Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

BEFORE "BAGA": SETTLEMENT CHRONOLOGIES OF THE COASTAL RIO NUNEZ REGION, EARLIEST TIMES TO C.1000 CE

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

BEFORE "BAGA": SETTLEMENT CHRONOLOGIES OF THE COASTAL RIO NUNEZ REGION, EARLIEST TIMES TO C.1000 CE

Article excerpt

Today amid the mangrove swamps, rice fields, and mosquitoes, villages of rice farmers line the coastal fringe of Guinea-Conakry. The processes by which the region's inhabitants settled on the coastal fringe and carved out a productive existence from the seemingly barren floodplains and swamps are still a mystery to historians. This important indigenous history pre-dates oral traditions and European travelers' accounts, historical sources on which scholars of the region have heretofore relied.1

Words are almost inadequate to describe the remoteness of the coastal region or the isolation of coastal villages. During the dry season, smaller villages are accessible only on foot or by motorized dugout canoes, which transport villagers to and from weekly regional markets. During the rainy season, torrential rains transform the already low-lying stretch of land in and around the villages into muddy swamps, perfect for growing rice, the staple crop of the region.

The Rio Nunez region is part of Guinea-Conakry's coastal fringe. The Nunez River begins at the Atlantic Ocean, stretches through the commercial center of Boke, and ends in the foothills of the Futa Jallon region. Geographically, this study focuses on the Lower Rio Nunez region bordered by the Pongo River in the south, the Kogon River in the North, and the Kacundy Region in the interior. Linguistically, speakers of NaIu, Mbulungish, Mboteni, and Sitem languages inhabit the Lower Rio Nunez region. Landuma-speakers are their neighbors, inhabiting the Kacundy Region in the upper reaches of the Rio Nunez region. Susu, a Mande language also spoken in the Rio Nunez region, is not indigenous. The region's indigenous languages and ethnic groups are the focus of this study.

Though several ethnic groups inhabit the Rio Nunez region, one particular group, the "Baga," is predominant in the historical literature. Recently, scholars have begun to dissect the complex construction of Baga identity.2 Yet it remains difficult to determine how and when Baga ethnicity gained currency among coastal dwellers in the Rio Nunez region and whether or not coastal dwellers themselves assumed this common ethnic identity or were assigned it by Susu traders from the interior.3 European travelers employed the ethnonym "Baga" to name coastal groups inhabiting the mangrove swamps along the Nunez, Kapatchez, and Pongo Rivers, including Mbulungish-, Mboteni-, and Sitem-speakers. In addition, the ethnonym "Baga" began gaining currency in Portuguese travelers' accounts in the late sixteenth century.4

To date, Portuguese travelers' accounts mark the beginning of our historical knowledge about the Rio Nunez region and its inhabitants. Paul Hair's examination of the earliest written sources on the Baga found a geographic shift in the application of the ethnonym "Baga" in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century written sources. On the one hand, sixteenth -century Portuguese accounts locate the Baga in the Rio Nunez region of coastal Guinea and further south in the Ile de Los near the Guinea/Sierra Leone border. On the other hand, in seventeenth-century and later sources, European traders locate the Baga in the Rio Nunez region only, one of the locales of present-day Baga villages. Other ethnonyms replaced "Baga" in traders' descriptions of ethnic groups located to the south of the Nunez. Hair concludes that the Baga have inhabited territories in the vicinity of their present-day locations since the arrival of European traders (and the advent of written documentation) on the coast, approximately 500 years ago.5

In a recent article, Bruce Mouser focuses on first-hand European accounts from the 1793 to 1821 period to locate the stretch of the coastal Baga inland, using rivers to demarcate their location. By locating Baga groups more precisely on the coast and further inland, Mouser redefines the cultural subgroups proposed in previous scholarship, increasing our understanding of the interactions between Baga, Susu lineages and chiefs, and Luso-African traders. …

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