Apr 06, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer
São Tomé and Príncipe
We began our day by eagerly donning our life jackets and heading to the mudroom for the first Zodiac landing of this African odyssey expedition. We had a dry landing on São Tomé, the larger of the two main islands of this archipelago, which lies 250km west of Gabon, in continental Africa. The view of the coast on our approach was spectacular—volcanic mountains covered in rain forest loomed as a backdrop to pastel, Portuguese, colonial architecture lining the bay. While we admired our destination from the Zodiacs, our friendly Santomean guides, awaiting us on the wharf, mirrored our excitement by snapping photos of our arrival with their cell phones to share with family and friends!
It was a “léve-léve” day, as they say here in São Tomé and Príncipe—a day full of laid-back exploration around Africa’s second smallest country, only a third the size of Rhode Island. With four options for exploring today, we collectively covered lots of ground, visiting the white sand beaches of the East coast and the rain forests of the interior, examining the rich history and diversity of the Santomean people, attending a performance of a local church choir, sampling some of the finest locally-produced coffee and chocolate, seeking out the island’s rich birdlife, and even wandering aimlessly through the sleepy capital city of São Tomé, before returning to the ship. One adventurous guest even had his hair cut at a local barbershop! It sounds like a lot, but not if you just take it “léve-léve.”
My group began the day with a drive into the lush interior of the island, where we visited the waterfall of San Nicolau, and the vestiges of Monte Café—a colonial-era coffee and cacao plantation high up in the mountains. The history of these upper reaches of the island is fascinating. The plantations here were first run with slave labor imported from the mainland and later by forced labor under terrible conditions. But in São Tomé, people fought back.
Our young guide, Florençio Costa, a local high school English teacher, pulled out a banknote of the local currency, the dobra, and introduced us to Rei Amador, a national hero who led slave revolts on plantations much like Monte Café back in the 16th century. Rei Amador was a member of the Angolares—a group of runaway slaves who formed a community high in these mountains that developed their own language and culture, distinct from all others on the island. From their secret enclave, they fought their former captors, burning sugar refineries, and attacking São Tomé city, until they were defeated in 1693 by the Portuguese.
We learned that today the Angolares people still flourish here and account for 90% of the island’s fisher-folk, which seemed bizarre, given their high altitude origins. It turns out that in the mid-19th century, the Portuguese agreed not to force them to work on the plantations if they would provide them with fish. The Angolares preferred anything to working on the plantations.
At the end of the day, we found ourselves back in town, with some walk-about time. Remarkably, some of us met a few Angolares fisher-folk at the water’s edge, preparing the day’s catch to sell to church-goers who were just leaving Good Friday service. We had traced their history from the mountains to the sea.