You see, bad is cool. Fearsome warriors enveloped in hellfire yellow and Hades red stomp and swagger to pounding drums and ear-piercing whistles. They sport Stygian shades and swarthy beards, and shake lances and rattle sabres with chin-jutting brio.
There’s Feiticeiro, the Sorcerer. There’s Rei Diablo, Rei Burlante and Rei Tempeste – the Devil King, the Swindler King and the Storm King. Gigante, the Giant, overshadows all.
God’s army is a tepid bunch in comparison, clad in wan white and blue, plodding and staid. No wonder the crowd cheers the other side: today, the Devil has the good music.
One thing is certain, though: ‘good’ will triumph – it always does in the Auto de Floripes, Príncipe’s annual street-theatre clash between fiery Moors and cool Christians in which I’d been caught up – and, like most around me, I rue the inevitable.
But then things are often a bit mixed up on the more-petite partner in Africa’s second-smallest nation, São Tomé and Príncipe.
To say that this former Portuguese colony is off the tourist trail would be a monumental understatement. Fewer than 30,000 visitors annually come to São Tomé, nudging the equator in the Gulf of Guinea; only a fraction of those add the 150km hop north-east to Príncipe. Why? Well, accommodation and inter-island transport are limited, but mostly, I suspect, few travellers visit because few travellers have visited.
Sure, things don’t always go as you might like – and not just the outcome of the Auto de Floripes. Poverty is widespread, tourist services uneven, and the leve-leve (slooooow) pace occasionally frustrating. Yet with its emerald forests, volcanic crags and turquoise waters, delectable seafood, warm smiles, a fascinating (if not untroubled) history and rich biodiversity – the archipelago has been dubbed the ‘Galápagos of Africa’ – Príncipe boasts an A-grade travel CV. I ventured here to check its cultural and natural credentials, timing my visit for mid-August when the island’s pocket-sized capital, Santo António, stages this epic medieval battle re-enactment.
Stopping on São Tomé en route, I took the opportunity to explore the larger island’s natural and cultural heritage with local guide Jeremiah, who provided a potted history as we chugged along the east coast road. “According to tradition, Portuguese sailors landed here on 21 December 1470, at that time the feast of St Thomas – hence the island’s name – reaching Príncipe the following month,” he began. “Enslaved people from mainland Africa were shipped in to work sugar-cane plantations; coffee and then cacao were introduced a couple of centuries later.” After slavery was abolished in 1869, plantation owners recruited contract workers (serviçais) – essentially slaves in all but name – from Angola, Mozambique and, particularly, Cape Verde; many were stranded here after promised tickets home failed to materialise. Their communities lined our route into the rural south.
Yellow minibuses buzzed past us as we drove beneath blazing flame trees, dodging young girls lugging bottles of palm wine and boys riding homemade wooden scooters. Black kites wheeled above the shoreline, scouting for fish and rats, while pigs snuffled free-range through the roadside scrub.
Just beyond the Abade River, where women spread a kaleidoscopic patchwork of drying laundry on the rocks, we arrived at Roça Água Izé. One of the islands’ largest cacao plantations (roças), spanning around 2,600 sq km, by the early 20th century it was worked by some 2,500 serviçais overseen by a handful of Europeans. At its peak, the country was the world’s largest exporter of cacao, but after independence from the Portuguese in 1975, the industry withered. Perhaps 1,000 descendants of those workers still live in the crumbling buildings at Água Izé.
This plantation is a far cry from visions of Scarlett O’Hara-style Deep South glamour, though it’s a vibrant community with corner shops, bars, a school and church. We trundled along broken stone roads past vestigial railway tracks – the remains of a 50km network – to park under a breadfruit tree outside a building that exuded a rueful air of eroded grandeur: the plantation hospital, once among the best in West Africa.
From there we roamed the residential district, among giggling children, chickens scratching in the dust and snoozing dogs. Tired, paint-peeling homes stand in tight-packed rows like back-to-backs in a northern mill town, albeit one steaming in 27°C heat, with cacao beans and fish drying on the cobbles.
Continuing down to the beach below, we strolled among dongo dugout canoes hauled out on the sand after pre-dawn fishing missions by Angolares, descendants – according to legend – of Angolan slaves who escaped a 16th-century shipwreck and founded quilombos (Maroon settlements) in the jungly south.