In a previous post, I briefly mentioned how the Portuguese Colonial Empire imported slaves to São Tomé and Príncipe in the 16th century as forced labor on their sugar roças (plantations). However, the slave trade played a much more formative role in the islands’ history. Initially, the Portuguese Empire had employed prisoners and other undesirables for the grueling labor associated with sugarcane cultivation, but a combination of disease and tropical climate quickly decimated the convict workforce.
Unwilling to forfeit their hold on the islands’ natural resources simply because European prisoners could not survive the harsh working conditions, the Portuguese turned to the lucrative African slave market where they could exploit laborers who were already acclimated to the equatorial climate. An interesting article about the history of slavery in São Tomé and the nation’s broader role as a transit point for the African slave trade can be found here.
An abandoned hospital on one of the island’s defunct plantations was once the centerpiece of a large community where workers were born, lived their entire lives, and in many cases died.
As sugar exports from other Portuguese colonies became increasingly less-expensive in places like Brazil, cultivation declined in São Tomé. Cacao, another tropical crop, replaced sugar as São Tomé’s premiere export, and the island soon emerged as the world’s preeminent supplier of cocoa. Though no longer the global leader in production, cocoa remains the island’s primary export to this day. I highly recommend the Economist article on Chocolate and Slavery for an in-depth look at the history of cocoa production in São Tomé and Príncipe.
After the nation’s independence from Portugal, many of the plantations were abandoned by their European owners and have since fallen into disrepair or been completely reclaimed by the jungle. However, a number of small communities still exist in and around these defunct production centers. During my trip to São Tomé, my guide, Nelson, took me around to several plantations including Agostinho Neto (below), where he was born and raised, and where his parents still live today. The following shots are an inside peek into modern life on the island’s roças.
A group of girls fetch water from a communal fountain in one of the island’s several villages that exist on former plantation sites.
A boy plays outside a plantation building that is still used for drying cocoa.
A woman carries a child on her back in one of the island’s many plantation villages.
A prominent plantation crop during colonial times, coffee beans now comprise only a fraction of the island’s exports.
The jungle slowly reclaims a former processing warehouse on a long-abandoned coffee plantation.
Villagers gather at a small shop in the praça (central square) of a former roça.
An abandoned plantation building crumbles from lack of maintenance near Porto Alegre, the main island’s southernmost village.
Cows graze along the side of the road near a plantation on the island’s south coast.
A teenager checks text messages on his phone on the stoop of the chapel in Agostinho Neto plantation.
Check out all the high-resolution photos from my trip to São Tomé in my set on Flickr.