The island was discovered by Portugal in the late 15th century. The islands' sugar-based economy gave way to coffee and cocoa in the 19th century.
After the abolition of slavery the use of forced poorly paid labour on the plantations led to numerous revolts brutally put down by the Portuguese. The 1953 Batepá Massacre cost the lives of 1000 of these forced workers.
Independence was granted in 1975 following the overthrow of the dictatorship in Portugal. The departure of the Portuguese masters left a disorganized population, 90 % illiterate. The new government was initially socialist with Cuban and Angolan support but reforms were introduced after the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the first free, multiparty elections were held in 1991.
Since then however, frequent changes in leadership and coup attempts in 1995 and 2003 have impeded economic development. Rated as one of the "heavily indebted poor countries" São Tomé and Principe depends largely on foreign aid but the recent discovery of oil in the Gulf of Guinea might possibly improve the general standard of living if corruption is held in check.
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The capital, also named São Tomé is a run down small town behind this fine beach on the north east coast of the Island.
The few well kept buildings attract attention. This one, facing Independence Square next to the beach, houses the Ministry of Finance
The nearby São Tomé International Bank is one of the few well maintained buildings.
The population being 85 % Catholic, the Cathedral is naturally also in good shape.
And so is the São Sebastião Fort, now transformed into a museum bearing witness to the brutality of colonialism at its worst.
Even in this run down condition, great town houses like this one confirm reports of extreme inequality between plantation owners and their forced labour during the 19th and most of the 20th centuries.
Here is another example of colonial architecture near the town's centre.
The Central Market draws vendors and buyers from all over the island who come here in a multitude of taxis whose low rates are multiplied by 10 for white tourists.
São Toméans are friendly people who like to take it easy and enjoy their afternoon siesta.
Small children are numerous, playful and curious.
This serious little fellow was probably dreaming of joining the country's minute armed forces.
The poster on the building on the right warns against the evils of alcohol while the church in the background preaches hope of a better afterlife.
I had to negotiate hard to get a plain room in this hotel for the same price (25 $US) that I had paid for much better lodgings with breakfast in Lisbon. The asking price was double!
This was my room with a shared bathroom down the hall and a balcony. The next room was occupied by Erne Hartman, a backpacker from Berlin. I enjoyed telling him the amusing anecdote of how I had visited East Berlin during the Berlin crisis in 1962.
We enjoyed eating and drinking together but he was 36, exactly half my age. He walked much faster than I could so we visited the town separately. It took me longer but I saw the same places during the day and I passed on the night life.
The balcony overlooked this empty lot that served as playground for children from the pink school behind the unpainted house. They played soccer sometimes when they had a ball but mostly did acrobatics that have the advantage of requirering no equipment.
This fine municipal Library came as a surprise considering the poverty level of the general population. One can wonder how it was funded and who is using it.
Some foreign aid is however available to fund social infrastructures like this new market nearing completion not far from the old one.
The great majority of the population is very poor but some people are obviously much better off...
I was curious about who could be the owner of this large new house in a modest residential area so I took a picture of it. It is big enough to be a hotel but there is no sign to that effect. Please e-mail me if you know what this place is.
Most of the people live of agriculture in the countryside.
This road leads to Trinidade, 10 km west of São Tomé.
Here are more simple homes on the way to Trinidade.
Trinidade is a pleasant little town on the way to the Monte Cafe coffee plantation and the São Nicolau waterfalls beyond.
I did not feel up to hiking 3 km uphill to the Cascadas da São Nicolau so I stopped here and let Erne go ahead to the falls. I was becoming aware that I will not be able to go on backpacking all over the world forever...
It was the off season for coffee so the plantation was quiet. This panorama, starting at the factory, shows containers for shipping coffee, a large building that used to be the plantation owner's house, the plantation store and the barracks where the forced labour was kept in the old days.
I spent some time here waiting for transport back to the capital.
Communication with adults was not easy in my poor Spanish and their accented Portuguese. It was easier with the children as we satisfied our mutual curiosity with sign language.
There were lots of small children, as everywhere in São Tomé, and in all of Africa. They were curious and friendly so we stared at each other and got along fine. They were all quite thrilled at seeing their own picture on my digital camera's monitor.
I could not help wondering what the future would hold for them in one of Africa's poorest countries.