From afar, São Tomé appears at first to be nothing more than an apparition looming out of an endless azure expanse. As the mist-shrouded monolith comes into focus, the sounds of forest life and the earthy scents of rain-soaked vegetation beckon the weary traveler to its emerald shores. Portuguese explorers who discovered the uninhabited equatorial island and its smaller northern neighbor, Príncipe, in the 1470s must have believed that they had found paradise upon viewing the lush rainforests, savannah-like coastal plains and sparkling blue lagoons.
The islands’ tropical climates and abundance of fertile volcanic soil, as well as their proximity to mainland Africa, made them attractive locations for agriculture and trade. However, few Portuguese citizens wanted to relocate to an isolated archipelago in the Gulf of Guinea to grow sugar, so the Portuguese Colonial Empire imported slaves from mainland Africa (primarily from modern-day Angola) for the back breaking work. Later coffee and cocoa cultivation supplanted sugar production, and cocoa remains the island nation’s chief export.
Portugal abolished slavery in 1876, but the island’s former slave population continued to toil under oppressive conditions until the 1950s when general unrest culminated in riots and eventually a movement for liberation. São Tomé and Príncipe achieved independence in 1975, and today the country boasts a stable, representative democracy.
The following photo series takes a look at contemporary life on São Tomé, by far the largest and most populous of the two principle islands that comprise the African nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. Throughout this 5-part series, I’ll explore different facets of island life, focusing on the beauty of its geography, culture, climate and people.
A spear fisherman walks home with his catch after a successful day of diving in the shallows off the island’s east coast.
A group of women wash laundry in a mountain stream while children play in the water nearby.
Boca de Inferno (“Mouth of Hell”) is an opening in the volcanic rock along the shoreline of eastern São Tomé. Water is channelled through a blowhole in the formation during high tide creating a geyser effect.
A shopkeeper watches a group of boys playing table football in the town square of São João dos Angolares, a small fishing village in southeastern São Tomé.
A well-worn foosball table serves as a popular after school hangout spot for a group of boys in Angolares.
A young girl walks among the rudimentary wooden huts that serve as homes for many of the residents in São João dos Angolares.
Residents gather on the bridge into Porto Alegre (Portuguese for “Happy Port”), a village on the southern coast of São Tomé.
Merchants count out coconuts for a buyer in Porto Alegre.
Pico Cão Grande (Great Dog Peak), a volcanic plug peak in the south of São Tomé in Obo National Park, rises majestically more than 1,000 feet over palm oil plantations and rainforest.
Women in Angolares carry baskets full of fish to market atop their heads.
Check out all the high-resolution photos from my trip to São Tomé in my set on Flickr.