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Human History of the Sao Tome and Principe

Are Sao Tome island's really located in the middle of the world?

The islands of São Tomé and Principe was once known as "the islands in the middle of the world," and in a way it really was. The Portuguese first landed here in 1470, back when most folks thought the world was flat. If you think about it, the Equator runs right across the little island off the south coast, and the Prime Meridian is only a few degrees to our west. Certainly, São Tomé islands was in the middle of the world as it was known at the time of Portuguese exploration.

João de Santarem and Pero Escobar - The First Colonist

João de Santarém and Pero Escobar was the portuguese navigators who first discover this islands. The names Sao Tome dates back to 1470, when the main island was discover on Saint Thomas day. The following year they found Principe island, so named because it was offered by the Portuguese king to his son, the prince. The first settlement was established only several years later, in 1493. Most of the early settlers were jews, orphans and criminals sent from Portugal. With slave labour from the African mainland, the fertile volcanic soil was transformed into the world’s biggest sugar producing plantations.

After the slave revolt in 1595, led by national hero King Amador, many plantation owners became frightened by the insecurity and retreated to Brazil. Sugar cultivation thus declined over the next 100 years, and by the mid-1600s the economy had changed. It was now primarily a transit point for ships engaged in the slave trade between the West and continental Africa. In the early 1800s, coffee and cacao plantations “roças” were developed on the rich volcanic soils owned by Portuguese companies and absentee landlords. By 1908, Sao Tome had become the world’s largest producer of cacao with an exotic sobriquet, "The Chocolate Islands".

The plantations "Roças" comprised the main plant "sede", which had the cocoa, coffee, palm oil and copra processing facilities, workers housing, an administrative building and the plantation manager’s house, as well as smaller dependencies. After World War I, following international protest on the way the workers were treated, hospitals were added to most of the roças. Railways were introduced into the plantations by the end of the 19th century to link these various entities, replacing bullock carts.

The roças system was abusive toward African farm workers even after slavery was abolished in 1875. If the islands’ plantations were shorthanded, Portugal imported indentured workers from Cape Verde, Angola, and Mozambique to fill in. In 1909 the international community decided to end these practices by boycotting the islands’ products, which led to a crash in the cacao trade. The fall of the fascist government in Portugal in 1974 signalled the end of Portuguese colonial rule. Sao Tome and Principe achieved independence on 12th July. In 1990, Sao Tome became one of the first African countries to embrace democratic reform.

Batepá Massacre

The "Batepa Massacre" remains a major event in the colonial history of the islands and its anniversary is officially observed on February 3. The event is seen as the beginning of nationalist sentiment in São Tomé and Príncipe.

Tourism in the São Tome and Principe

Tourism in the Sao Tome and Principe has grown in the last few decades. Of course as the number of visitors increases, the impact to the preservation of the islands becomes greater.