All About São Tomé and Príncipe

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Podcast Transcript

Located in the Gulf of Guinea, off the west coast of Africa, lies the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. 

São Tomé and Príncipe have the distinction of being one of the smallest countries in the world by both population and area and as such, it is a country that many people have never heard of.

Despite its small size, its geography and history make it a country, unlike any other country in Africa.

Learn more about the nation of São Tomé and Príncipe and how it came to be on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before I get any further, for all my Portuguese-speaking listeners, I should address the pronunciation of the name of the country. 

The proper pronunciation in Portuguese, which is the national language, is São Tomé and Príncipe. 

When I visited the country in 2014, we had an officer on the ship I was on who was from Brazil and insisted on using the correct Portuguese pronunciation. 

The difference in pronunciation primarily comes from the diacritical marks, which are found in Portuguese and are not found in English. 

For the rest of this episode, I’m going to use the English pronunciation, which basically ignores the diacritical marks. So it will be Sao Tome and Principe.

That being said, the story of Sao Tome and Principe begins with its geography. 

The islands of Sao Tome and Principe are located at the eastern end of the Gulf of Guinea in what is known as the Bight of Biafra. This is basically the corner where the west coast of Africa goes from running north-south to running east-west. 

The islands are volcanic in origin and are part of the Cameroon line. The Cameroon Line is a 1,600-kilometer or 1,000-mile chain of volcanoes that extends from the African mainland into the Gulf of Guinea. 

In addition to Mount Cameroon on the mainland and the islands of Sao Tome and Principe, the chain also includes the islands of Bioko and Annobón, which are part of Equatorial Guinea. The islands are believed to be approximately 30 million years old.

Sao Tome, which is the larger of the two islands by both population and area, is 280 kilometers due west of the nation of Gabon and 428 kilometers due south of Nigeria. 

It is also located very close to the equator. The southernmost point of Sao Tome is 2 kilometers north of the equator. It was sailing to Sao Tome when I was inducted into the Order of Neptune….which is a whole other story.

The island of Principe is located 142 kilometers northeast of Sao Tome. 

The island of Sao Tome is approximately six times the size of Principe.

The history of Sao Tome and Principe is also very different from almost every other African country. 

Africa, as you know, is the cradle of humanity. Humans and human ancestors have existed on the continents for almost 2 million years. 

However, there is no evidence that humans ever lived on the islands of Sao Tome or Principe. 

This is in and of itself a really interesting thing. Bioko Island, which is the main island of Equatorial Guinea and a part of the Cameroon line, was settled and had native inhabitants. However, Bioko is only 32 kilometers from the coast and can easily be seen from the mainland.

As far as we know, and there has been no evidence found to the contrary, the first humans to set foot on Sao Tome were Portuguese explorers João de Santarém and Pêro Escobar.

The dates that are celebrated for the first arrivals are December 21, 1471, for Sao Tome and January 17, 1472, for Principe. 

December 21 was Saint Thomas’s Day, which is whom the island of Sao Tome is named after.

January 17 was Saint Anthony’s Day, and the island was originally named after Saint Anthony but was renamed Principe, or the Prince’s Island, after Afonso, the Hereditary Prince of Portugal, the son of King John II.

The Portuguese found these uninhabited islands to be a great place to set up a settlement.

In 1493, Álvaro Caminha received a grant from the Portuguese crown and established the first settlement in Sao Tome.

Getting people to come live at the settlement was difficult. Many Jews in Portugal were sent there to live, including 2,000 Jewish children who were sent to work in the sugar cane fields.

However, It wasn’t long before Sao Tome began the importation of slaves from Africa. 

The first slaves were brought to Sao Tome to work in the fields. In 1510 alone, between 10,000 to 12,000 slaves were brought to Sao Tome

Slaves were not only imported to work on plantations in Sao Tome, but Sao Tome also served as a human transit hub for slaves from all over Africa. Slaves were brought from Angola, the Congo, and along the slave coast of what is today Ghana, Togo

From there, they were sent mainly to Brazil and the Caribbean. 

At one point, Sao Tome accounted for a full 80% of the imports to Brazil, mostly from the human trafficking of slaves. 

As there were no indigenous people on the island, the number of slaves was overwhelmingly larger than the number of Portuguese. This eventually led to a major slave revolt on the island in 1595. The revolt was led by a man named Amador. 

Amador was born a slave in Sao Tome. 

For decades, slaves had escaped from plantations and settled in communities in the interior of the island. They were known as maroons.

There had been slave and maroon revolts in Sao Tome for years. 

Throughout the 16th century, sugar had become less important as sugar production increased in Brazil.  By 1595, with the sugar economy on the island in decline, there was infighting between the church, the government, and plantation owners. 

Amador used this instability to launch his revolt. It began small. On July 9, 1595, Amador and two other slaves, Lazaro and Domingo, led a group into a church where they killed Portuguese men attending mass. 

From there, the revolt spread rapidly. Within days, Amador had recruited over 5,000 slaves from the island to take part in his revolt. Amador had become the African Sparticus. 

He proclaimed himself king and organized his revolutionaries into an army.

Amador and his army systematically set about destroying the Portuguese infrastructure of Sao Tome. They destroyed 60 of the 85 sugar mills on the island.

The revolt, however, was short-lived. After an attack on July 28, Amador’s soldiers took heavy casualties, with over 200 killed. After the attack, the governor of the island offered clemency to anyone who surrendered, and over 4,000 took the offer. 

One of Amador’s lieutenants betrayed him, and he and several other leaders of the revolt were captured by the Portuguese. On August 14, Amador was executed, drawn and quartered.

Amador’s slave revolt was one of the largest in the history of the Atlantic slave trade. After Sao Tome and Principe became independent, Amador was declared a national hero. His face was on every note in the original currency issued by the country, the dobra, and January 4 is a national holiday in Sao Tome and Principe in his honor. 

Amador’s revolt accelerated what had been happening with the Sao Tome economy. Sugar became less essential, and slaves became even more important, continuing its role as a transit point. 

While slavery remained the basis of the economy, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the number of Europeans on the island dwindled due to tropical diseases. Most of the free people on the islands were mixed-race, and they began taking leadership positions. 

In the 19th century, agriculture made a return in the form of cacao and coffee. Both products were successful and grown on plantations, which were mostly owned by absent Portuguese landlords. 

The slave trade dwindled throughout the 19th century as it was outlawed in more countries. It was eventually outlawed by Portugal in 1876. 

However, it didn’t necessarily stop the practice in Sao Tome. For decades after the official emancipation of slaves on the island, the practice continued even though it was illegal. 

The forced labor conditions continued well into the 20th century. If it wasn’t technically slavery, it was the closest thing to it. 

There was labor unrest and riots that took place throughout the 20th century, which culminated in the Batepá massacre on February 3, 1953. 

Members of the Portuguese International and State Defense Police, which was the security force under the Portuguese dictator António Salazar, murdered approximately 2000 “creole” peasants on the island.  This was an enormous percentage of the total population of the island at the time.

The post-war period saw a wave of decolonization and independence for countries throughout Africa. In the 1950s and 1960s, Britain, France, and other countries gave up their colonies, but Portugal stubbornly refused. 

The Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe (MLSTP) was created, which was primarily run out of the neighboring country of Gabon.

Salazar stepped down in 1968 but was replaced by Marcelo Caetano, who continued the dictatorial system known as the Estado Novo. 

However, on April 24, 1974, a coup took place in Portugal, known as the Carnation Revolution. The new government instantly changed course on its policies toward its African colonies and announced that it would let them become independent.

This included Sao Tome and Principe, which officially became independent on July 12, 1975.

Since independence, Sao Tome and Principe has had it better than most West African countries. 

Manuel Pinto da Costa, the leader of the Sao Tome independence movement, became the first president of the country, a position which he held until 1991. 

After 1990, the country instituted a series of reforms that allowed for opposition parties, and in 1991, a free election took place where an exiled candidate, Miguel Trovoada, actually won.

For the most part, save for a one-week military coup in 2003, the country has been mostly democratic, with open, transparent elections and peaceful transitions of power. 

The economy of Sao Tome and Principe has had its ups and downs.

After independence, all of the plantations, which had previously been owned by absentee Portuguese, were nationalized, which resulted in the collapse of the cocoa industry.

There was an eventual privatization of nationalized industries, and the cocoa industry rebounded, and today it is its largest export.

One of the biggest potentials for the economy could be the oil and gas industry. There are oil and gas reserves offshore, but they have yet to be fully exploited. 

Another potential source of economic growth in the future is travel and tourism. I visited both the islands of Sao Tome and Principe when I took a ship up the west coast of Africa. Both islands are largely unknown as a tourist destination, but both have enormous potential. 

Sao Tome and Principe have largely escaped many of the problems that many African countries have faced after independence. There haven’t been any civil wars. The HIV/AIDS epidemic, which ravaged parts of Africa, has, for the most part, bypassed the islands.

São Tomé and Príncipe is one of Africa’s smallest and least populous nations. Despite dealing with de facto slavery for longer than almost anywhere else in the world, this tiny island country has managed to become one of the more successful countries in Africa. 

Given its relatively stable democracy, natural beauty, rich volcanic soils, and still largely untapped oil and gas resources, São Tomé and Príncipe may have a very bright future. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today, I have a comment that was left on Spotify, where, if you didn’t know, you can leave reviews on individual episodes. 

Joseph Pontillo left a comment on my recent episode on multiple births. He wrote:

This is absolutely crazy. I’ve been listening for a very, very long time. Every night, when I take my dog on a bike ride. My wife and I Just found out today we are having triplets. Today. Wow. 

Thanks, Joseph! And congratulations! With triplets, you are really going to have your hands full. I’ve had many people reach out to me with strange coincidences with when episodes are released, but yours is probably the greatest one yet. 

Also, if you are looking for names for your triplets, I’ll just throw this out there, perhaps you should consider “everything”, “everywhere”, and “daily”. They might work as middle names as well. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.