São Tomé and Príncipe

São Tomé and Príncipe facts and information about the country.


Uninhabited when the Portuguese discovered them in 1485, these islands were initially settled in 1493, and the islands soon became the biggest exporters of sugar to the world. The Portuguese forced Africans from Cape Verde, Mozambique, and Angola to work on the plantations here. Even though slavery became illegal in 1875, the Portuguese continued using forced labor on large-scale tea and coffee plantations (called rocas) they developed and ended up dominating the cocoa industry of the world. Eventually coffee exports began declining as the dissatisfaction of the international community reached a new high due to the forced labor conditions in São Tomé and Príncipe. All through the 20th century, there were revolts and protests by the slaves that were violently crushed. The worst case was in 1953, when 1,000 forros (descendants of freed slaves) were massacred by the Portuguese because they refused to continue to work on the plantations as forced laborers.

The national liberation movement gained momentum. By December 1974 a transitional government was formed, and in July of the following year independence was declared. This upheaval in the islands can be linked with the Communist takeover of Portugal and Communist governments taking over many African nations as well. Most of the Portuguese had fled São Tomé and Príncipe by then, leaving behind illiteracy levels as high as 90 percent, a shattered infrastructure, barren plantations, and only one doctor on the islands. There was political instability on the islands until democratically elected President Miguel Trovada (b. 1936) and Prime Minister Guilherme Posser (b. 1953) came to lead the country toward stability in 1992. There were coup attempts in both 1995 and 2003, but the country has largely stabilized now. President Fradique de

Menezes (b. 1952) has been leading the country since 2001, along with Prime Minister Damião Vaz d’Almeida (b. 1951), who has been in power since 2004.


Located at the equator, São Tomé and Príncipe (STP) is made up of two islands, São Tomé in the south and Príncipe to the north, off the coast of Gabon in the Gulf of Guinea. Together, São Tomé and Príncipe make up the smallest country in Africa. São Tomé Island is 31 miles long and 20 miles wide, while Príncipe is smaller, only 19 miles by 4 miles. Both islands are a part of an extinct volcanic mountain chain. São Tomé is more mountainous, with the highest peak, Pico de São Tomé, at 6,640 feet.

The areas at sea level have average yearly temperatures of 81°F, whereas toward the interior (higher altitudes) the average annual temperature is 68°F. There is one rainy season, from October to May. The southwestern slopes record 197 inches of annual rainfall, and the northern lowlands record 39 inches of rainfall per year. Swift streams smooth the mountainsides, glisten in the Sun, and disappear quickly into the thick foliage below. Both islands have abundant natural beauty with crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches. Any kind of sea or seaside activity (swimming, scuba diving, water sports, deep-sea fishing, and the like) is most suitable in such environs. There are big sea turtles to be seen on the beachside with whales (sometimes the humpback whales migrating from Antarctica to the Gulf of Guinea at the end of summer) and dolphins pass-

Flora and Fauna

There are many endangered species of plants and animals found on the islands of STP. The commonly found turtles include the tatô (Lapidochelys olivacea), sada (Eretmochelys imbricata), ambó (Chelonia mydas), bobô (Caretta caretta, or Loggerhead Sea Turtle), and ambulância (Dermochelys coreacea). Of these turtle species the most common are the ambó and sada. The unusually big birds of these islands are the São Tomé olive pigeon (Columba thomensis), and the São Tomé giant sunbird (Nectarinia thomensis). Among its plantlife is found the giant begonias (Begonia crateris and B. baccata). The unusual dwarf olive ibis (Bostrychia bocagei) is a species much smaller than other members of its genus.

ing the coast. Some endangered species of turtles (five out of seven in the world) are found in São Tomé and Príncipe.


Cocoa comprises 95 percent of total exports, though droughts and post-independence mismanagement have adversely affected cocoa exports. Copra, coffee, and palm kernels are the other important export items. The country has to import most food products, manufactured goods, consumer goods, and all fuel. It has had to depend on external aid and debt rescheduling. Under the HIPC program (Highly Indebted Poor Countries program), São Tomé and Príncipe received aid amounting to $200 million in debt relief in 2000. The government is trying to stabilize the economy through privatization of its industrial sector. It is also attempting to develop the tourism industry and to explore the potential of oil production in the Gulf of Guinea. Some plantation houses are being maintained to assist the tourist industry as places of colonial legacy. São Tomé and Príncipe’s major trading partner is Portugal.


The culture and lifestyle of São Tomé and Príncipe were greatly influenced by the Portuguese colonial presence. Portuguese is the main language spoken on the islands along with Creole (a mix of Portuguese and a local language). Each island is rich in culture, a blend of both African and European. The islanders are mainly Roman Catholics. Sãotomese music, like other forms of art in São Tomé and Príncipe, is not completely African. It sounds similar to the music of Cape Verde and Brazil, which were also occupied by the Portuguese.

Gilberto Gil Umbelina (b. 1916) is an artist of repute from this country. São Tomé has highly regarded theater activities such as the Tchiloli performances, which are especially popular famous in Príncipe. The traveling European comedians of the 16th century left their mark in the drama Tchiloli in Príncipe. Enacting Tchiloli, or the Tragedy of the Marquis of Mantua has become an integral part of São Toméan culture since then. Fathers pass on the roles to their sons; women are merely spectators.

The dance forms in STP are the popular bulaué dance (influenced by Angola), the Danço Congo (inspired by the Congo), the puita, taken from Cape Verde, the samba, brought in from Brazil, and socopé, formerly a dance of the Portuguese colonial elite. There are other acoustic traditional bands such as Sangazuza, whose song lyrics are written in the local Creole, the lingua franca of the islands. The architecture is vividly Portuguese with high ceilings and typical wooden houses on stilts, especially in the countryside. São João dos Angolares, a town in the island of São Tomé, as well as a gallery called Teia d’Arte, both promote wooden sculpture and paintings in São Tomé and Príncipe.


The people of São Tomé and Príncipe would love to eat turtle meat, but the local turtle species have been declared endangered. So, while the turtles are being preserved in incubators on the beach, the popular diet on the islands includes smoked fish (smoldered on a low flame for a day or two) and vegetable stew. The country’s diet is rich in fish (salted, fresh, sun-dried, or smoked), meat, pork, or chicken. These main courses can be accompanied by beans, bananas (green, ripe, grilled, mashed, fried, or boiled), rice, breadfruit, and manioc flour (derived from the roots of tropical cassava). Usually palm wine is served with the food. Preparation of the local dishes usually takes a long time. Molho de fogo (a vegetable stew with smoked fish) and calulu (fish or chicken in a vegetable stew with herbs and breadfruit) are among the famous dishes of São Tomé and Príncipe. The staple breadfruit grows on trees, and its pulp can be eaten after being cooked. In each family traditional cooking styles are passed on from mother to daughter.

Public/Legal Holidays


Observed by:General Public Observed on:December 31–January 1 January 1 marks the beginning of the Western, or Gregorian, calendar, and is celebrated as New Year’s Day all over the world. In STP it is called Ano Novo. Celebrations take place all over the world and revelries typically begin the evening of December 31 (New Year’s Eve).


Observed by:General Public Observed on:May 1 Labor Day is an international holiday that honors workers locally and worldwide. It is also know as May Day or Workers’ Day in some countries. In STP, where Portuguese is the official language, it is called Dia do Trabalhador. In 1889 the Second International, a consortium of socialist organizations, designated May 1 a day to recognize the importance of workers around the world and scheduled the first demonstrations and celebrations for the following year, 1890. They coordinated this observance with the strike called by the U.S. labor union, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), demanding an eight-hour workday.

See also Volume III: LABORDAY

Tchiloli, or the Tragedy of the Marquis of Mantua

Best friends Dom Carloto (the only son of the Emperor Charlemagne) and Prince Valdevino (the nephew of the Marquis of Mantua) were out hunting one day. Dom Carloto asked the prince to leave his horse behind and join him on foot, which the prince did unsuspectingly. It is said that the prince was killed by Carloto, and this story of deceit and the following judgment is enacted in Tchiloli. This European tale has come to be enacted by African dancers, blending both cultures.


Observed by:General Public Observed on: July 12 On July 12, 1975, São Tomé and Príncipe obtained their independence from the Portuguese. Manuel Pinto da Costa (b. 1937), secretary-general of the MLSTP (Movimento de Libertação de São Tomé e Príncipe, or Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe), was sworn in as the first president of independent São Tomé and Príncipe.

Since the early 1950s the demand for independence from colonial rule had been voiced all over Africa. In São Tomé and Príncipe there was growing unrest among the people against the oppressive rule of the Portuguese. A group of São Toméans came together and formed MLSTP, thereby initiating the country’s struggle for independence. They organized demonstrations and protests all over São Tomé and Príncipe. After a change of regime in Portugal in 1974, Portugal began heeding the requests for independence from its colonies. Portuguese officials met representatives of MLSTP in Algiers and signed an agreement to ensure a smooth transfer of sovereignty to the people of São Tomé and Príncipe. On July 12, 1975, the independent nation of São Tomé and Príncipe came into being.

Since this is a national holiday, all public and private institutions are closed on July 12 in the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe.


Observed by:General Public Observed on:November 21 On November 21, 1974, representatives of the Movement of Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe (MLSTP; Movimento de Libertação de São Tomé e Príncipe) met with Portuguese officials in Algiers to work on an agreement for the smooth transfer of sov-

Popular Fish Dishes

Apart from izaquente (a stew of ground seeds) and calulu (a vegetable stew with herbs and breadfruit usually served with fish or chicken), the people of São Tomé and Príncipe emphasize fish dishes in their cuisine. Their fish delicacies include peixe salgado, salted fish, cooked in palm oil; molho de fogo, vegetable stew eaten with smoked fish; gandu cozido, boiled shark meat, barriga assada, grilled swordfish, feijoada à moda da terra, bean stew on smoked fish, voador frito, fried flying fish, and con-con assado, a small ugly fish that should be eaten grilled with hot palm oil, chili, lime, and plenty of baked breadfruit. A popular appetizer is buzios (snails) in palapala, a spicy sauce, or crisps made from matabala (a root similar to manioc) or bananas. An omelet of dried fish and herbs is also very popular.

ereignty to the people of São Tomé and Príncipe. The Portuguese agreed to grant independence to the islands, and a transitional government was appointed to look after the administration of the islands. Since then November 21 has been celebrated as Transitional Government Day.

Religious Holidays


Observed by:Christians Observed on:Last Sunday before Easter Palm Sunday is the sixth Sunday of Lent and the first day of Holy Week, commemorating the last week of Jesus’ mortal life. Jesus was the prophet of Christianity, and Christians believe him to be the second person of the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son, and

Holy Spirit). The day is as much about the beginning of Jesus’ journey to the Cross as it is about his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. His arrival in Jerusalem was indeed the way to the Cross. After two of his disciples had fetched a donkey for him to ride, they placed their clothes on it to make a comfortable seat. The disciples then cut branches and covered the path, and Jesus rode into Jerusalem, fulfilling the words of the Old Testament prophet Zechariah. People welcomed him by waving palm and olive branches, and strewing garments and branches on the road. There were different perceptions at work: Jesus rode in on a donkey, the humble entry of a peaceful nature by a spiritual king; the people of Jerusalem welcomed him with palm and olive branches and the laying of garments in his path because they wanted a worldly king to defeat the Romans. Devout Catholics in STP receive a small cross made from a dried palm leaf, which they take home with them after Mass.




Observed by:Christians Observed on:Thursday before Easter The rituals observed on Maundy Thursday are based on a sequence of events supposed to have occurred during Jesus’ last meal with his Apostles. First Jesus washed their feet; then he announced that he had been betrayed by one of them. The traitor Judas left the table. Finally Jesus instituted the Eucharist—a ritual of consuming bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood, also referred to as Communion in Christian churches. In the Roman Catholic Church Maundy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Eucharist, the oldest of the observances peculiar to Holy Week, and gives priests an opportunity to prepare for the many rituals associated with Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter.




Observed by:Christians Observed on:Friday before Easter Good Friday, called Sexta-Feira Santa in STP, falls on the Friday before Easter and is the last Friday of Lent. Alternatively known as Mourning Friday, Sorrowful Friday, or Holy Friday, it is a somber day for Roman Catholics and other Christians all over the world and is observed on the Friday before Easter. It commemorates the Crucifixion of Jesus more than 2,000 years ago. São Toméans observe a fast from Ash Wednesday (first day of Lent) for 40 days up to Good Friday and a partial fast from then until Easter. Some fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Special prayer services are held on this day with readings from the Gospel narrating the events leading up to the Crucifixion. In STP, on Good Friday, people visit their local churches and pray to Jesus, taking inspiration from his life and teachings.




Observed by:Christians Observed on: Saturday before Easter Holy Saturday is the day Jesus lay in the tomb and the day before he rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. This was the Jewish Sabbath (the Jewish day of rest is Saturday). It is also regarded as the second Sabbath after Creation. The final day of Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday and includes Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, it marks the threshold between death and resurrection, and is a day of silence and contemplation for devout Catholics.




Observed by:Christians Observed on:First Sunday after Lent Easter, called Páscoa in STP, is celebrated to mark Jesus’ Resurrection. For this reason, it is sometimes known as Resurrection Day. This day is of utmost importance because the fundamental teaching of Christianity is that Jesus, through his death, freed all his believers from the penalty of sin. It falls on the first Sunday after Lent and is celebrated by Christians the world over. On Easter the entire family gathers to celebrate. São Toméans often buy new clothes for this special day and go to church to offer prayers.

In STP Catholics attend midnight Masses for Easter and celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection by lighting candles. A festive spirit envelops churches as people sing devotional hymns. Easter eggs have become associated with the festival because they are symbols of rebirth and regeneration taken from the ancient pagan spring festivals. São Toméans exchange beautifully decorated Easter eggs and visit friends and family members.

The first Monday after Lent is celebrated as Easter Monday.




Observed by:Christians Observed on:December 25 Christmas, called Natal in STP, is a day of celebration for Christians all over the world. It falls on December 25, the date chosen by the Roman Catholic Church to mark the birth of Jesus. In São Tomé and Príncipe, it is also celebrated as Family Day since the entire family celebrates Christmas together.

Devout Catholics in São Tomé and Príncipe attend Christmas Eve (December 24) Mass in their local church. Christmas carols and devotional hymns are sung during the Mass by the church choir. On Christmas family members gather for a traditional dinner of salted codfish and potatoes, washed down with Port wine. Then they exchange gifts and greetings, which are followed by singing, dancing, and feasting.



Observed by:Roman Catholics Observed on:December 21 The Feast of St. Thomas (in Portuguese, São Tomé) falls on December 21 and celebrates the life of St. Thomas, one of the Apostles of Jesus. He is known

Further Reading

Don Burness, Ossobó: Essays on the Literature of São Tomé and Principe (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2005); Richard Burton, Wanderings in West Africa (New York: Dover, 1991); Luiz Ivens Ferraz, The Creole of São Tomé (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1979); Robert Garfield, A History of Sao Tome Island, 1470–1655: The Key to Guinea (San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992).


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