Out on a Limb

Courtesy of OSPA

by Christopher Hanson-Smith
(Administrative Officer, Nigeria 1950-59)
Fernando Po from N.E.
Fernando Po from N.E.
As District officers were expected to meet - and welcome - every new challenge that confronted them, I volunteered on one particularly hot and sticky day in Sokoto to serve temporarily as Her Britannic Majesty's Vice Consul and Labour Officer stationed on the Spanish island of Fernando Poo in the notorious Bight of Benin from where "few come out but many go in". The Consul's name was Martin and he needed some leave, hence the posting.

On the strength of my sketchy Spanish, which I had learnt before and during my honeymoon in the Balearic Isles in 1955, I was duly seconded to Santa Isabel, the capital of Spanish Equatorial Guinea on Fernando Poo. The long, dusty drive from one end of Nigeria to the other with a young wife and a year old daughter was a challenge but a wonderful chance to appreciate the endless diversity of Nigeria.

The port of Calabar was steeped in the earlier history of the traders, black and white, who had bargained, lived and died during the last days of the slave trade. From Calabar a small steamer took us to Santa Isabel; I remember the Spanish captain plying me with Havana cigars and cheap brandy. We steamed into the circular harbour, formed from an extinct volcano, to be met by the Consul in his Ford Consul car, proudly flying the Union flag. After a rapid handing over Martin departed and we were left in a bare house overlooking the harbour and surrounded by tall avocado trees. It was a different world to Sokoto.

Spanish Colonial Architecture
Spanish Colonial Architecture
The colony had been annexed by a Spanish expedition that sailed from Montevideo in 1778 and over the years came to include the neighbouring island of Annobon and a chunk of the African mainland called Rio Muni with Bata as its main town. From 1843 to 1854 John Beecroft had been both British Consul and Spanish Governor, a post that Richard Burton also held later for a short period; the Foreign Office wanted this troublesome genius out of the way and secretly hoped that he might never return like so many other Europeans.

My job was to look after the interests of about 20,000 Nigerians, mostly Ibos, who worked as indentured labour on the Spanish and Portuguese-owned plantations on the island and in Rio Muni. The Portuguese, who owned two smaller neighbouring islands, were also represented by a Consul. Because of the fertile volcanic soil, bananas, coffee and oil palms grow well and imported labour was crucial for the colony's economy. But the treatment of labourers was often brutal and living conditions harsh. Every weekday a long line of complainants formed outside the Consul's office; many bore scars of beatings and all had stories to tell of maltreatment by the plantation overseers. Each complaint was heard and, if it was thought genuine, a report was sent to the corpulent Spanish official responsible for an explanation and possible redress.

As there were always two versions of each complaint, one's sympathy was often with the plantation owners who were exasperated by idle workers whose one aim was to earn enough to buy a bicycle and a Singer sewing machine before returning home. The Spanish accepted that we were really playing a sort of game which, provided both sides followed the rules, allowed the plantations to be run with the minimum of fuss.

The Consul had the use of a cottage high up on the flank of the 9,000 ft peak - El Pico - below which the open pastures were grazed by bulls destined for the corridas in Spain. I was once chased by one such brute; fortunately there was a nearby fence over which I leapt to safety. Near the bare summit of El Pico the Germans had built an observation post during the last war from which they were able to monitor Allied shipping movements in the Bight. I once climbed to the summit in order to check on this story and was caught in a violent storm that caused the sudden death by pneumonia of my guide.

Spanish Stamps Showing Fernando Poo
Spanish Stamps Showing Fernando Poo
The few beaches were of dark, volcanic sand and the shallow waters off them teemed with fish and large prawns. Shoals of barracuda coasted through the clear water but paid no attention to any human swimmer or fisherman. The forests clothing the higher slopes of the mountain were full of a special genus of duiker which was hunted by the natives - the Bubis. Compared to the arid savannahs of Nigeria this island was indeed a bit of paradise.

Santa Isabel emerged briefly on to the world stage when its airstrip was used by charity organisations, notably Caritas, as a launch pad for their support of Biafra during the civil war in Nigeria. When the colony was given up by the Spanish, it fell into the cruel hands of a local dictator whose infamy and alleged cannibalism consigned the country to a decade of terror. When he finally died the natives refused to believe the news of his death until several months had elapsed. It was only the sight of a black swimmer, nicknamed 'the Eel' from a country called 'Equatorial Guinea' at the Sydney Olympic games that again put this island back on the map - everyone asked" where on earth is this country?" They should have been told how a long succession of Spanish, Portuguese and British settlers and administrators had created in a small corner of Africa a country which is happily not now racked by the feuds and rivalries of so many of its larger neighbours.

Fernando Po Map
Fernando Poo Map, 1955
Colony Profile
Fernando Po
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 113 (April, 2017)


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