São Tomé and Príncipe, officially the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, is an island country in the Gulf of Guinea, off the western equatorial coast of Central Africa. It consists of two archipelagos around the two main islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, about 140 km (87 mi) apart and about 250 and 225 km (155 and 140 mi) off the northwestern coast of Gabon.
The islands were uninhabited until their discovery by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. Gradually colonized and settled by the Portuguese throughout the 16th century, they collectively served as a vital commercial and trade center for the Atlantic slave trade. The rich volcanic soil and proximity to the Equator made São Tomé and Príncipe ideal for sugar cultivation, followed later by cash crops such as coffee and cocoa; the lucrative plantation economy was heavily dependent upon imported African slaves. Cycles of social unrest and economic instability throughout the 19th and 20th centuries culminated in peaceful independence in 1975. São Tomé and Príncipe has since remained one of Africa’s most stable and democratic countries.
With a population of 201,800, São Tomé and Príncipe is the second-smallest African sovereign state after Seychelles, as well as the smallest Portuguese-speaking country. Its people are predominantly of African and mestiço descent, with most practicing Catholic Christianity. The legacy of Portuguese rule is also visible in the country’s culture, customs, and music, which fuse European and African influences. São Tomé and Príncipe is a founding member state of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries.
Arrival of Europeans:
The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe were uninhabited when the Portuguese arrived sometime around 1470. The first Europeans to put ashore were João de Santarém and Pêro Escobar. Portuguese navigators explored the islands and decided that they would be good locations for bases to trade with the mainland.
The dates of European arrival are sometimes given as 21 December (St Thomas’s Day) 1471, for São Tomé; and 17 January (St Antony’s Day) 1472, for Príncipe, though other sources cite different years around that time. Príncipe was initially named Santo Antão (“Saint Anthony”), changing its name in 1502 to Ilha do Príncipe (“Prince’s Island”), in reference to the Prince of Portugal to whom duties on the island’s sugar crop were paid.
The first successful settlement of São Tomé was established in 1493 by Álvaro Caminha, who received the land as a grant from the crown. Príncipe was settled in 1500 under a similar arrangement. Attracting settlers proved difficult, however, and most of the earliest inhabitants were “undesirables” sent from Portugal, mostly Jews. In time, these settlers found the volcanic soil of the region suitable for agriculture, especially the growing of sugar.
Portuguese São Tomé and Príncipe:
By 1515, São Tomé and Príncipe had become slave depots for the coastal slave trade centered at Elmina.