Before being ‘discovered’ and colonised by the Portuguese in the late 15th century, the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe were comprised of rainforests dense with vegetation and birdlife, but, most likely, no people (though there is a legend that present-day Angolares were really the first inhabitants of the land). The islands’ volcanic soil proved good for cultivation, and, under Portuguese rule, by the mid-16th century the islands were the foremost exporter of sugar, though the labour-intensive process required increasing amounts of slaves from Africa. When the price of sugar fell and slave labour proved difficult to control, the islands increasingly looked towards the slave trade to bolster the economy, becoming an important weigh station for slave ships heading from Africa to Brazil. In the 19th century two new cash crops, coffee and cocoa, overtook the old sugar plantations. By the early 20th century São Tomé was one of the world’s largest producers of cocoa.
In 1876 slavery was outlawed, but was simply replaced with a similar system of forced labour for low wages. Contract workers came in from Mozambique, Cape Verde and other parts of the Portuguese empire. During these times there were frequent uprisings and revolts, often brutally put down by the Portuguese. In 1953 the Massacre of Batepá, in which many Africans were killed by Portuguese troops, sparked a full-fledged independence movement. Portugal held on, however, until the fall of the fascist government in 1974, after which it got out of its colonies in a hurry. São Tomé & Príncipe achieved independence on 12 July 1975.
The Portuguese exodus left the country with virtually no skilled labour, an illiteracy rate of 90%, only one doctor and many abandoned cocoa plantations. An economic crisis was inevitable. Manual Pinto da Costa, who was the first president and, until then, a moderate, was forced to concede to many of the demands of the more radical members of his government. The majority of the plantations were nationalised four months after independence, legislation were passed prohibiting any one person from owning more than 100 hectares of land, and a people’s militia was set up to operate within workplaces and villages.
The country remained closely aligned with Angola, Cuba and communist Eastern Europe until the demise of the Soviet Union, when Santoméans began to demand multiparty democracy. The first multiparty elections were held in early 1991 and led to the inauguration of the previously exiled Miguel Trovoada as the new president in April of that year.
Elections in 2001 brought Fradique de Menezes to power. De Menezes pledged to use revenues from increased tourism and exploitation of the country’s newly discovered offshore oilfields to improve the standard of living and modernise the islands’ infrastructure. Grand changes seemed imminent. But complications with extracting the oil in addition to possible overestimations of the oil deposits have delayed economic progress, and there is a palpable growing restlessness in the deeply indebted and impoverished nation. A brief and bloodless coup attempt was peacefully resolved in 2003 while the president was out of the country. De Menezes was re-elected in 2006 in internationally observed, peaceful elections.
São Tomé presently scrapes by on US$25 million a year of foreign aid and US$5 million in cocoa exports.