernando Poo. In 1507, the Portuguese Ramos de Esquivel made a first attempt at colonization on the island of Fernando Poo. He established a factory in Concepción (currently Riaba) and developed plantations of sugarcane, but the hostility of the insular Bubis people and diseases ended this experience quickly.

With the treaties of San Ildefonso in 1777 and El Pardo in 1778, the Portuguese gave to the Spanish the island of Fernando Poo, Annobon, and the right to conduct trade in the mainland, an area of influence approximately of 800,000 km² in Africa, in exchange for the Colonia del Sacramento in the River Plate and the Santa Catalina Island off the Brazilian coast.

Island of Annobon from the skies (3rdWorldProfashional.com)

Later, Spain lost interest in Spanish Guinea (Equatorial Guinea), and authorized the British to use the island as a base for stopping the Slave Trade (this was before the creation of Sierra Leone as a colony for freed slaves).  Thus, on 25 December 1827, Port Clarence was born on the ruins of a previous Portuguese settlement. The name was chosen in honor of the Duke of Clarence, who later became King William IV. The Bubis indigenous to the island called it “Ripotó (place of the foreigners). The city was also known as Clarence City. Descendents from freed slaves mixed in with the local Bubi tribe speaking an afro-anglo-spanish pidgin or creole called « Fernandino ».  At first the British dreamt of turning Port Clarence into a great commercial port like those of Lagos and the Cape. However, the installation into the colony was deemed too costly, and isolated. In 1845, with the abolition of slavery, the British negociated with the Spanish, and gave them back control over the city, while still maintaining a stop for their commercial ships. Spain agreed to preserve British interests and to allow free passage to British ships as well advantages, which lasted until the country’s independence in 1968. Spain even maintained the British cultural heritage, Spanish will only become majoritarily spoken around 1920.

Spain regained control of the island in 1855 and the capital Port Clarence was renamed Santa Isabel, in honor of Queen Isabel II. In 1969, one year after independence, Santa Isabel became the capital of Equatorial Guinea.

Malabo Lopelo Malabo I on Bioko 1930
King Malabo Lopelo Melaka

Its present name, Malabo, was given in 1973 by President Macías Nguema in honor of King Malabo Lopelo Melaka, the last Bubi king.

Today, Malabo is the commercial and financial center of Equatorial Guinea. The main industry of the city is fish, while cacao and coffee are the main products of export. With its recent discovery over the past decade, oil has become a big industry. Malabo has a port of high tonnage connected mainly to the ports of Douala (Cameroon) and Bata (Equatorial Guinea) and air linked via an international airport. Oil has brought in a lot of investments and development to the country and particularly to the city, which has seen tremendous growth over the past few years.

View of Malabo Cathedral (3rdWorldProfashional.com)

Given that Malabo is the oldest city in Equatorial Guinea, many buildings within the city are built in colonial architecture style remnants of Spanish rule, and coexist today with modern architecture. It is a mix of old and modern, with a reliable road system. In the coastal region north of the city are the bays and capes. Provisions are hard to find, given that it is an island, and the cost of living is high.


Aerial view of Malabo´s harbour
Malabo’s harbor on the island of Bioko, Equatorial Guinea (Libreville-airport.com)

With only 1,180 hours of sunshine per year, Malabo, is one of the gloomiest capitals in the world and experiences much fog even when it is not raining. So, it is a lot like London… funny that the British didn’t like it ! Enjoy reading from 3rdWorldProFashional.com and FemmeExpat.com.


Note: 27 Jun 2019 – I have amended the article, as it has been brought to my attention that image 3 is the island of Annobon and not the island of Bioko where Malabo is located. Thank you Apolonio.