Sunday, May 13, 2018


As a long-time off-and-on-again student of Portuguese, I’m quite familiar with the Lusosphere (countries that speak Portuguese). And one small island nation in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa is included in that. It’s not a country many people (i.e. Americans) are aware even exists, but I’ve taken it upon myself to tell everyone about all of these really cool countries “no one’s ever heard of.” Besides what’s not to love about a country where practically every word has an accent mark in it? 

Although the dates of discovery by Portuguese sailors are somewhat disputed, the names of these two islands were roughly named for the dates they arrived. São Tomé was discovered on or around December 21 (1471), which is St Thomas’ Day. The island of Príncipe was originally named Santo Antão after they landed there on January 17 (1472), which is St Anthony’s Day. A few decades later, its name was changed to Ilha do Príncipe after the Prince of Portugal – gotta keep the boss man happy.

São Tomé and Príncipe are located on the Atlantic side of Africa (actually in the Gulf of Guinea). The island of São Tomé is just off the coast of Gabon, while Príncipe, a much smaller island, is located off of the coast of mainland Equatorial Guinea. One of the smaller islands that belong to Equatorial Guinea, Annobón, is located to the southwest of São Tomé, while Bioko (also belonging to Equatorial Guinea) is northeast of Príncipe. The islands have a tropical climate with a rainy season (October to May) and a dry season (June to September).

Unlike most other countries, this was one country that was not inhabited at the time Europeans arrived. The Portuguese were the ones who arrived first and took this for themselves. They quickly established these two islands as a place for sugarcane plantations, and sent the people they really didn’t like (mostly Jews) to man the farms. (Great work, guys. Way to handle your discrimination.) However, by the early 1500s, the Portuguese started using these islands as a staging center for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They started pulling Africans from all over the mainland, and consequently, they also became a huge producer of sugar. By the early 1800s, coffee and cocoa were added to the mix of exports. Because the soil here is rich from volcanic ash, it makes for prime agriculture, and mega plantations were created to handle the demand. These mega plantations (called roças) run by the Portuguese led to absolute power and the abuse of that power. Although slavery was officially abolished in 1876, there were documented cases that it was still in effect some 30 years later. As many African countries were demanding their independence during the 1960s, São Tomé and Príncipe was no exception. Their independence was finally granted in 1975. During the 1990s, they had several reforms and peaceful elections, although they had some difficulties during the early 2000s dealing with corruption building up to an attempted coup in 2009.  

The capital and largest city is the City of São Tomé, which is located on the island of… São Tomé. (Were you expecting something else?) It’s the center of government, education, commerce, transportation, and media. The city was founded in 1485 and has served as an important port for centuries. There’s actually a weekly ferry that goes to Cape Verde (oh, I’m sorry, it’s Cabo Verde now), but that seems to me like it would be a very long trip.

It should come to no surprise, knowing the islands’ history, that their largest economic driver is agriculture. Cocoa is now their largest crop, representing roughly 95% of their crop exports. They also depend on copra, coffee, fishing, and palm kernels. They are also making plans to try to development more tourism in the country. São Tomé and Príncipe often struggles financially, but they have an agreement with Nigeria to jointly explore the Niger Delta Basin as part of a petroleum exploration. So, hopefully that’s working out for them.

Because of their ties to Portugal, the majority religion is Roman Catholicism. However, there are a few other denominations and religions represented here as well. A number of smaller followings of Protestant denominations such as Seventh-Day Adventists and other evangelical sects are spread throughout the islands. There is also a small number of Muslims.

I picked this because in 2003, I went to Porto Alegre, Brazil. I think they should be sister cities.
As I mentioned in the introduction, Portuguese is the official language of São Tomé and Príncipe. The vast majority of the people know it as their first language since it’s been around these parts since the 1400s. However, there are also a number of Portuguese-based creoles spoken here: Forro, Cape Verdan Creole, Angolar, and Principense. As far as foreign languages that are taught in school, the most popular ones are French and English (for obvious reasons—these are used most often as a lingua franca in many areas of Africa).

Probably one of the oddest things I’ve seen is on the island of São Tomé: the Pico Cão Grande (or Great Dog Peak). It’s a volcanic plug located on the southern end of the island. Volcanic plugs are formed when magma solidifies in a vent on a volcano, and it just builds up in a tower. To me, it looks like a giant finger sticking out of the ground. (Maybe it belongs to the Easter Island heads?) Although it’s very difficult to climb, two teams of climber have managed to do this impossible feat. There are apparently a crap ton of snakes up there, so that’s a huge no thanks from me.

Up next: art and literature

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