Island country, central Africa.
It is situated on the Equator in the Gulf of Guinea, west of the
African mainland. Area: 386 sq mi (1,001 sq km). Population (2008 est.):
160,000. Capital: São Tomé. Most of the people are Forro, a mixture of
African and European ancestry, or Angolares, the descendants of former
Angolan slaves. Languages: Portuguese (official), Creole. Religion:
Christianity (predominantly Roman Catholic; also Protestant). Currency:
dobra. The country consists of the two main islands, São Tomé and
Príncipe, which are separated by about 90 mi (145 km), and a number of
islets. The two main islands each have northeastern lowlands, central
volcanic highlands, and swift-flowing streams. The economy, partly
government-controlled and partly private, has long depended heavily on
international assistance; it is based on agriculture and fishing,
although petroleum-related earnings have increased since the late 1990s.
The country is a republic with one legislative house; its chief of state
is the president, and the head of government is the prime minister.
First visited by European navigators in the 1470s, the islands were soon
colonized by the Portuguese and were used in the trade and transshipment
of slaves. Sugar and cocoa were the main cash crops. The islands became
an overseas province of Portugal in 1951, and they achieved independence
in 1975. Príncipe became autonomous in 1995.
Official name República Democrática de São Tomé e Príncipe
(Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe)
Form of government multiparty republic with one legislative house
(National Assembly )
Chief of state President
Head of government Prime Minister
Capital São Tomé
Official language Portuguese
Official religion none
Monetary unit dobra (Db)
Population estimate (2008) 160,000
Total area (sq mi) 386
Total area (sq km) 1,001
country of central Africa, located on the Equator in the Gulf of
Guinea. It consists of two main islands (São Tomé and Príncipe) and
several rocky islets, including Rôlas, south of São Tomé island, and
Caroço, Pedras, and Tinhosas, south of Príncipe.
São Tomé, which is oval in shape, is larger than Príncipe, which
lies about 90 miles (145 km) northeast of its sister island. The capital
of the country, São Tomé city, is situated in the northeastern part of
São Tomé island. The country’s closest neighbours are Gabon and
Equatorial Guinea on the Atlantic coast of central Africa.
Relief and drainage
In the south and west of both islands, high volcanic mountains fall
precipitously to the sea, although neither island has witnessed any
volcanic activity in recent centuries. The mountains descend gradually
to small plains in the northeast. São Tomé Peak, the highest point on
the main island, rises to 6,640 feet (2,024 metres) above sea level, and
Príncipe Peak on the smaller island reaches 3,110 feet (948 metres).
These mountainous areas are deeply dissected by stream erosion, and
spectacular isolated volcanic plugs stand out as landmarks. Swift and
rocky streams rush down to the coast in every direction.
The climate is basically maritime and tropical, but, because of the
rough topography, there is a wide range of microclimates. The prevailing
moist southwesterly winds are intercepted by the mountains, so annual
rainfall exceeds 275 inches (7,000 mm) in the southwestern part of São
Tomé island, while the far northeast receives less than 30 inches (760
mm). The dry season, called gravana, lasts from June to September in the
northeast but is scarcely discernible in the wetter regions. In the
coastal areas the mean annual temperature is high, in the low 80s F
(upper 20s C); the average relative humidity is also high, about 80
percent. Average temperatures decline sharply with elevation, and night
temperatures fall below 50 °F (10 °C) at about 2,300 feet (700 metres).
Above 3,300 feet (1,000 metres) fine misty rain falls almost
continuously and the nights are cold, although frost and snow are
Plant and animal life
The original vegetation of the islands was luxuriant tropical
rainforest, with a gradual transition from lowland forest to mist
forest. Some of the islands’ area, mainly in the south and west, is
still covered with rainforest. Much of this is secondary growth on
abandoned plantation land. The flora and fauna include many rare and
endemic species, reflecting the isolation and environmental diversity of
the islands. Birds such as the ibis, shrike, and grosbeak can be found
in São Tomé and Príncipe. Many of the plants, birds, reptiles, and small
mammals are threatened by pressure on the remaining rainforest.
The population consists mainly of Forros (from forro, Portuguese for
“free man”), descendants of immigrant Europeans and African slaves.
Another group, the Angolares, descended from runaway Angolan slaves who
were shipwrecked on São Tomé about 1540. The Angolares remained apart in
the isolated southern zone of São Tomé island until the late 19th
century, but they later spread throughout the country and became largely
assimilated. Cape Verdeans form the largest group of resident
foreigners; many have adopted São Toméan nationality. Angolans and
Mozambicans make up most of the rest of the African immigrant community.
Like the Cape Verdeans, they are relatively well integrated with the
other islanders, because of a shared Luso-African cultural background.
There is a small European population—primarily Portuguese—in the
Standard Portuguese is the official language and is understood by
virtually all islanders. In addition, three Portuguese-based creoles are
spoken: Sãotomense, spoken by the Forros and having by far the largest
number of speakers; Angolar, the language of the Angolares, spoken on
the southern tip of São Tomé; and Principense, spoken by only a few
hundred individuals on Príncipe.
About four-fifths of the population belongs to the Roman Catholic
Church. The remainder of the population is primarily Protestant,
although there is a small percentage of Muslims. Traditional African
religious practices and beliefs are widespread, even among adherents of
The population is concentrated in the drier and flatter areas of
both islands. Whereas a third of the inhabitants live in São Tomé city
and its outskirts, only about 5 percent live on the island of Príncipe.
Many people live in dispersed settlements known locally as lucháns.
Houses made of wooden planks and raised above the ground are typical of
the local building methods, although there are also many concrete
structures in the Portuguese colonial style. Many people still live in
barracklike accommodations on the plantations.
Population growth is above the world average but below the average
for sub-Saharan Africa. About two-fifths of the population is less than
15 years of age, and almost another one-third is younger than 30,
assuring continued rapid growth. Life expectancy in the early 21st
century was more than 65 years of age, relatively high for an African
country and close to the world average.
Decades of colonial stagnation were followed by economic disruption
after independence in 1975. Under the tutelage of the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank since the mid-1980s, São Tomé and
Príncipe has tried to restore a functioning economy by devaluing its
currency, reducing the budget deficit, privatizing formerly nationalized
companies, attracting foreign investment, and removing price subsidies
and controls. Despite all efforts and considerable inflows of foreign
funds, however, the results of the imposed reforms did not match the
original targets. During that time corruption became rampant, and mass
poverty increased tremendously. In the late 1990s, IMF measures helped
the country’s economy improve considerably, as did the advent of
petroleum concessions sales, which continued into the 21st century.
São Tomé and Príncipe’s economy has historically been dependent on
agriculture, and much of the total agricultural area of the two islands
belongs to the state. Until 1993 this land was divided into 15 large
plantation enterprises, but, by the end of the decade, most of the
former plantations were dissolved and their land distributed to
smallholders and medium-sized enterprises on a usufruct basis as part of
attempted agricultural reform. High levels of unemployment coexist with
a critical labour shortage on the former plantations, where wages and
working conditions are poor.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
São Tomé is endowed with excellent conditions for tropical
agriculture. The growing season is long, the volcanic soils are fertile,
and there is no lack of water. Consequently, the economy remains
dependent on plantation agriculture, especially cacao (grown for its
seeds, cocoa beans). About two-fifths of the total land area is under
cultivation, with cacao trees covering a little less than two-thirds of
the cultivated land; coconut palms cover most of the remainder. Large
areas of plantation land have been poorly maintained since independence;
they are harvested from time to time but not otherwise tended. The
country has never been self-sufficient in staple foodstuffs, and a
combination of local eating habits, the legacy of the plantation
economy, and foreign food aid has undermined the production of food
crops for the local market.
Fine stands of timber remain in the mountains, but the difficulty of
removing logs from the steep terrain and the pressing need for effective
conservation limit long-term prospects. The country’s small size
prevents farmers from keeping large herds of livestock, but conditions
for poultry raising are quite favourable.
Fishing resources are limited by the narrow continental shelf. The
domestic demand for fish exceeds supply by the local artisan fishermen,
and trawlers from European Union countries pay small license fees for
the right to fish in the country’s national waters. The deep-sea tuna
resources of the Gulf of Guinea and shellfish in coastal waters
represent the best hopes for fishery exports.
Resources and power
There are numerous sites for small hydroelectric schemes but no
large rivers for major installations. The islands have no known mineral
resources, but the country claims an area of the Gulf of Guinea that may
have considerable deepwater hydrocarbon reserves; in the late 1990s and
early 2000s this potential attracted foreign investors who purchased
exploration concessions. In 2001 São Tomé and Príncipe and Nigeria
reached an agreement to oversee the exploration and development of
potential oil fields in the Joint Development Zone (JDZ), an area of
overlapping maritime boundaries about 125 miles (200 km) from the
Nigerian coast. The agreement was renegotiated in 2003, after which oil
companies began bidding for the right to develop sections within the
JDZ. The first exploratory drilling in the JDZ began in 2006.
Manufacturing, which accounts for a tiny fraction of the gross
domestic product, is hampered by the small size of the domestic market,
limited energy resources, and the lack of skilled labour. It consists
mainly of small processing factories producing foodstuffs, beverages,
soap products, bricks, and sawn wood for the domestic market.
Finance and trade
São Tomé and Príncipe is reputed to be the recipient of one of the
highest amounts of foreign aid per capita in the world, but this has not
prevented large budgetary and balance-of-payment deficits. There are
several commercial banks active in the country, and the Central Bank of
São Tomé and Príncipe controls foreign exchange dealings and issues the
country’s currency, the dobra. Cocoa, despite decreasing production,
still accounts for almost all foreign exchange earnings from merchandise
exports. Most of the cocoa is exported to The Netherlands. Portugal is
the main source of imports.
Tourism is largely limited to the dry season and chiefly attracts
individual travelers from Portugal and other European countries. The
tourism sector has the potential to be a strong source of economic
diversification for the country. The sector has expanded with some
foreign investment, but development has been hindered by such obstacles
as the presence of tropical diseases (notably malaria), the lengthy wet
season, and the expense of traveling to the country.
Transportation and telecommunications
Transportation assumes particular importance in this isolated
microstate. There are no deepwater harbours, and large ships must anchor
far out at sea and be unloaded by barge. Shipping links between the
islands and with the outside world are erratic, and there are long
delays in unloading cargo. The country’s primary ports are at São Tomé
city and Neves, both on São Tomé island. The international airport near
São Tomé city has been expanded and modernized. The telephone system and
road network are both fairly good by African standards. Mobile phone use
is very popular on the islands, and Internet service is available.
Government and society
Under the constitution of 1990 (since amended), the president, who
is head of state, is directly elected to a five-year term and is limited
to two successive terms. The prime minister serves as the head of
government. The legislature is unicameral, with a 55-seat National
Assembly. Assembly members are elected by popular vote and serve
four-year terms. In April 1995 Príncipe became an autonomous region.
The political and judicial structures adopted at independence in 1975
were those of a single-party state modeled on the Soviet example, but
the regime never formally proclaimed its adherence to Marxism-Leninism.
Free elections for the legislative assembly and the presidency were
established by the constitution of 1990 and first held in 1991. At that
time close ties with eastern European countries and Cuba were replaced
by improved relations with Portugal, France, and other Western
São Tomé and Príncipe’s military is small and consists of army,
coast guard, and presidential guard contingents. The country’s armed
forces have received technical and training assistance from such
countries as Portugal, Angola, and the United States.
Health and welfare
There is one major medical centre for the country, in São Tomé city,
which was created by uniting three existing hospitals, several public
health posts, and a few private clinics. Malaria is endemic, although
initiatives to curb the disease have shown progress since 2000. HIV/AIDS
is present in the country, but its prevalence remains undetermined, as
the stigma attached to being diagnosed with the disease and the
subsequent lack of accurate reporting make the rate of infection
difficult to monitor.
Almost all children attend primary school, which is compulsory for
four years. Secondary education consists of two cycles of four and three
years, respectively, but secondary schooling opportunities are not as
widely available, and fewer students enroll. Vocational training and
higher education options are limited, although there is a polytechnic
institute (founded 1997), and Portugal’s Lusíada University opened a
campus on São Tomé island in 2006. Some four-fifths of the adult
population is literate.
This small country has a homogeneous creole culture, profoundly
marked by centuries of blending elements of the dominant Roman Catholic
Portuguese culture with various African influences. The kinship system
is bilateral, although men traditionally have been polygynous. With the
virtual absence of monogamous marriage, the conjugal system is
characterized by a high incidence of multiple and serial customary
unions and visiting relationships; as a result, about one-third of
households are headed by females. Despite more than 500 years of Roman
Catholicism, local practices have been restricted largely to baptism and
a few rites, such as processions and funerals. Various traditional
African practices and beliefs have always coexisted with Roman
The lexicon of the three local creole languages is predominantly
derived from Portuguese, whereas their phonology and syntax stem from
African languages. Many African elements have been adopted in the
cooking, customs, and beliefs of much of the population, and most people
of lower socioeconomic status speak only creole in daily life. Famous
examples of cultural creolization are the plays The Tragic Story of the
Marquis of Mântua and Emperor Charlemagne (known as Tchiloli on São Tomé
island) and Auto da Floripes, popular on Príncipe island, both of which
are based on 16th-century Portuguese dramas.
Sports and recreation
Football (soccer) has always been the most popular sport in the
country. The first local association was founded in 1931, and a national
federation was created in 1977, two years after independence. In the
late 1990s the country contained some two dozen clubs competing in two
divisions. The clubs of the first division compete annually for the
national championship, and there is also a national cup competition.
Local competitions comprising all existing sports are held annually on
March 12, the National Sports Festival Day. São Tomé and Príncipe first
participated in the Olympic Games in 1996, when the Summer Games were
held in Atlanta.
Media and publishing
Several local newspapers appear erratically, but the government-run
radio and television stations provide consistent programming, and
broadcasts from Portugal and France are locally retransmitted on FM
This discussion focuses on São Tomé and Príncipe since the late
15th century. For a treatment of the country in its regional context,
see Central Africa.
Portuguese colonial rule
São Tomé and Príncipe were uninhabited when they were discovered,
about 1470, by Portuguese navigators. In the late 15th century the
Portuguese sent out settlers (including many convicts and Jewish
children who had been separated from their parents and expelled from
Portugal) and brought African slaves to the islands to grow sugar.
During the 16th century São Tomé was for a brief time the world’s
largest producer of sugar, but the rise of Brazilian competition and the
poor quality of São Tomé’s badly dried product virtually destroyed this
industry. The economic decline was accentuated by social instability as
slaves escaped to the mountains and raided the plantations. Amador, the
self-proclaimed king of the slaves who nearly overran the whole island
of São Tomé in 1595, is now regarded by many as a national hero. Foreign
pirates were another hazard, and the Dutch briefly captured São Tomé in
1641, only to be expelled seven years later.
After the collapse of the sugar economy, the colony served as an
entrepôt for the Portuguese slave trade to Brazil; the cargoes of small
slave ships were transferred to larger vessels for the Atlantic voyage,
and provisions such as water were obtained. The islanders produced food
crops for these ships and for themselves. Because of the frequent
political unrest in São Tomé, the capital was moved in 1753 to Santo
António on Príncipe, whose harbour was the site of much activity. In
1778 the Portuguese ceded the islands of Fernando Pó (Bioko) and Annobón
(Pagalu), on either side of São Tomé and Príncipe, to the Spaniards, who
wished to develop their own African slave trade.
The independence of Brazil in 1822, the suppression of the slave
trade in the Portuguese territories, and the introduction of coffee and
cacao (the source of cocoa beans) cultivation in the 19th century
shifted the economic centre of gravity back to São Tomé, and in 1852 São
Tomé city once again became the capital. Cacao replaced coffee as the
main cash crop in the 1890s, and during the first two decades of the
20th century the colony was in some years the world’s largest producer
of the commodity. This led to the maximum expansion of the plantations
on the islands. When slavery was legally abolished in 1875, the
Portuguese recruited contract workers from such places as Angola, Cape
Verde, and Mozambique. However, until 1910 the living and working
conditions of these indentured labourers often were little different
Cocoa production fell after World War I, and the islands became
isolated and notorious for the brutality and corruption that reigned on
the plantations belonging to absentee planters and corporations.
Attempts to force the local Forros to work on the plantations led to the
Batepá Massacre in 1953, an event later often cited by São Toméans in
their demands for independence as an example of the violence under
Portuguese rule. The Committee for the Liberation of São Tomé and
Príncipe was set up in exile in 1960; it changed its name to the
Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe (MLSTP) in 1972.
However, it consisted of only a small group of exiles, who were unable
to mount a guerrilla challenge to the Portuguese on the islands.
The government that took power in Portugal after a coup in 1974
agreed to hand over power to the MLSTP in 1975, and virtually all
Portuguese colonists fled to Portugal, fearing an independent black and
communist government. Independence was granted on July 12, 1975.
The country’s first president, Manuel Pinto da Costa of the MLSTP,
was elected in 1975. The government initially followed eastern European
models of political and economic organization. Economic decline and
popular dissatisfaction, however, led to a process of liberalization
that started in 1985 and culminated in the establishment of a multiparty
democracy in 1990.
Pinto da Costa was succeeded in 1991 by Miguel Trovoada, a former
prime minister who ran for the presidency unopposed in the first free
elections in the country’s history. In August 1995 Trovoada was deposed
in a bloodless coup orchestrated by the military. However, coup leaders
reconsidered their demands when faced with the immediate threat of the
loss of foreign aid, and Trovoada was reinstated as president a week
Trovoada was reelected in 1996 but was barred from seeking a third
term in the 2001 election. He was succeeded by businessman Fradique de
Menezes of the Independent Democratic Action (ADI), the party with which
Trovoada had been affiliated since 1994. Within months of de Menezes’s
election, a power struggle erupted between the new president and the
MLSTP-dominated National Assembly, establishing a pattern of political
conflict that continued for some time. In 2003 de Menezes was deposed in
a military coup, but international negotiations were successful in
guaranteeing his reinstatement on the condition that the coup leaders
would not be punished for their actions. De Menezes was reelected in
2006, representing the Democratic Movement of Forces for Change, the
party that had splinted off from the ADI in late 2001.
William Gervase Clarence-Smith
Although several fair and peaceful legislative and presidential
elections were held in the 1990s and 2000s, they did not immediately
transform the country’s oversized and inefficient public administration
from a centre of cronyism and corruption into an efficient bureaucracy
that could provide the structural conditions of a functioning market
economy. Consequently, the country’s tremendous social and economic
problems were far from resolved at the start of the 21st century,
although the earnings from petroleum concessions beginning in the
mid-2000s and the potential for future oil revenues brought a sense of
optimism, as did significant debt relief granted in 2007.