The ceety wis first foondit bi the Breetish in 1827, who leased the island frae Spain durin the colonial period. Named Port Clarence, it wis uised as a naval station in the effort tae suppress the slave trade. Mony newly freed slaves wur an aa settled there, prior tae the establishment o Liberie as a colony for freed slaves. While many o them later relocatit tae Sierra Leone, some o their descendants, cawed Fernandinos, can still be foond in Malabo an the surroondin aurie, where they constitute a distinct ethnic group, speakin their awn Afro-Portuguese pidgin dialect.
When the island revertit tae complete Spainyie control, Malabo wis renamed Santa Isabel. It wis chosen tae replace the mainland toun o Bata as the caipital o the kintra in 1969, an wis renamed Malabo in 1973 as pairt o Preses Francisco Macías Nguema's campaign tae replace European place names wi "authentic" African anes.