São Tomé’s ‘maroon’ community: the Angolares

24/08/2014 08:27

Written by Gerhard Seibert and Paulo Alves Pereira

São João dos Angolares in São Tomé and Príncipe by Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.comIf you are passing through São João dos Angolares in the second week of September, don’t miss their biggest religious celebration in honour of Santa Cruz © Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.com

The Angolares, a fishing people populating the coastal stretches of the island, from Santa Catarina in the west down to Ilhéu das Rolas in the south, have fascinated the local imagination and Western researchers for a long time. A distinct socio-cultural group of several thousand people, the Angolares speak their own language, n’gola, not intelligible to other Santomeans. For centuries, mystery surrounded the question of how the Angolares people came to be on the island.

The traditional story is that the Angolares are the descendants of a slave ship shipwrecked on the Sete Pedras rocks to the southwest of the island. Some 200 slaves are said to have swum ashore and founded a community. This romantic notion, handed down by oral transmission and promoted by a colonial government embarrassed by the draining of their workforce, has been disproved by recent historical, genetic and linguistic research. The Angolares are, in fact, a ‘maroon’ society established by runaway slaves who, in the early 16th century in particular, were fleeing the harsh conditions on the plantations to form communities of fugitives (known as fugões since the 19th century).

From the impenetrable obô forest they would mount raids on plantations, destroy sugar mills and take slave women and provisions back to their quilombos. The most successful slave uprising was led in 1595 by Rei Amador, a slave from the town. Whilst the portrait of Amador on dobra banknotes is pure fiction, and the claim that he was ‘king’ of the Angolares and the date of the feast day commemorating his execution by the colonial government (4 January), have no historical base, he remains very important to the culture of the Angolares, and to Santomean national identity.

The Angolares are, in fact, a ‘maroon’ society established by runaway slaves who were fleeing the harsh conditions on the plantations to form communities of fugitives.

In any case, it was only in 1693 that the Angolares were defeated by the Portuguese. Apart from the prisoners, who were enslaved, the rest of the community remained fairly autonomous until, in the mid 19th century, Angolares and Portuguese met again during re-colonisation. With new cocoa plantations encroaching on their lands, the Angolares were obliged to provide fish to the plantations in exchange for not being conscripted to work there.

Today, the Angolares make up the vast majority of fishermen on the island, following the fish along the coast. Politically, the Angolares are usually affiliated with the MLSTP/PSD party. Socially, as they have always refused work on the plantations, they remained outside mainstream forro and contratados contract worker communities. They continue to live in their typical fishermen’s huts, called vamplegá, made of wooden planks and covered with interlacing palm fronds, and use the dongo dug-out canoe and harpoons for their artisanal fishing. The culture of the Angolares, angolaridade – art, music, a strong sense of tradition and of freedom – was celebrated by the late Portuguese author Fernando de Macedo (1923–2006), who claimed to be the descendant of the last Angolar king, Simão Andreza.

Poems such as ‘Capitango, capitango’ and ‘Rema, Pescador, Resiste’ (‘Row, Fisherman, Resist’) evoke the imagery of traditional Angolar society and the exaltations and dangers of the sea. The centre of angolar culture is around the town of São João dos Angolares in the southeastern Caué district. The most important site for meditation and communication between the living and the dead is the Budo Bachana mountain, whilst the border between the Angolar kingdom, Anguéné, and the outside world is still taken to be at Praia do Rei. In the Angolar animist worldview, mountains, rivers and animals such as the owl and the shrew are holy. The ocá tree is particularly revered, and, as in the American Indian tradition, before any tree is felled, its spirit is asked for permission.

Linguistic studies reveal the n’gola lexicon to consist of 65% Portuguese, 14% Bantu languages, 1% Kwa, with the remaining 20% still unidentified, disproving the cherished hypothesis that the Angolares were the descendants of Angolan slaves or pre-discovery explorers. Whilst there is no written tradition, Angolar culture remains alive in language and rituals, in bulaué music and the work of resident painter and musician Nezó and sculptor Nelito, owner of the Mionga hotel/restaurant. If you are passing through São João dos Angolares in the second week of September, don’t miss their biggest religious celebration in honour of Santa Cruz. On any day of the year, impress the locals you’ll meet along the main monja (street) with a few words of their language: Ma vira-ó?: ‘Everything OK?’ N’ sabóa!: ‘Everything OK!’

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