Happy Independence Day São Tomé e Príncipe!
Located off the Western equatorial coast of Central Africa in the Gulf of Guinea, this former Portuguese colony is Africa’s smallest country, after the Seychelles, with an estimated population of a little less than 167, 000.
Until the arrival of the Portuguese in the late 1400s, the island, according to Western historians, was said to have been uninhabited. The island were set up as trading bases by the Portuguese and were named after St. Thomas (São Tomé), as this island was discovered on December 21st which is St. Thomas’ Day, and the Portuguese prince, (Príncipe). Attracting settlers from Portugal proved difficult and at first, those sent to the island were ‘undesirables’ such as prisoners and Jewish people.
During the 1500s, as the region proved incredibly suitable for agricultural purposes, the islands soon became sugar plantations run by the Portuguese. As the cultivation of sugar is a labour-intensive process, the Portuguese began to use slave labour in the form of kidnapped African’s from the Western coast of Africa.
However, as the enslaved population began to grow, and with Portugal unable to invest resources in the islands resulting in the decline of sugar produce, by the mid-17th century São Tomé and Príncipe primarily served as a transit base for ships carrying kidnapped and enslaved Africans from West Africa.
With the introduction of cocoa and coffee by the Portuguese in the 1800s, the economy of São Tomé and Príncipe increased and with that the introduction of large slave plantations known as roças were established all over the islands. By 1908, São Tomé had become the world’s largest producer of cocoa - a testament to the rigorous form of slavery on these tiny islands.
Although Portugal officially abolished slavery in 1876, they continued to use a mixture slavery and forced paid labour systems on those who worked the plantations well into the 20th century. With the growing anti-Portuguese and anti-Colonial sentiments rising amongst the enslaved population, a series of riots broke out in 1953 that resulted in clashes between the African and Portuguese populations. Several African labourers were killed in what is known as the Batepá massacre.
The event was instigated by Portuguese landowners who were becoming increasingly fearful of the African labour force who had always refused manual field work on the estates as they considered it slave labour. This meant that there was a shortage of labour on Portuguese plantations - a factor that was beginning to severely affect the economy of the islands. This resistance is seen as the start of the nationalist movement in São Tomé.
As the wave of independence began to sweep across African in the 1950s and 1960s, a small group of São Toméans established the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé e Príncipe (MLSTP), establishing a base in nearby Gabon. After the overthrow of the Caetano dictatorship in Portugal in 1974, the group met with the new Portuguese authorities and in that same year an agreement for the transfer of sovereignty was reached.
On July 12th, 1975, São Tomé and Príncipe achieved independence choosing MLSTP Secretary General Manuel Pinto da Costa as the country’s first president.