Wednesday, May 18

The little great Catalan empire in the Spanish colony of Guinea: from the masters of cacao to Fèlix Millet

At just 19 years old, in 1893, Joaquim Rodríguez Barrera left his native Sant Feliu de Guíxols (Girona), where he worked in the cork sector, to manage a 182-hectare cocoa farm on the African island of Bioko, for then named Fernando Poo. In a territory, today belonging to Equatorial Guinea, in which a regular steam line had arrived from Spain just five years ago (from the Compañía Transatlántica, from the Marquès de Comillas), this was one of the first Spaniards, the majority Catalans, that were launched in search of the business in what would be Spanish Guinea until 1968.

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Rodríguez Barrera is an example of how a small colonial empire was forged in that African territory with a port of reference in Barcelona. The guixolenc He had land to produce cocoa – some 200 hectares, according to the records -, he marketed it and opened a small chocolate factory in the Catalan capital. He also presided over the main lobby of farmers and opened the doors of Guinea to many other compatriots, but, like so many protagonists of Guinean colonial history, he is hardly remembered today.

“Why has the colonial past in Guinea been studied so little? Possibly due to several factors: one, that the territory was really small, the equivalent of Catalonia. Also that the decolonization process was very traumatic and there were few Spaniards left. And that it was always in the shadow of Morocco “, says Jordi Sant, historian from Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) and author, together with Eduard Gargallo, of the book The petit imperi. Catalans in the colonization of Spanish Guinea (Angle Editorial). In it, both reconstruct the prominent role of Catalan businessmen in the colonial economy of those African territories, especially at the beginning of the 20th century, when they became the masters of cocoa. 92% of imports of this product came to Spain through the port of Barcelona.

Rodríguez Barrera was not among the largest landowners – among whom there were also Portuguese or locals. fernandinos-, but it does serve to understand the Catalan landing on the island and the subsequent network of influences that wove through Barcelona. Thanks to him, the owners of the Potau and Domènech plantations, or Josep Rosselló, creator of SUMCO, one of the leading commercial firms in the colony, came to Fernando Poo. The one from Sant Feliu de Guíxols was, in addition, one of the voices with the most ancestry in the area: for years he presided over the Union of Farmers, a kind of employer that was dedicated to making lobby in favor of Guinean producers and that it was based in the Catalan capital, where the newspaper’s headquarters were also located The voice of Fernando Poo.

Labor exploitation on farms

The book by these two historians constitutes an important X-ray of the Catalan past in present-day Equatorial Guinea, although it also illuminates the history of the colony, especially in its economic and commercial aspects. Their occupation came practically after the loss of the colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba, at the end of the 19th century, and although it never had a decisive weight in the peninsular economy, it was the beginning of many family fortunes, raised in this case not on slave labor, as in the Antilles, but on the exploitation of local ethnic groups.

Both the native population and the workforce that was imported from Liberia or Sierra Leone were recruited and employed often in deplorable conditions, according to these scholars. And they were second-class citizens, socially segregated, until the 1960s.

“The working conditions were extremely harsh and half of the salary was withheld by the Curatorship until the contract expired,” the authors of the book relate. The latter served to minimize the flight of workers. Of the native Bubi population, which at the beginning of the 20th century numbered about 15,000, it was said by the settlers that they were lazy. But the Barcelona doctor Joaquín Coll Astrell wrote in an article in The Impartial, already in 1905: “It is not that they are refractory to civilization and work, it is that we have not had the necessary tact to attract them […]. The whites who are in front of the farms are not distinguished by their intelligence, or by their mild manners, or by the greatness of their love feelings. ”

One of the great needs of landowners for years was to recruit braceros, because there were not enough of them on the island. They did it in other African colonies and also in the continental area of ​​Guinea, Río Muni, at that time very sparsely populated. Among the methods used, the lieutenant of the Civil Guard Julián Ayala stands out, hired by the mayor of the capital, Santa Isabel, Francesc Millet, at a rate of 12,000 pesetas per year and 25 more for each new worker. It was a unique recruitment system for all landowners in which, according to the academics, the natives were deceived, they were given alcohol to hire them when they were drunk and they were even recruited through the granting of credits that they could not pay later.

Political connections and the ‘boom’ of the 50s

Among the most influential Catalan surnames on the island of Fernando Poo also stands out Torres, by Salvador and Gabriel de la Trinitat Torres, two brothers who opened the first cocoa plantation, called La Barcelonesa. His uncle, Sebastià, was president of the Barcelona Industrial Defense League and deputy of the Regionalist League, the political arm of the Catalan bourgeoisie.

Another prominent figure was that of Antonio Pérez, known as the cocoa emperor, and whose son, Francisco-Javier Pérez Portabella, led numerous employer initiatives from the all-powerful FRAPEJO company. In this firm, Jordi Sabater Pi, a world-renowned primatologist, held various positions during the 1940s. He is best known for having discovered, in 1966, an albino gorilla that he sent to the Barcelona Zoo: the Floquet de Neu.

The cultivation of cocoa was gaining weight in the then Spanish Guinea and the economy was diversifying towards wood or coffee. With periods of bonanza such as the happy 1920s and others of greater difficulty, such as those that followed the Spanish Civil War, the zenith of Guinean business was reached from the 1950s, during the Franco regime, although at that time the Catalan capitals they had already been losing weight within the business. The liberalization of the price of cocoa, Gargallo and Sant report, triggered the business. It went from 25,000 hectares of cultivation in 1950 to 57,800 in 1960. The tons multiplied to reach 30,000 during that decade.

East boom economic was coupled with the growth of the Spanish population on the island, many of them to occupy middle positions in farms and haciendas. In 1960 whites numbered 8,950, roughly 5% of the population. And among them, a then young Fèlix Millet.

“He went there because his father told him that he could do the military fast,” says Sant. The father was the financier Millet i Maristany. Little is known about his time in the colony, except that he worked for the CAIFER company and that he was with his wife. Some later journalistic chronicles, which revisited the figure of the former president of the Palau de la Música after the condemnation of the looting of the entity, assure that he played the sax with a group called Banana Boys. Historians have not wanted to investigate further in the Millet’s Guinean journey, nor have they been able to verify that Francesc Millet, mayor of Santa Isabel and president of the Agricultural Chamber during the 1920s, is a relative of his.

In 1959, the territories of the Gulf of Guinea were considered provinces (on the one hand Fernando Poo, the island, and on the other Río Muni, the mainland). On October 12, 1968, and after years of pressure from the UN and a referendum, the Spanish government granted them independence. The transfer of powers ceremony was presided over by Manuel Fraga Iribarne, on behalf of the State, together with the president of the new republic, Francisco Macías Nguema.