Elmina Castle, 1668. No Copyright
Elmina Castle, 1668

Portuguese language heritage in Africa

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Written by Marco Ramerini. English text revision by Dietrich Köster.

After the conquest, in 1415, of the Arab stronghold of Ceuta in Morocco, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the African coast, and in the 1460s they built the first fort in Arguin (Mauritania). 1482 was the year of the construction of São Jorge da Mina Castle on the Gold Coast (Ghana). In 1487 the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope and in 1497 Vasco da Gama circumnavigated the African continent and arrived in India (1498).

The Portuguese practically ruled undisputed on the African coast during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Portuguese settlements in Africa were used by the Portuguese ships as supplying stations on the route to India, but they were also trading stations, where the Portuguese traded in gold, slaves and spices with the Africans and the Portuguese language was used as Lingua Franca along the African sea shores.

Now Portuguese is spoken in several nations of Africa, mainly in the former Portuguese colonies: It is the official language in Mozambique, in Angola, in São Tomé and Príncipe, in Guinea-Bissau and on the Cape Verde Islands; a creole kind of Portuguese is used in Senegal, in Guinea-Bissau, on the Cape Verde Islands, in São Tomé and Príncipe and also in Equatorial Guinea. A large community of Portuguese from Portugal, Angola and Mozambique resides in South Africa.

The Portuguese language has also influenced several African languages. Many Portuguese words were permanently lent to various kinds of African languages such as Swahili and Afrikaans.


In the 16th century along the coast of Senegal, Gambia and Guinea, the settlement of several groups of Portuguese merchants and Lançados (mixed-race) contributed to the spread of the Portuguese language in those areas. Today a Portuguese Creole is still spoken in Casamance (Ziguinchor Creole in Senegal and Gambia) and Guinea-Bissau (Bissau-Bolama Creole, Bafatá Creole and Cacheu Creole), its local name being Kriol (Crioulo). This language is the first creole language which emerged from the contact between Europeans and the African peoples.

In Guinea-Bissau Kriol is the national language and Portuguese is the official language. The Cape Verde Islands were a Portuguese colony till 1975, and thus Portuguese is today the official language of the archipelago. The Cape Verde Creole (Kriol or Crioulo) is spoken by the whole population and it is similar to that of Guinea-Bissau and Casamance. Portuguese is the second language for many people.

Cape Verde: 350,000 Cabo Verde Creole first language speakers (1990), Portuguese is the second language for the majority.

Guinea-Bissau: 150,000 Creole first language speakers (1996) and 600,000 second language users; 20,000 Portuguese first language speakers (1991).

Senegal and Gambia: 55,000 Ziguinchor Creole first language speakers (1990). The Senegal dialect is a little different from that in Guinea-Bissau, with some French vocabulary.

Portuguese speaking communities in Africa today. Author Marco Ramerini

Portuguese speaking communities in Africa today. Portuguese language heritage in Africa. Author Marco Ramerini


A kind of Portuguese language (Creole) developed along the coast of Ghana (Gold Coast) and was spoken by native traders in their dealings with the other Europeans (Dutch, English, Danes, Brandenburghers, French, Swedes), during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, even several years after the Portuguese abandonment of the Gold Coast. Till 1961 Portugal had a fort in Dahomey, now called Benin. Its name is São João Baptista de Ajudá (Ouidah). Here Portuguese was used in the past centuries by a community of mixed Portuguese descendants. Portuguese was also used in the Kingdom of Dahomey as language for the external relations with the other Europeans.

On several islands of the Gulf of Guinea the Portuguese Creole is still spoken today. These islands are: São Tomé and Príncipe islands (São Tomé & Príncipe), Annobon island (Equatorial Guinea). São Tomense (Forro) and Angolar (Moncó) are spoken on São Tomé Island, Principense on Principe Island. These Creoles are quite distinct from the Creoles of Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and Gambia.

Portuguese is the official language of São Tomé and Príncipe and is spoken as second language by the majority of the inhabitants; in 1993 only 2,580 people used it as first language. On the Island of Annobon (Pagalu, Equatorial Guinea), the population speaks a particular sort of Portuguese Creole, called Annobonese or Fá d’Ambô, a rare mixture of Angolan Bantu dialects and old Portuguese, which is similar to that of São Tomé. The Portuguese became the third official language of Equatorial Guinea since July 20, 2010

São Tomé and Principe: 85,000 São Tomense first language speakers (São Tomé Island), 9,000 Angolar first language speakers (São Tomé Island), and 4,000 Principense first language speakers (Principe Island) (1989); 2,580 Portuguese first language speakers (1993) and a large part of the inhabitants speak Portuguese as second language.

Equatorial Guinea: 8.950 Annobonese first language speakers (Annobon Island) (1993). The Portuguese became the third official language of Equatorial Guinea since July 20, 2010.

SOUTHERN AFRICA: Congo, Angola, South Africa and Mozambique.

During the 16th century in the Kingdon of Congo, many people of the ruling class spoke Portuguese fluently. This language was also the vehicle for the spread of Christianity. The testimony of a European traveler in 1610 prove that in Soyo all children learnt Portuguese. There is proof of the existence in the Congo Kingdom of Portuguese schools managed by the missionaries during the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries the influence and the use of Portuguese as a trading language spread along the coast of Congo and Angola from Loango to Benguela.

In Angola – a Portuguese colony till 1975 – Portuguese is the official language and is spoken by many people. Most Mestiços (in 1995 about 1,5 % of the Angolan population, that is 170,000) speak Portuguese as household language and they tended to identify with the Portuguese culture. In Mozambique – another Portuguese colony till 1975 – Portuguese is the official language and is spoken by many people, principally as second language. In South Africa Portuguese is spoken by people of Portuguese descent and by the immigrants from Angola, Mozambique and Brazil (600,000).

Angola: 57,600 Portuguese first language speakers (1993) and a large part of the inhabitants speak Portuguese as second language.

Mozambique: 30,000 Portuguese first language speakers (1993) and 4,000,000 second language users, about 30% of the population (1991).

South Africa: More than half a million Portuguese first language speakers.

EAST AFRICA: Kenya and Tanzania.

Portuguese was used as Lingua Franca in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was due to the Portuguese domination of the East Coast of Africa till the end of the 17th century. Mombasa was held till 1698 and a brief reoccupation was attempted in 1728/1729. There is evidence given by an English lieutenant that in 1831 a confused Portuguese was spoken by a man in Mombasa. The contact between the Portuguese and Africans influenced also the Swahili language, which today is used along the whole East African coast. There are more than 120 words of Portuguese origin in the Swahili language.


– Chataigner, Abel “Le créole portugais du Sénégal: observations et textes” ?, in: Journal of African languages Vol. 1,1 1963, pp. 44-71

– Cardoso, Eduardo “O Crioulo da Ilha de São Nicolau de Cabo Verde”, 142 pp., Imprensa Nacional, 1989, Lisbon, Portugal.

– Couto, Hildo Honório do. “The genesis of Portuguese creole in Africa”, in: Holm, John & Frank Byrne (eds.).”Atlantic meets Pacific: a global view of pidginization and creolization”, John Benjamins Publishing Company,1993, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, pp. 381-389.

– Dalphinis, Morgan, “African language influences in Creoles lexically based on Portuguese, English and French with special reference to Casamance Kriul, Gambian Krio and Saint Lucia Patwa”, 756 pp. PhD. Thesis, University of London, 1981, London, United Kingdom.

– Ferraz, Luís Ivens “The creole of São Tomé”, 122 pp., Separata African Studies, 37, Witwatersrand University Press, 1979, Johannesburg, South Africa.

– Günther, Wilfried “Das portugiesische Kreolisch der Ilha do Príncipe” Selbstverlag, 1973, Marburg an der Lahn.

– Kihm, Alain “Kriyol syntax: the Portuguese-based Creole language of Guinea-Bissau”, VIII, 310 pp. Creole language library n° 14, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1994, Amsterdam and Philadelphia.

– Lorenzino, Gerardo A., “The Angolar Creole Portuguese of São Tomé: its grammar and sociolinguistic history”, 290 pp. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, City University of New York, 1998, This Thesis deals with the genesis and development of the Angolar Creole Portuguese of São Tomé and Príncipe (Gulf of Guinea), off the coast of West Africa. Angolar is the language spoken by descendants of maroon slaves who escaped from Portuguese plantations on São Tomé in the mid-sixteenth century.

– Maurer, Philippe “L’angolar. Un créole afro-portugais parlé à São Tomé”, Buske, 1995, Hamburg.

– Moreau, Marie-Louise “Destino de uma sociedade, destino de uma língua. Balizas para a história do crioulo português em Ziguinchor” in: “PAPIA Revista de Crioulos de Base Ibérica”, Universidade de Brasília, Volume 3, nº 1, 1994

– Perl, Mathias “Acerca de Alguns Aspectos Históricos do Português Crioulo em África”, in: “Biblos”, vol. LVIII (Segunda Parte da Homenagem a M. Paiva Boleo), 1-12 pp. FLUC, 1983, Coimbra, Portugal.

– Perl, Mathias “A reevaluation of the importance of early Pidgin/Creole Portuguese”, pp. 125 – 130, JPCL (Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages) N° 5/1 (April 1990), John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam and Philadelphia.

– Ploae-Hanganu, Mariana “Le créole portugais de l’Afrique: sa base portugaise”, 2 vols. (251, 58 f.) : [10] maps, 1991, Lisbon.

– Washabaugh, William and Greenfield, Sidney M. “The Portuguese Expansion and the Development of Atlantic Creole Languages” In: “Luso-Brazilian Review” n. 18 (2),1981, 225-238 pp.

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About Marco Ramerini

I am passionate about history, especially the history of geographical explorations and colonialism.