São Tomé and Príncipe - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


The Presidential Palace at dusk in São Tomé, São Tomé and Príncipe by Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.com

Abridged from the History section in São Tomé and Príncipe: the Bradt Travel Guide

The human history of São Tomé and Príncipe probably begins on 21 December 1470, (the exact year being uncertain) when the Portuguese seafarers Pedro Escobar and João de Santarém supposedly discovered the island they were to call São Tomé after the feast day of Saint Thomas (in the official saints’ calendar, the day has since been moved to 3 July). A replica of the padrão stone pillar that marked all Portugal’s territories still stands above the beach where Escobar and de Santarém landed, and the men themselves are commemorated by over-life-size limestone statues outside the National Museum in São Tomé. 

(Photo: Dusk at the Presidential Palace in São Tomé, the former governor’s palace from the more recent colonial past © Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.com)

On 17 January the following year, Escobar and de Santarém discovered a smaller island further north, which they called Santo Antão, after that day’s saint. There has been a heated debate on whether the archipelago was populated before the Portuguese arrived. Given the proximity to the West African coastline, it is conceivable that there may have been settlers coming over by boat, and the issue is of great importance to nationalists seeking to establish a Santomean identity independent from the Portuguese settlers. However, to date, no archaeological evidence has been found to prove that early African settlers overcame the considerable navigational challenge, and the scientific consensus today is that the islands were indeed virgin territory when the Portuguese arrived.

São Tomé’s first administrator, João de Paiva, started to populate the island when he took office in 1485, undeterred by the first settlers in the northwest succumbing to disease. Sugarcane was introduced in 1493 with the arrival of Álvaro da Caminha, starting the ‘sugarcane cycle’. Príncipe began to be settled in 1500. As early as 1515–17, the Portuguese king, Dom Manuel I, gave the slave men and women of the first settlers, and their common children, their freedom, manumitting them by the Carta de Alforria; this also freed their mixed-race (mestiço) children. Alforria is where the name forro comes from, used for the majority creoles on São Tomé island and also the national creole, spoken by some 85% of Santomense. This is the source of the forros’ feeling of superiority, as descendants of free Africans. 

Some say that STP (the islands’ initials) stands for Somos Todos Primos (‘we are all cousins’), reflecting the family-style dynamics of a small-island population.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the islands exported sugarcane and became a major trading post of the transatlantic slave trade; production started around 1510. In 1515, the slave women and mulatto children of the Portuguese settlers were freed, and two years later the first male slaves, who had come to the islands with the Portuguese, were freed too. But there were occasional revolts against the colonialisers, starting in 1517. In 1553, Yon Gato, a blind planter, led a raid against the colonial powers with a group of slaves; today, one of the main squares in São Tomé town bears his name. 

Legend has it that around this time a ship bearing Angolan slaves was shipwrecked on Sete Pedras, a small group of tall sharp rocks some 5km off the southeastern coast. This gave rise to the widely propagated misconception that those who managed to swim ashore founded the Angolares community along the southeastern coast, around what is today the town of São João dos Angolares. Today, 90% of the fishermen are Angolares, and they have their own language and culture. What is known is that maroons, or runaway slaves, escaped to the deep rainforest where these fujões had formed settlements called macambos, and descended on the town of São João dos Angolares and plantations to take chicken, goats and bananas – and women. In 1585 they burnt down part of the city of São Tomé.

In 1595, the leader of the most successful slave uprising, Amador, was captured, hung and quartered by the Portuguese. Today, Rei Amador is celebrated as a hero of the national struggle and commemorated by a fictitious likeness on all dobra banknotes, by a large bust outside the Historical Archive in São Tomé town and by a commemorative day on 4 January. From the turn of the 17th century, the colony was further weakened by pirate and corsair raids, starting in 1599, when São Tomé town was sacked by a Dutch fleet. But mainly, the superior quality of Brazilian sugar rang in the end of the Santomean sugar cycle.

Alforria is where the name forro comes from, used for the majority creoles on São Tomé island and also the national creole, spoken by some 85% of Santomense.

This marked the beginning of two centuries of decline on the islands, during which the people sustained themselves with the cultivation of corn, manioc, yams, vegetables, citrus fruit and sugarcane spirit. In 1641, the Dutch came back, conquered São Tomé, razed over 70 sugar mills and occupied the island for more than seven years. In 1709, São Tomé was attacked by the French. Yielding a much inferior product, sugarcane cultivation was moved across to the better soil and more stable political conditions of Portuguese’s largest colony, Brazil. Due to ongoing troubles and raids, the island’s capital was transferred from São Tomé to Santo António on Príncipe in 1753. It was nearly a hundred years (1852) before the capital was transferred back to São Tomé. Thus it was to the island of Príncipe that João Baptista da Silva introduced coffee from Brazil in 1787. And the smaller island was also the first to see the crop that was to make São Tomé’s name: cocoa. The introduction of these cash crops marked the second colonisation of the islands by the Portuguese.

Politics and society

Some say that STP (the islands’ initials) stands for Somos Todos Primos (‘we are all cousins’), reflecting the family-style dynamics of a small-island population, and Santomean politics are indeed based around prominent people, clientelism and kinship rather than substantial issues, and supposedly a few high-profile forro families continue to form the local elite. This cosy – or claustrophobic, if you like – situation has repercussions for the islands’ society, politics, economy, judiciary and the media. 

When the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe was founded on 12 July 1975, with independence from Portugal, the country became a one-party state led by the liberation party MLSTP, with Manuel Pinto da Costa (1937– ) its first president and Miguel Trovoada (1936– ) its first prime minister. Da Costa and Trovoada were leading a nationalised (and, from 1979 onwards, centrally planned) economy, with its own secret service and repression of dissent. Marxist–Leninist doctrines and jargon flourished. The flag – two black stars on a horizontal threeband of green-yellow-green and a red isosceles triangle on the left echoes the pan-African colours of Ethiopia.

The country’s motto Unidade – Disciplina – Trabalho (‘Unity – Discipline – Work’) features on the Santomean coat of arms: a palm tree topped by a blue star and flanked by a black kite to the left, representing São Tomé, and a grey parrot to the right, representing Príncipe. 

A colourful butterfly in São Tomé, São Tomé and Príncipe by Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.comThe archipelago’s plant world still holds many mysteries for botanists in terms of geographic distribution © Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.com

Natural history

Trees and plants

The dense rainforest of the islands is home to about 900 species of vascular plants, 130 of which are endemic: on São Tomé 14%, on Príncipe 11%. The most dominant plant family is the Rubiaceae, ie: flowering plants, containing over 10,000 species (coffee is one of them). The flower that is most associated with the country is the porcelain rose (Etlingera elatior, also known in English as torch ginger), a tropical pink flower with waxy stems and petals; it grows wild and is also cultivated at some plantations. In the interior of São Tomé island, discover bright red rod-like monkey flowers, whose stems are boiled up with red wine to help women after childbirth. Bamboo rods as thick as arms line the paths – planted in the colonial-era to shore up the ground for their narrow-gauge trains transporting cocoa. You will find both the world’s largest and smallest begonia here, Begonia baccata, up to 5m high (on São Tomé), and Begonia annobonensis (on Príncipe) which reaches only 1cm. For number and diversity, tree ferns have no equal on the African continent: there are over 150 of them.

The archipelago’s plant world still holds many mysteries for botanists in terms of geographic distribution – for instance, why is the Grammitis nigrocincta fern found only on Príncipe and Madagascar? And why do the nearest relatives of the tall Afrocarpus mannii tree, common above 1,000m, grow in East Africa? And every scientific expedition yields new species, species thought to be extinct and species under threat. The magnificent trees with massive trunks have a multitude of uses: in construction of the traditional Santomean plank houses on stilts, canoebuilding and in traditional medicine. Forest covers about 90% of the islands. With the right guide, any walk yields new discoveries and stories: hibiscus branches were once used as toothbrushes, with charcoal as toothpaste, and selosonsumaiá is a wonderful wild coriander/cilantro with serrated leaves and looking nothing like what we know.

The flower that is most associated with the country is the porcelain rose (also known in English as torch ginger), a tropical pink flower with waxy stems and petals; it grows wild and is also cultivated at some plantations.

Coconut palms reach right down to the fringes of the beaches, and oil palms are cultivated for the palm oil used abundantly in the local cuisine. In the towns, almond trees and breadfruit trees line the streets, and banana plantations and fields of sugarcane abound. The most conspicuous trees on the plantations are the imported fast-growing flame trees, with their bright orange flowers, giving shade to the cocoa and coffee plants (shade forest). In the dry plains of the northern part of São Tomé, that are burnt regularly in the dry season, acacias, tamarinds and baobabs are dotted around the grasslands and the fields of millet and sugarcane.

Primary forest (obô) still covers about a quarter of the islands, and it is for the protection of this sensitive and species-rich area that the Obô National Park was established, covering some 300km² across both islands. Most of the lowland rainforest (0–400m) was cleared in the first half of the 20th century, to make way for cocoa cultivation. Containing populations of every endemic species, this type of forest is now restricted to small areas in southwestern and central São Tomé. Upland primary rainforest (400–800m) is confined to the centre of São Tomé island, around the source of the Xufe-Xufe and Ana Chaves rivers and south of Lagoa Amélia.

For the lay person it is not that easy to distinguish between primary forest and mature secondary forest (capoeira), which represents about 30% of the islands’ forest cover and is reclaiming crumbling plantations. At higher levels, between 800m and the top of the Pico de São Tomé at around 2,000m you find beautiful montane and mist forest, with mighty endemic trees, such as the Afrocarpus mannii yellow-wood stretching their branches towards the sky or smaller trees like Cratispermum montanum, whose bark is used in a fortifying drink for swordfish hunters and as an aphrodisiac – there are many of these around. These areas (Lagoa Amélia/Carvalho), receive very few hours of daily sunshine.


With thanks to Ricardo Lima, Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon

The birdlife of the islands is exceptional, boasting the highest density of endemic birds worldwide, including the world’s largest weaver bird, largest sunbird and smallest ibis. Of the over 75 species that regularly occur on São Tomé and Príncipe, the islands are home to 28 endemic species and 11 endemic subspecies. São Tomé holds 17 single-island endemic bird species, while Príncipe holds eight.

They share three other endemic bird species, one of which can also be found in Annobón island (Equatorial Guinea). The first species you are likely to encounter is the black kite, circling above Ana Chaves Bay at São Tomé town, hovering over the harbour looking for scraps of fish. The locals called it falcão (plural falcões). You will see them on the national coat of arms too. The local names for species, often onomatopoeic, are the ones you are most likely to hear. Birdwatchers should bring their own binoculars and bird book, as none are for sale on the islands. If you’re lucky, some guides know the French names.

The birdlife of the islands is exceptional, boasting the highest density of endemic birds worldwide, including the world’s largest weaver bird, largest sunbird and smallest ibis.

There are few cattle on the island, apart from meagre specimens from the southern Portuguese Alentejo region, but nevertheless the cattle egret (garça) is one of the easiest birds to spot in the lowlands of São Tomé, with its white plumage and yellow beak and crest. One of the best-loved and most easy to spot endemics is the small prinia, whose wing-clapping gave it its local name, truqui-sum-Dessu, referring to its greeting of ‘God’ early in the morning. More difficult to find is the endemic and threatened São Tomé oriole, commonly known as papa-figo (it is featured on the 5,000$ banknote), with its pronounced red beak and yellow-tipped tail. Living mostly in the forest, it responds to imitations of its distinctive call.

Other birds to look out for are the São Tomé scops owl, São Tomé spinetail, starlings, drongo, seedeaters, São Tomé green pigeon and São Tomé bronze-naped pigeon. With a bright yellow belly, the emerald cuckoo, ossobó, has a prominent role in Santomean culture and appears on the 10,000$ banknote. On forest hikes or during stays on plantations, you are likely to hear its call, thought to announce rain, but the beautiful bird itself is very hard to see.

Príncipe has its own eight endemics: the Príncipe glossy starling, the Príncipe speirops, the Príncipe sunbird, the Príncipe thrush, the Príncipe white-eye, the Dohrn’s thrush-babbler, the Príncipe drongo and the Príncipe weaver – a few amongst them easily seen along the roadside in the north or walking along the river from Santo António to Bela Vista. Hunting is poorly regulated and constitutes a threat to some of the endemic birds. In rural areas it is common to find people carrying firearms, or kids chasing small birds with slingshots or stones. Land-use intensifi cation is the biggest threat to the conservation of birds and biodiversity in general in São Tomé and Príncipe. These two factors largely contribute to the fact that 11 out of the 28 endemic bird species are currently considered as threatened. Four of them, the São Tomé grosbeak, the São Tomé fiscal, the Príncipe thrush and the dwarf olive ibis, have even been classified as critically endangered.


São Tomé and Príncipe has the most diverse range of sea turtles (tartarugas) in central Africa, with four of the five species nesting here. Sea turtles belong to the most ancient reptile family (Chelonidiæ), and have been around for some 200 million years. Marine turtles migrate several thousand kilometres from their foraging grounds to their nesting sites where they deposit several clutches of eggs between October and February, mainly at night. Today, they are all endangered.

Children playing on the beach at Ribeira Afonso, São Tomé and Príncipe by Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.comChildren playing on the beach at Ribeira Afonso, a peaceful spot that feels like a small fishing village © Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.com

People and culture


One of the best things about São Tomé and Príncipe is the lack of tribal, ethnic or religious strife. The Santomeans (Santomense) are the fruit of a dynamic ethnic mix. The Portuguese colonialists traditionally mixed more with the native population than the English; there is a saying that whereas the English and French colonisers made enemies, the Portuguese made children. Like other Portuguese colonies, such as Angola or Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe have a very diverse society. The dominant sector, both in terms of numbers and prestige, are the forros, descendants of freed slaves or the product of relationships between Portuguese and local women. They traditionally disdained manual work on the plantations, and in 1953 the rumour of imminent conscription brought on demonstrations, triggering the Massacre of Batepá.

Mixed-race Santomeans are called mulattos or bobos (‘yellows’); in contrast to other creole societies they do not necessarily occupy higher positions in society. Prominent mulattos include: President Fradique de Menezes, former prime minister Rafael Branco and former Attorney General Roberto Raposo. Tongas are the descendants of African workers born in São Tomé and Príncipe. Those born on Príncipe are known as minuiê, but sometimes called moncós in a disparaging manner. On Príncipe most of the population (90%) have Cape Verdean heritage. Whites of all nationalities are called brancos/brancas or, as I was called in a couple of villages in the south: colomba. If you spend a while on the islands, you get used to calls of ‘Branco/a, branco/a!’ 

The Santomeans (Santomense) are the fruit of a dynamic ethnic mix. The Portuguese colonialists traditionally mixed more with the native population than the English; there is a saying that whereas the English and French colonisers made enemies, the Portuguese made children.

São Tomé’s rich ethnic mix also contains a Jewish element. In 1493, in an attempt to populate the island and to ‘whiten the race’, an unknown number (according to legend around 1,000) Jewish children aged between two and ten years of age were shipped to São Tomé by order of King Manuel I. Their parents had fled to Portugal a year earlier, when Spain expelled all Jews, but were not able to pay the extortionate poll tax demanded for crossing the border. Three years later, the Jews were expelled from Portugal, too. In São Tomé, the children were converted to Catholicism.

Many of them succumbed to malaria and other tropical diseases, but some 600 are believed to have survived and intermarried with members of the creole community. Today, there are few traces of their passing; there is no known Jewish community on the islands, but an international conference in 1995 was the starting point for more research on this little-known part of the island’s history.

With the arrival of many Nigerians on the oil trail, there has been a fear that Nigerians, indeed far more astute business people than the Santomense, are ‘taking over’, some buying property on the island without even visiting the country. There is also a Chinese element on the islands, as evidenced by family names such as Ten Jua or Chong. With a median age of 17.6 years (2013) – and approximately 40% of Santomeans under 15 – São Tomé and Príncipe is a young society. The urban youth who can afford it wear American-style sportswear, topped with baseball caps, and talk to the world via MSN Messenger.



Music is the surround sound of Santomean society, the soundtrack to life and love, work and emigration, joys and daily deprivations. In the popular quarters, the kizomba beats start early in the morning; even the poorest houses have a stereo, and thumping music will follow you everywhere. Once I saw a father holding a mobile playing a tune to the ear of his baby, and the question whether you like discoteca, festa, dançar, is one of the first a traveller will be asked.

You might have heard Sodade, the famous ballad of Cape Verdean emigration popularised by Cesária Évora, expressing the emigrants’ longing for the homeland (esse caminho longe, esse caminho para São Tomé? this long way to São Tomé). Especially on Príncipe, where 90% of the population descend from Cape Verdeans, singers still perform this song with true emotion underlying the haunting harmonies. In colonial times, slaves and later contract workers would use song lyrics to criticise their masters, and expressed the difficulties and the hardships of life on the plantations, working sugarcane, cocoa, coffee, copra and coconuts.

Today, the old styles are struggling to survive, but some groups try to keep these traditions alive.

Flutes are used, as are banzas – a piece of bamboo or branch of a tree called malimboque scraped in the way of a recoreco, a percussion instrument much used in South America, and on Cape Verde, too. Different kinds of drums are played, as well as sacaias – a small calabash or woven basket filled with grains – you can buy them at the Roça São João – to accompany the socopé, ussua, Danço Congo and puita dances.

Today, these old styles are struggling to survive, but some groups try to keep the tradition alive; contact English-speaking Edson Andreza (mobile: 990 5013). Edson belongs to a group of young people performing traditional dances in the capital; they are glad of a donation to finance the costumes, etc. A very popular percussion tradition you will encounter during creole nights (noites crioulas), election campaigns and as a tourist attraction, is bulaué. Well-known bulaué groups include Marina, Belezinha and Pastelim.


In a society with no bookshops or daily newspaper, oral tradition has always played a major role. Stories featuring animals, such as the clever tartaruga (turtle), always after food and his own advantage, and spiritual entities, such as the devil, are told by the griot (storyteller). The hunt for food plays a major role in these stories, which also often contain a grotesque element. There are two kinds of stories generally told at night: Contági for instance, are based on real events, and are told to keep the memory of historical events, either collective and traumatic events such as the Batepá Massacre or particular situations of everyday life. Sóia may contain an element of fiction and are told as entertainment, usually at family meetings. Both are stories that are generally only told at night. Today, storytelling is losing ground to TV soap operas.

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