The Bubis are the indigenous inhabitants of Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. With a history spanning thousands of years, they’ve maintained unique traditions, languages, and cultural practices. Over time, colonization and external influences have shaped their story, but their rich heritage remains.

Artists impression of the Bubis settling in Bioko Island.

Origins of the Bubis

Linguistic research paints a vivid picture of the Bubis as one of the earliest Bantu tribes to embark on a soul-stirring exodus from their Nigerian/Cameroon homeland, perhaps 5,000 years ago. These courageous people journeyed southeast, ultimately settling on the breathtaking shores of what is now southern Cameroon or northern Gabon. Over time, they formed a tapestry of unique sub-tribes while residing in this region.

As legend has it, a more belligerent and populous tribe invaded the Bubis coastal haven, subjecting them to backbreaking labour and the shackles of slavery. Their eyes would often gaze across the waters, yearning for the serene, enigmatic peaks nearly 100 miles away that seemed to whisper of peace and freedom. The sub-tribe chieftains resolved to abandon their homeland, braving the ocean to reach the fabled land of Fernando Po, now known as Bioko Island.

The Bubis, rooted in coastal life and fishing, were likely more adept at canoe-building than many other African tribes. As they crafted their daring escape, they understood that the mightiest trees from the mainland forests were necessary to forge the sturdiest canoes. Their audacious plan involved leaving in separate sub-tribes under the cloak of darkness over several months, bound for the far-off land.

Artist impression of the Bubis sailing for Bioko Island on their large canoes.

Their labour on the canoes was shrouded in secrecy. They amassed supplies and prepared their vessels right under the noses of their oppressors. The plan was a triumphant success. The first tribe set sail just past midnight, undetected, and rowed with palm leaf oars in blissful safety, as the tale goes. Antonio Anmeyei claims that the migration of the Bubis took place around 3,000 to 5,000 years before Portuguese explorer Fernando Po arrived in 1471. Legend says that the entire migration unfolded within a single year, predominantly between mid-November and mid-March.

The sub-tribes established themselves in territorial rings around the island, landing based on wind, currents, fortune, and timing. The final tribes to arrive were relegated to the more rugged, inhospitable inland terrain, sparking ongoing intra-tribal conflict as they sought to improve their circumstances.

Those who landed on the island’s northeast side, where the capital city of Malabo now stands, were blessed with the easiest landing due to the natural harbour. Others grappled with colossal, jagged boulders and furious waves to secure their foothold on the southern end, near Punta Santiago.

The names of quaint villages encircling the island today still enshrine the memory of some of those original tribes—the Baney, Batate, Baho, and Bakake. The Biabba tribe, whose name later morphed into the city of Riabba, is considered the first to arrive. The last and most beleaguered in their search for a place to settle were the Batetes and Bokokos.

The Bubis experienced a long period of seclusion and tranquillity, which allowed them to cultivate a distinctive culture, language, and belief system that set them apart from their mainland Bantu counterparts.

The Ancient Kingdom of the Bubis

Enduring for over three millennia, the enigmatic Bubi Kingdom was segmented into five distinct regions: North, Northeast, East, South, and Southwest. Each region boasted its own unique Bubi dialect and was further fragmented into a multitude of subgroups, perhaps akin to states.

Artist impression of the ancient kingdom of the Bubis.

The harrowing tales of intra-tribal wars recount relentless, blood-soaked conflicts between districts, towns, families, and individuals locked in endless private vendettas. As they honed their combat prowess through the abduction of wives, the Bubis transformed themselves into a formidable force.

Thus, during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, as Europeans ruthlessly harvested slaves along the West African coast, any notion of an effortless conquest of Bioko (formerly known as Fernando Poo) was swiftly abandoned. The Bubis were distrustful, inhospitable, and lethal to outsiders attempting to set foot on their island. Remarkably, ancient Bubi tribal conflicts seemed to halt at the water’s edge.

Artist impression of the Bubis fighting colonisers on Bioko Island.

When Europeans sought to colonise Bioko, they encountered fierce resistance. Fearing surprise assaults from the Bubis and their deadly dart weapons, Europeans hesitated to approach the island’s shores. The society of the Bubi people had a hierarchical structure dependent on the number of rivals one had eliminated through guile or stealth. Led by their kings and fully aware of the regional slave trade, the Bubis remained wary of outsiders for centuries.

Nonetheless, the island’s strategic location and its role as a freshwater source and provisioning resource for European trading and slaving ships made it impossible to bypass completely. The Portuguese, Spanish, and occasionally English made cautious, sporadic landings on Bioko.

In 1810, the English discovered just how inhospitable the Bubi could be to unwelcome visitors in their harbours. An English ship seeking fresh water found itself pursued by boatloads of vigilant Batetes, who subsequently launched a devastating attack on the sailors using precise, lethal spears. Every man aboard perished.

It wasn’t until the dawn of the 20th century that the Europeans managed to subdue the Bubis.

The visages of the Bubis struck terror into European hearts. Deep grooves carved into their foreheads and cheeks revealed a battle-scarred appearance that evoked violence and suffering. However, as Father Aymemi’s work reveals, these scars were etched onto Bubi’s children to identify them as tribe members in case they were kidnapped by slave traders. Bubi’s parents hoped that, even in a foreign land among strangers, their children could recognise fellow Bubi by their facial markings. The disfiguring scars also served to deter slavers from abducting them.

This practice persisted until the late 19th century when the Bubi was finally convinced of their children’s safety.

Only traders, who could provide the Bubis with guns and knives in exchange for palm oil, were permitted to settle on the coastal fringes.

Agriculture of the Bubis

Bubi agriculture focused primarily on the nurturing of yams and malanga, as these staple foods formed the very foundation of their sustenance. The entire community, from the youngest children to the oldest adults, united in the heartfelt endeavour of planting and tending to yams. However, the tender cultivation of malanga was a task exclusively reserved for the skilled hands of women. Each subordinate chieftain, accompanied by their family and dependents, diligently prepared a plot of land—varying in size based on the intended crop—and enclosed it within a protective fence. Subsequently, the land was divided among the adult men in parcels of diverse dimensions.

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