What Should I Know About Sao Tome and Principe?

Brendan McGuigan

Sao Tome and Principe is a small island nation off the coast of West Africa. The country covers 370 square miles (960 sq. km). The country is made up of two major islands, both more than 150 miles (250 km) off the coast of Gabon. Nearby islands include Bioko and Annobon, both of which belong to Equatorial Guinea.

Sao Tome and Principe are ideal places for snorkeling.
Sao Tome and Principe are ideal places for snorkeling.

There is no evidence of early settlements on either Sao Tome or Principe, and when the Portuguese first landed on the island in the late-15th century, the islands were completely uninhabited. Their proximity to mainland Africa made them an idea base of operations for the Portuguese trade empire, which often found mainland tribes hostile to bases built on the coast. Bases on Sao Tome and Principe were close enough to the coast to facilitate regular trade, but far enough away to protect the Portuguese from disturbances or violent outbreaks.

Sao Tome and Principe is an island nation off the coast of West Africa.
Sao Tome and Principe is an island nation off the coast of West Africa.

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In the late-15th century Portugal began to settle Sao Tome and Principe, with a large proportion of Jews leaving Portugal to escape persecution. The early settlers began raising sugar on the islands, finding the volcanic soil ideal for growing that cash crop. Within a few decades, the islands had become major producers of sugar, and Portugal took over running both of the islands directly.

When sugar began to be cultivated widely in the Caribbean, Sao Tome and Principe found itself unable to compete effectively. As a result, by the middle of the 16th century the islands had instead become primarily a waypoint for slaves on their way to the Caribbean and the Americas. Agriculture began to make a comeback at the dawn of the 19th century, when cocoa and coffee were both introduced to the islands, and flourished in the same soil that had made sugar so successful centuries before.

Slavery was abolished in Portuguese territories near the end of the 19th century, but the landowner system in place on Sao Tome and Principe led to an effective slavery continuing after its official abolition. For much of the early-20th century clashes occurred between Portuguese landowners and workers, particularly over the use of Angolan workers as de facto slaves. In the 1950s this anti-Portuguese sentiment boiled over, and laborers protested en masse until being brutally suppressed by the Portuguese in what is usually called the Batepa Massacre.

A liberation movement sprang up shortly after, with inhabitants demanding independence from Portugal. The movement gathered speed through the 1960's, and in 1974, when the Carnation Revolution occurred in Portugal, replacing the dictatorial government with a leftist Socialist government, the new government began to liberate all Portuguese territories. In 1975 Sao Tome and Principe was declared a fully independent nation.

Although the early years of independence were characterized by much of the state oppression that marked many other African nations in this era, by the 1990s Sao Tome and Principe began embracing democratic reforms throughout the political process. With the exception of a brief period in 2003 when the army seized power, the country has continued to function relatively democratically and openly.

Sao Tome and Principe are a great island destination a bit off the beaten path. The fusion of Portuguese and African culture make for amazing music and dancing, the coffee is reputedly some of the best in the world, the snorkeling and surfing is world class, and the volcanoes offer some of the best natural hiking in that section of the world.

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