When the Portuguese landed in 1470, the islands of So Tomé and Prncipe were uninhabited. Joo de Santarém and Pêro Escobar were the first to find the islands. The islands were discovered by Portuguese navigators, who concluded that they would make excellent trading bases with the mainland.
Although some sources indicate other neighboring years, the dates of discovery are often reported as 21 December (St Thomas’s Day), 1471 for So Tomé and 17 January (St Anthony’s Day), 1472 for Principe. Prncipe was originally known as Santo Anto (“Saint Anthony”), but in 1502 it was renamed Ilha do Prncipe (“Prince’s Island”), after the Prince of Portugal, who was paid duties on the island’s sugar production.
Lvaro Caminha, who got the land as a gift from the monarch, founded the first successful colony in So Tomé in 1493. A same method was used to settle Principe in 1500. However, attracting settlers proved difficult, and the majority of the first immigrants were “undesirables” brought from Portugal, most of whom were Jews. With time, these immigrants discovered that the volcanic soil of the area was ideal for agriculture, particularly sugar production.
By 1515, So Tomé and Prncipe had become slave depots for the Elmina-based coastal slave trade.
Sugar production was a labor-intensive operation, so the Portuguese started importing slaves from the mainland in huge numbers. By the mid-sixteenth century, Portuguese immigrants had transformed the islands into Africa’s leading sugar producer. In 1522 and 1573, the Portuguese crown took possession and governed So Tomé and Principe, respectively.
However, the islands started to suffer as a result of competition from sugar-producing colonies in the Western Hemisphere. The huge slave population was extremely difficult to manage, especially since Portugal lacked the means to engage much in the endeavor. Sugar production decreased during the following 100 years, and the economy of So Tomé had shifted by the mid-17th century. It was now mainly used as a transit place for ships transporting slaves from the West to mainland Africa.
Two new income crops, coffee and cocoa, were introduced in the early nineteenth century. The rich volcanic soils were ideal for the new cash crop sector, and large plantations (known as “roças”), controlled by Portuguese corporations or absentee landlords, quickly absorbed almost all of the excellent acreage. So Tomé had become the world’s biggest producer of cocoa by 1908, and it is still the country’s most significant crop today.
The roças system, which gave plantation managers a lot of power, led to a lot of mistreatment of African agricultural labor. Slavery was outlawed in Portugal in 1876, although the practice of involuntary wage labor persisted. In its 13 March 1897 edition, Scientific Americanmagazine revealed the continuing usage of slaves in So Tomé in words and photos.
An worldwide controversy erupted in the early twentieth century over allegations that Angolan contract laborers were subjected to forced labor and poor working conditions. Sporadic labor unrest and discontent persisted far into the twentieth century, culminating in riots in 1953 that resulted in the deaths of several hundred African workers in a confrontation with their Portuguese masters. The “Batepá Massacre” is still remembered as a significant event in the islands’ colonial history, and the government commemorates it every year.
A tiny group of So Toméans founded the Movement for the Liberation of So Tomé and Prncipe (MLSTP) in the late 1950s, when other developing African countries were seeking independence. The MLSTP ultimately established its headquarters in neighboring Gabon. After the fall of the Caetano regime in Portugal in April 1974, events picked up steam in the 1960s.
The new Portuguese government was dedicated to the abolition of Portugal’s overseas colonies, and its officials met with the MLSTP in Algiers in November 1974 to hammer out a transfer of sovereignty deal. After a period of transitional administration, So Tomé and Prncipe gained independence on July 12, 1975, with MLSTP Secretary General Manuel Pinto da Costa as its first president.
So Tomé became one of the first African nations to undertake democratic transition in 1990, and amendments to the constitution – including the establishment of opposition political parties – led to peaceful, free, and transparent elections in 1991. Former Prime Minister Miguel Trovoada, who had been in exile since 1986, ran as an independent candidate and won the presidency. In So Tomé’s second multi-party presidential election in 1996, Trovoada was re-elected.
The PCD gained a majority of members in the National Assembly, with the MLSTP emerging as a significant and outspoken minority party. In late 1992, municipal elections were held, with the MLSTP winning a majority of seats on five of the seven regional councils. The MLSTP gained a majority of seats in the Assembly in early legislative elections in October 1994. In the November 1998 elections, it recovered an overwhelming majority of seats.
In July 2001, presidential elections were conducted. Fradique de Menezes, a candidate supported by the Independent Democratic Action party, was elected in the first round and sworn in on September 3. In March 2002, parliamentary elections were conducted. A series of opposition-led governments were formed over the next four years.
In July 2003, the army seized power for a week, claiming corruption and that upcoming oil revenues would not be distributed fairly. President de Menezes was re-elected as a result of a deal that was reached. When a pro-presidential coalition gained enough seats in the National Assembly elections to establish a new government in March 2006, the cohabitation era came to an end.
Fradique de Menezes comfortably won a second five-year term as president on July 30, 2006, beating two other candidates, Patrice Trovoada (son of former President Miguel Trovoada) and independent Nilo Guimares. The first local elections since 1992 were held on August 27, 2006, and were controlled by members of the governing coalition. An attempted coup d’état against President Fradique de Menezes occurred on February 12, 2009. The coup plotters were imprisoned, but President de Menezes subsequently pardoned them.