A Brief History of São Tomé and Príncipe

Where in Africa are São Tomé and Príncipe?
Where in Africa are São Tomé and Príncipe?. Image: © Alistair Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.

Reportedly Uninhabited Islands:


The islands were first discovered by Portuguese navigators between 1469 and 1472. The first successful settlement of São Tomé was established in 1493 by Alvaro Caminha, who received the land as a grant from the Portuguese crown. Príncipe was settled in 1500 under a similar arrangement. By the mid-1500s, with the help of slave labor, the Portuguese settlers had turned the islands into Africa's foremost exporter of sugar.

São Tomé and Príncipe were taken over and administered by the Portuguese crown in 1522 and 1573, respectively.

Plantation Economy:


Sugar cultivation declined over the next 100 years, and by the mid-1600s, São Tomé was little more than a port of call for bunkering ships. In the early 1800s, two new cash crops, coffee and cocoa, were introduced. The rich volcanic soils proved well suited to the new cash crop industry, and soon extensive plantations (rocas), owned by Portuguese companies or absentee landlords, occupied almost all of the good farmland. By 1908, São Tomé had become the world's largest producer of cocoa, still the country's most important crop.

Slavery and Forced Labor Under the Rocas System:


The rocas system, which gave the plantation managers a high degree of authority, led to abuses against the African farm workers. Although Portugal officially abolished slavery in 1876, the practice of forced paid labor continued.

In the early 1900s, an internationally publicized controversy arose over charges that Angolan contract workers were being subjected to forced labor and unsatisfactory working conditions.

Batepá Massacre:


Sporadic labor unrest and dissatisfaction continued well into the 20th century, culminating in an outbreak of riots in 1953 in which several hundred African laborers were killed in a clash with their Portuguese rulers.

This "Batepá Massacre" remains a major event in the colonial history of the islands, and the government officially observes its anniversary.

The Struggle for Independence:


By the late 1950s, when other emerging nations across the African Continent were demanding independence, a small group of São Toméans had formed the Movimento de Libertação de São Tomé e Príncipe (MLSTP, Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe), which eventually established its base in nearby Gabon. Picking up momentum in the 1960s, events moved quickly after the overthrow of the Salazar and Caetano dictatorship in Portugal in April 1974.

Independence From Portugal:


The new Portuguese regime was committed to the dissolution of its overseas colonies; in November 1974, their representatives met with the MLSTP in Algiers and worked out an agreement for the transfer of sovereignty. After a period of transitional government, São Tomé and Príncipe achieved independence on 12 July 1975, choosing as its first President the MLSTP Secretary General, Manuel Pinto da Costa.

Democratic Reform:


In 1990, São Tomé became one of the first African countries to embrace democratic reform. Changes to the constitution and legalization of opposition parties, led to nonviolent, free, transparent elections in 1991.

Miguel Trovoada, a former Prime Minister who had been in exile since 1986, returned as an independent candidate and was elected President. Trovoada was re-elected in São Tomé's second multiparty election in 1996. The Partido de Convergência Democrática PCD, Party of Democratic Convergence) toppled the MLSTP to take a majority of seats in the Assembleia Nacional (National Assembly).

A Change of Government:


In early legislative elections in October 1994, the MLSTP won a plurality of seats in the Assembly. It regained an outright majority of seats in the November 1998 elections. Presidential elections were held again in July 2001. The candidate backed by the Independent Democratic Action Party, Fradique de Menezes, was elected in the first round and inaugurated on 3 September. Parliamentary elections held in March 2002 led to a coalition government after no party gained a majority of seats.

International Condemnation of Coup d'Etat:


An attempted coup d'etat in July 2003 by a few members of the military and the Frente Democrática Cristã (FDC, Christian Democratic Front) – mostly representative of former São Toméan volunteers from the apartheid-era Republic of South African Army – was reversed by international, including American, mediation without bloodshed. In September 2004, President de Menezes dismissed the Prime Minister and appointed a new cabinet, which was accepted by the majority party.

Implications of Oil Reserves on Political Scene:


In June 2005, following public discontent with oil exploration licenses granted in the Joint Development Zone (JDZ) with Nigeria, the MLSTP, the party with the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, and its coalition partners threatened to resign from government and force early parliamentary elections. After several days of negotiations, the President and the MLSTP agreed to form a new government and to avoid early elections. The new government included Maria Silveira, the well-respected head of the Central Bank, who served concurrently as Prime Minister and Finance Minister.

The March 2006 legislative elections went forward without a hitch, with President Menezes' party, the Movimento Democrático das Forças da Mudança (MDFM, Movement for the Democratic Force of Change), winning 23 seats and taking an unexpected lead ahead of MLSTP. MLSTP came in second with 19 seats, and the Acção Democrática Independente (ADI, Independent Democratic Alliance) came in third with 12 seats. Amidst negotiations to form a new coalition government, President Menezes nominated a new prime minister and cabinet.

July 30, 2006 marked São Tomé and Príncipe's fourth democratic, multiparty presidential elections. The elections were regarded by both local, and international observers as being free and fair and Incumbent Fradique de Menezes was announced the winner with approximately 60 % of the vote. Voter turnout was relatively high with 63% of the 91, 000 registered voters casting ballots.




(Text from Public Domain material, US Department of State Background Notes.)