In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section São Tomé and Príncipe

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African Studies São Tomé and Príncipe
Gerhard Seibert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0151


The twin-island republic of São Tomé and Príncipe is Africa’s second smallest country, with a surface area of 1,001 km² and a population of 187,000 (2012). The two volcanic tropical islands are located in the Gulf of Guinea, some 255 km off the coast of Gabon. São Tomé and Príncipe is an Afro-Creole society without ethnic, linguistic, or religious divisions. The archipelago’s effective settlement by European colonists and African slaves began in 1494, some twenty years after the discovery of the hitherto-uninhabited islands by Portuguese navigators. The majority Creoles are known as Forros, the descendants of African slaves and early white settlers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Angolares are descendants of runaway slaves in the 16th century. Former plantation workers from Angola and Cape Verde, who arrived in the archipelago until the 1960s, and their offspring constitute other smaller distinct groups. In the 16th century São Tomé and Príncipe became the first plantation economy in the tropics based on sugar monoculture and slave labor, while the slave trade was equally important for the local economy. In the late 16th century the sugar industry began to deteriorate due to the better quality of Brazilian sugar. Assaults of the plantations by Maroons, a slave revolt in 1595, and raids by the Dutch accelerated the collapse of the sugar industry. In the 17th century the plantation economy ceased to exist, while the slave trade continued at a lower scale. The introduction of coffee (1787) and cocoa (c. 1820) from Brazil enabled the re-establishment of the plantation economy and the recolonization by the Portuguese in the second half of the 19th century. After the abolition of slavery in 1875, the labor for the expanding plantations was provided by contract workers from Angola, Cape Verde, and Mozambique. In the late 19th century cocoa became the principal cash crop. Its production peak was reached before World War I and thereafter gradually decreased. Cocoa production further deteriorated after independence from Portugal in 1975 when São Tomé and Príncipe became a socialist one-party state. In 1990 a multiparty democracy and a free-market economy were introduced. In the 1990s the plantations were dismantled and their lands distributed to smallholders. Despite low production, cocoa has remained the principal export product, while tourism has developed only slowly. Since 1997 the impoverished aid-dependent country has hoped to become an oil producer. However, commercially viable oil has not been discovered yet.

General Overviews

English-language publications on São Tomé and Príncipe are still comparatively scarce. The most updated and detailed overview is Seibert 2006. The book covers the archipelago’s history since its discovery and settlement in the late 15th century. The major part deals with the postcolonial period with a focus on the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1990 and the democratic period. Hodges and Newitt 1988 provides a thorough analysis of the country’s colonial history and the early postcolonial period until the late 1980s. Gallet 2001 presents the country’s history until the late 20th century and provides some travel information. Nascimento 2008 gives a concise overview of the country’s history, society, and recent socioeconomic developments. More than fifty years after its publication Tenreiro 1961 is still considered a standard work on São Tomé. The author’s analysis of the island’s history and society is influenced by the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre’s theory of lusotropicalism, used at the time by the Portuguese Salazar regime to refuse international demands for decolonization. Becker 2014 is a travel guide that also contains useful and updated background information on many other aspects of the islands. The CIA World Factbook is a useful online source for basic information on the country.

  • Becker, Kathleen. São Tomé and Príncipe. 2d ed. Chalfont St. Peter, UK: Bradt Travel Guides, 2014.

    The first English-language travel guide exclusively for São Tomé and Príncipe. Besides accurately researched tourist information, it includes many useful details on the archipelago’s history, culture, languages, literature, society, politics, economy, fauna, and flora.

  • CIA World Factbook: São Tomé and Príncipe.

    Online source providing very basic, largely statistical information on geography, society, government, economy, energy, communications, transport, and military. Many figures are mere estimates from other international sources and not all information is updated and accurate.

  • Gallet, Dominique. São Tomé et Príncipe: Les îles du milieu du monde. Paris: Editions Karthala, 2001.

    Largely based on Portuguese and other secondary sources, covers the history of the islands from their colonization in the late 15th century until the end of the 20th century and provides some basic information on local culture, literature, sightseeing, leisure activities, and tourism.

  • Hodges, Tony, and Malyn Newitt. São Tomé and Príncipe: From Plantation Colony to Microstate. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1988.

    Drawing from a wide range of secondary sources, the two authors provide a detailed analysis of the archipelago’s early and modern colonial history, society, and post-independence politics until the late 1980s, as well as a discussion on the problems of the plantation economy and cocoa monoculture in the postcolonial period.

  • Nascimento, Augusto. São Tomé e Príncipe: Atlas da Lusofonia. Lisbon, Portugal: Prefácio, 2008.

    Part of a series of illustrated books on the eight Portuguese-speaking countries. Includes useful basic information on São Tomé and Príncipe’s geography, history, demography, socioeconomic indicators, kinship, migration, economy, politics, and culture.

  • Seibert, Gerhard. Comrades, Clients and Cousins: Colonialism, Socialism and Democratization in São Tomé and Príncipe. 2d ed. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2006.

    Covers the archipelago’s entire history since its settlement in the late 15th century with a focus on the postcolonial period. Provides a detailed analysis of the democratic transition in 1990 and political and socioeconomic developments until 2005. Revised and updated edition. Portuguese translation of 1st edition (1999): Camaradas, Clientes e Compadres. Colonialismo, Socialismo e Democratização em São Tomé e Príncipe (Lisbon: Vega, 2001).

  • Tenreiro, Francisco. A Ilha de São Tomé. Lisbon, Portugal: Junta de Investigações do Ultramar, 1961.

    Monograph still considered a standard work on São Tomé. Based on earlier sources and the author’s own research in the late 1950s, the book contains detailed information on the island’s geography, natural environment, history, society, economy, and culture. Considerably influenced by the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre’s controversial theory of lusotropicalism.

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