São Tomé: a treasure island

Mark Stratton | Issue 51 | 51 april-may 2002

For a fleeting moment I thought a ghost had entered my room. I’d woken with a start and sat bolt upright as all three sets of the bedroom’s ageing shutters had crashed open. With a history forged from brutal colonialism and slavery, São Tomé may well have a queue of anguished souls stirring in the afterlife.

Perhaps an embittered African slave seeking a way home, or maybe the exiled Portuguese cocoa baron returning to reclaim his plantation at Bombaím where I now slept. But with all due respect to the supernatural, it was a wild tropical storm that was responsible for my awakening, not a ghost from centuries past. And, far more chillingly, the bedroom ceiling had begun to leak rain like a sieve.

Travellers to the Democratic Republic of São Tomé & Príncipe are few and far between. United in obscurity, São Tomé and its diminutive neighbour are two pinprick islands in the Gulf of Guinea, 320km from Central Africa. Hovering just above the equator, they barely register in most atlases.

Portuguese navigators chanced upon the islands sailing southwards down the West African coast in 1470. They were mopping up a string of volcanic islands, and claimed São Tomé, along with the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde, as a colonial possession. What they found in the 15th century was probably little different to the picture today; a pristine island of volcanic pinnacles cloaked by rainforest, bordered by sandy beaches almost too paradisaical to be true.

But what they didn’t find were people. São Tomé was uninhabited. It was to be Africa’s tragedy thereafter that the Portuguese had a contingency plan to populate the island’s embryonic sugar-cane roças (plantations). Once São Tomé town was established in 1485, the slave ships began rolling in.

More than five centuries later I arrived in the capital, which is in parts colonial chic and in others resembling a tropical cyclone victim. Signs of crumbling neglect are everywhere. Elegant, multicoloured townhouses, with pantile roofs and finely carved, latticed verandas, sit between weather-beaten wooden shacks with paint-flaked Mediterranean-style shutters.

A solid 16th century whitewashed cathedral – opposite President Fradique de Menezes’s theatrically pink palace – dominates the tiny centre. The cathedral, so typically Portuguese, is the town’s spiritual core, but it’s the market which is the capital’s beating heart. Its hubbub focuses around a beautiful red African flame tree near Conceição church, where black market moneychangers wave bulky wads of Saotomese dobra – scarcely enough, I suspected, to buy a decent cup of coffee back home.

Avoiding mantrap potholes and the seesaw pavment lining the promenade, I strolled along the seafront following a chipped white balustrade around the perfect curve of Ana Chaves Bay. Ten minutes west of the cathedral, I paused for an icy Sagrés beer at a blue cargo container – São Tomé’s most eccentric bar – and watched the midday catch come ashore. As soon as the fishing boats bit crisply into the beach, crowds splashed into the surf and mobbed the fishermen, hoping for bargains of red snapper, voador (flying fish) or barracuda. At the water’s edge, women filleted freshly caught marlin, tainting the tide pink with blood.

As the Saotomese bartered fervently in Creole, I thought I could make out far-flung roots in the diverse faces. By the mid-15th century the Portuguese were importing 3,000 slaves a year from Congo, Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique. And now, the jumbled genes of the mixed-blood mesticos, the angolares (shipwrecked Angolans), the forros (freed slaves), and the serviçais (forced labourers), are present, in some part, in every Saotomean.

My coastal meanderings eventually led me east to São Sebastião, a chunky fort protected by marmalade-coloured rusting cannons – now the national museum. After the carefree, almost Caribbean vibes the town generates, the museum was a sobering experience. Standing out among a hotchpotch collection of Catholic regalia and juju charms was a disturbing exhibit of black and white photographs in a room dedicated to the Batepa martyrs.

Each picture is graphic: a bullet-ridden corpse. The Portuguese militia massacred 1,000 forros plantation workers who were demonstrating against the conditions of their forced labour. Incredibly, this took place in 1953 – 78 years after slavery on the island was supposedly abolished.

This was the death knoll for colonial rule. Twenty-two years later the Portuguese were gone. Five centuries of actual and de facto slavery were over, and for the Saotomese, the children of generations of slaves, day zero had arrived. São Tomé & Príncipe became Africa’s newest independent nation in 1975, and then promptly fell apart. Fearful of reprisals, the Portuguese had fled, and the fledgling government nationalised and subdivided the coffee and cocoa roças, São Tomé’s major export earners. Without management and capital, production ebbed away, and the island slipped into a subsistence economy kept afloat by international aid.

Back at my hotel, I met Luis Mañuel Beirão, one of São Tomé’s few travel agents. His grandmother was Angolan and his grandfather a Cape Verdean labourer. With the images from the museum fresh in my mind, I was surprised when he told me the Saotomese still living on the roças remember the Portuguese fondly. “You must understand,” he insisted, “now these workers are free, but they have nothing – since independence the estates have fallen apart.” It was like a child growing up with pocket-money then having the apron-strings cut. “We gained independence with an empty pocket,” he said.

The following morning, Luis had arranged visits to several of these roças during a two-day hike through the heart of the island’s extensive rainforest. We set off south, after a breakfast of pawpaw and fresh mango juice, and drove towards the starting point. Outside, the sky was bruised black and purple, and a steamy downpour prompted the locals to use banana palm leaves as makeshift umbrellas.

São Tomé town petered out in minutes as the road climbed Mount Morro Esperança’s lower slopes. The island’s interior is insatiably fertile; the slender road is bracketed by a green wall of breadfruit trees, oil palms, coffee bushes and wild gladioli, glistening wet from the morning mist. Magically, from the damp undergrowth, children would appear with impeccable timing to wave excitedly.

Others perfected the art of ferrying goods on their heads – though a tin of pilchards and a stiletto shoe didn’t look too taxing. In the blink of an eye Trinidade, the island’s second-largest settlement, appeared then disappeared. Once-striking wooden townhouses were weathered grey to the point of collapse, and bulky jackfruits sat by the road awaiting purchase by any shopper athletic enough to haul them home.

Near Milagrosa plantation I met the trekking guide, also called Luis. He’d been sent to Cuba for four years in the 1970s when São Tomé flirted with the Eastern bloc, so I communicated with him in fractured holiday Spanish. We followed a plantation road, crossing mountain-fresh ribeiros (streams). Every so often Luis would dip off the track and reappear with something unusual to taste: bitterly dry kola nuts, or red ripened cocoa pods shaped like small rugby balls, which tasted of sherbet, not chocolate. The track was deserted, except for a few women carrying vats of the local hooch and Santa Adlide, a tranquil hamlet of typical Saotomese stilted wooden houses.

Engulfed by a low mist, we entered a forest clearing overseen by a magnificent wooden hacienda – our overnight accommodation at roça Bombaím. The house’s facade had a spacious bougainvillea-entwined balcony wrapped around the upper floor and to its rear, an overgrown ornamental garden. Across a meadow, fragrant with wild coriander, the old house faced its dilapidated offices and workers’ accommodation – arranged so the former owner would have been able to keep an eye on his employees. The five or six families that remained to eke a subsistence living from the roça now crowded into a smoky stableblock.

The air of stagnation and decay was inescapable. Built in the 1940s, this once-grandiose estate would have been the cream of Saotomese society. It harvested coffee, cocoa, vanilla, and plantain, but was also a place for the glitterati to gamble and party. Now, pigs ran amok between rusting Massey Ferguson tractors, and mildew, mould and collapsed roofs had overtaken the outbuildings which were the exclusive preserve of chickens and goats.

In a complete volte-face, the Saotomese government has been encouraging the re-privatisation of the roças, and Bombaím, ironically, has a Portuguese owner once again. The hacienda’s refurbishment had begun, and local plantation trails were being improved with the help of EU funding to encourage tourism. The old house was basic, comfortable and wildly atmospheric. In the evening, I shuffled around its creaking floors, picking out stylish features – like original coloured-glass panels and cornices – illuminated by a battery of flickering candles casting sumptuous shadows. Dinner was fresh produce from the estate: coco-yams, baked breadfruit, fried plantain and earthy coffee. We ate while listening to a tropical storm rumbling closer.

Next morning, we continued south through Obo Natural Park, trekking through the mature rainforest that covers 75% of São Tomé. Our nine-hour hike picked a route through alternating river valleys and narrow ridges, all clogged with dense forest spiked with clumps of bamboo. Luis pointed out some of the 135 endemic plant species the island supports, including the bizarre costas giganteus – the national flower – which resembles a rubbery, glowing poker spitting yellow flames. Just as exotic were the transparent-winged day-flying bats, which used us for slalom practice, and the whorled shells of the immense Saotomese land snails.

As we clambered around the back of Pico Formosa, brushing through moistened cycads which lent a prehistoric touch, I got my first view of São Tomé’s remarkable volcanic peaks breaking through the stranglehold of blanketing mist. Cabumbé first, at 1,403m, the island’s second highest peak, and then the hugely phallic Cão Grande, a sheer, volcanic pinnacle that’s probably left centuries of Catholic nuns blushing. Opposite Cão Grande, Luis urged me to look left. “It’s Pico Maria Fernandes,” he said of a shark-finned outcrop, “but never point at it or it will rain.” A safe bet, as maxims go, in a tropical forest where it rains every other day.

That evening was spent at the roça São João, a 200-hectare plantation looking to cultivate tourists as well as coffee. Its superb wooden hacienda, with views out to the nearby Atlantic, was built around 1913. The coast had tempted me so, with time to spare, I sauntered through a forest of coco palms down to the ocean, passing coffee beans drying on raffia mats, and pausing at a small bamboo-shack to try the local palm wine. Taken straight from the palm trees, it’s tapped already fermented. The milky fluid has a sweet, tangy taste, and fizzes like Alka-Seltzer. It’s potent stuff. The locals say it should be drunk as soon as it’s tapped in the morning, and some take this responsibility very seriously indeed.

Crossing a coastal headland, I emerged at a picturesque bay fringed with tilting coco palms and fishing dugouts carved from the local oka tree. The black sand scorched my soles, so there was little choice but to plunge into the still, warm Atlantic water. As black kites playfully swooped overhead, I stared seawards to Sete Pedras, a chain of offshore rocks resembling a partly-submerged stegosaurus. It was there, in the 16th century, that a slaver went aground, and its ‘cargo’ of Angolans swam ashore, liberated, establishing the angelic stilted fishing town, São João dos Angolares, which snuggles amid the thicket of coco palms just above the bay. Legend says the Portuguese did not discover the freed Angolans until a century later.

Now the island’s former masters are back in this area, on Rolas Island, where a Portuguese hotel group has built one of São Tomé’s first exclusive beach resorts catering for the luxury package holiday market. As I floated in the calm sea, I wondered how long it might be before developers eyed up this perfect beach? If tourism takes off, would São Tomé, once again, allow its soul to be owned by Europeans? The island truly has the touch of paradise, but coming here to solely enjoy its worldly pleasures, oblivious to its troubled past, wouldn’t do São Tomé justice. And anyway, for now, leaky roofs and ghoulish shutters suited me just fine.

When to go: As a whole, the climate is equatorial and maritime, therefore hot and humid all year round. There are two rainy seasons, February to May and October to December, which produce three or four heavy downpours a week. These are often nocturnal and leave clear air, blue skies and temperatures of 28-31°C. The dry season, or gravana, from June to September, tends to be cloudier with moderate temperatures.

Health and safety: As expected in equatorial Africa, thought should be given to polio, tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis jabs. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is technically required, and malaria, including the malignant falciparum, is present, so precautions need to be taken. Bottled water is available on the island.

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