Endangered Archives

EAP266: History of Bolama, the first capital of Portuguese Guinea (1879-1941), as reflected in the Guinean National Historical Archives

Dr Birgit Embaló, Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisa
2009 award - Pilot project
£9,900 for 6 months

Archival partner: National Historical Archives at INEP

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Project Overview

Portuguese sovereignty in Portuguese Guinea during the centuries before the scramble (1884/85) was but a fiction, in spite of the erection of forts and the installation of artillery pieces. After nearly a century of dispute over the authority on Bolama between the British and the Portuguese the conflict over the island was arbitrated by US President Grant in favour of Portugal. In 1879 the Portuguese declared Bolama the first capital of their newly proclaimed colony of Portuguese Guinea which previously had been administered together with the Cape Verde Islands. The desperate attempts of the Portuguese between 1885 and 1915 to fulfil the conditions of effective occupation reflect this situation. Luso-Africans (Guinea-born and from Cape Verde) and not the Portuguese were the principal disseminators of Portuguese and Luso-African social and cultural influences during the period of colonial rule.

The Bolama collection at the National Historical Archives of Guinea-Bissau consists of circa 80 ml; the documents were first registered in the late 1980s. Initially they were stored in 279 archival boxes. The documents had been transferred to the Archives in Bissau from totally neglected rooms in the Mayoral Office of Bolama by the Archive's Director and his staff in 1988. Before that date, probably no Guinean archivist or historian had ever touched the material. It includes all the documents of the public administration which could be found in Bolama in 1988. It covers the period of Bolama, the capital (1879 to 1941), some documents go back as far as 1870, whereas other sections continue until the 1960s.

The Bolama collection was heavily affected by the war of 1998/99. Its first registration had been completed in 1990 and was published as Catálogo Sumário (survey catalogue). A basic physical renovation of the National Historical Archives at INEP took place in 2007 & 2008. It is only now, a decade after the war, that acceptable conditions for document storage and treatment can be provided again.

Out of the original 279 boxes only 85 have been found intact after the military conflict or could be recompiled. The rest is mixed up, particularly with still untreated documents of the Bolama custom authorities. About 10% may be lost. Approximately 50% of the collection is in acceptable condition. These documents are readable, after some preparation measures parts of it could be digitised without problems. Another 25% of the collection can be opened, but is mildewed. To salvage this part should be possible by quick intervention and subsequent digitising. About 15% is in a very bad condition. Only further analysis during this project will allow a detailed report on its conservation state and historical value. About 10% of the collection cannot be touched at all; the paper is crumbling away.

In January 2009 some additional research was undertaken in Bolama and other public documents from the colonial period on the island were found, seriously vulnerable to deterioration. Other relevant documents of the Bolama Court are stored in the huge and disorganised archives of the Ministry of Justice in Bissau, also in quite alarming conditions, as the colonial archive is on the loft of the old Palace of Justice with a roof in bad repair.

The Bolama collection is of high historical value. It reflects the fundamental change in Portuguese colonial rule from outside administration (directed from the Cape Verde Islands) to significant Portuguese presence and the political and economic penetration of the Guinean mainland. Five fields of promising historical research can be identified at this stage:

  • External trade and economic relations, nexus to Portugal: documents of Bolama port (one of two most important ports before 1941) and custom authorities;
  • Documents related to the pacification campaigns: the Guinean people of the mainland were finally conquered in 1915, whereas those in the Bijagos islands remained resisting until 1936;
  • Status of the indigenous and the development of racist laws, documents of Bolama Public Administration;
  • Organisation of the Portuguese administration: internal functioning and relationship between centre (Bolama) and administration posts of the mainland;
  • Ruling Luso-African personalities at the crossroad of personal and national history.

This pilot project aims at reorganising the Bolama collection. Some prioritised document series will be analysed (with regard to its high historical value and its conservation status) and from this material the first digital sample copies will be created.

Based on this preliminary document selection and treatment the conservation needs will be defined and an estimation of the quantity of documents that should be digitised in the major research project because of their extreme endangerment.

For treatment and safer storage, the documents from Bolama Island and the Ministry of Justice will be moved to the National Historical Archives at INEP. The AHN building was renovated in 2007-8 and now offers remarkably improved storing facilities as well as staff trained in scanning of archival materials. The archive and additional staff will be trained further in digitising techniques and in basic aspects of historical analysis necessary for a better understanding of the documents of the Bolama collection. Thus continuous participation of a Guinean historian with archivist interest in all steps of this pilot project is assured. After reorganisation and preliminary analysis of the complete Bolama collection with regard to conservation status and historical value, a future major research project will be developed.

Project Outcome

The documents still existing on the island of Bolama were examined by two archivists in December 2009. All transportable documents were shipped and taken to Bissau and are now stored in the National Historical Archives at INEP and have been integrated as far as possible into the already existing Bolama collection.

The evacuated documents consisted mainly of issues of the Bulletin Oficial, which are partially moderately damaged, partially severely. These Bulletins are very rare as there are only a few specimens in existence, even the library has no full series.

The physical reorganisation of the Bolama Collection, which was scattered in the war and partly destroyed, continued through the pilot project and turned out to be more difficult and time consuming than envisaged. The documents were painstakingly restored to their original order and rearranged and re-packed in 279 boxes. The condition and conservation status of the documents was checked and classified.

The total number of documents is 7,273 of which 1,024 documents were not found. All of these are document groups, not individual documents or individual sheets. Additionally, six boxes have been completely lost.

Most of these losses go back to destruction in the 1998/99 war in Guinea-Bissau; but some documents seem also to have been removed out of the Archives consciously or were stolen, for example the historically interesting contracts with local kings (régulos) of the island of Bubaque.

As almost all boxes have documents in critical condition, a partial digitisation of the collection would make little sense. It would be logical and appropriate, to digitise in the future the entire classified collection of Bolama (= 273 boxes).

The second part of the project was the evacuation of court documents from the Ministry of Justice in Bissau, which holds holds the judicial acts of Guinea-Bissau since the mid-19th century, in its attic. Permission was received to evacuate the documents. They have been cleaned and transferred to INEP and organised by type of process and year.

Some documents have been digitised as samples.

The main aims of the pilot project have been achieved. All existing documents of the Bolama Collection are now stored in the National Historical Archives of INEP. Thus, these documents are protected from further decay and could be saved from further imminent threats.

There are now four major sections in the Bolama Collection:

  1. All available documents of the City of Bolama;
  2. All available court documents about the processes that were conducted in Bolama courts from 1879 to 1941;
  3. All available documents of Bolama Port, reflecting trade on the national, regional and international level;
  4. All available documents of Bolama Custom office.

To our knowledge there does not exist in any other archive, whether in Portugal (Arquivo Historico Ultramarino, Arquivo Historico Militar), nor in Senegal, or on the Cape Verde islands, such an extensive collection of Bolama. The particular value of the Bissau-Guinean collection consists in the fact that it contains many documents of local history and daily life of the Africans and of the colonialists, sometimes from documents generated by Africans themselves.

The importance of the Bolama collection cannot be underestimated, as it includes substantial amounts of detailed reports and information at the grass-roots level about local conditions as well as important economic and legal documents.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP266/1 History of Bolama, the first capital of Portuguese Guinea (1879-1941), as reflected in the Guinean National Historical Archives

The catalogue is available here.

Survey results available here: