SÃO TOMÉ & PRÍNCIPE'S DARK HISTORY GIVES WAY TO THE TASTE OF PARADISE
The island nation of São Tomé & Príncipe is the second smallest country in Africa, but it’s size belies a natural bounty and a complex yet fascinating history. The islands are one of West Africa’s most important nesting sites for turtles. 900 species of vascular plants take root here and a great variety of birds (at least 120 species) flit between the leaves. There are extraordinary opportunities for hikers, the underwater world offers snorkelling and scuba diving, and big game fishing attracts anglers from all over the world. It is also a source of world class chocolate.
From the luxurious Omali Lodge on Praia Lagarta, I take a 30-minute walk to town on the larger Ilha de São Tomé. Striding briskly at first, my pace eventually slackens and I relax into “leve leve” (slowly slowly), the popular catchphrase of laid back Santomeans. I stroll the streets lined with pastel-coloured buildings, dilapidated balconies and shuttered windows, remnants of the islands’ Portuguese colonialists. At the Mercado Municipal, wooden tables are laden with colourful fruit and vegetables, trussed-up chickens squawk in straw baskets and silver snappers and red groupers are neatly laid out in the fish department where a man passes by with a marlin on his head. Despite the islands’ reputation for quality cocoa, there is no chocolate for sale here.
The association of cacao with pleasure does an injustice to its history (‘Cacao’ refers to unprocessed beans or powder. ‘Cocoa’ refers to roasted or/and processed beans or powder). If one swirls a rich piece of chocolate around one’s mouth while mulling over the trials of the slaves who once worked on cacao fields, as well as the conditions of more recent labourers, chocolate would take on a bitter taste. The good thing is that São Tomé & Príncipe’s cocoa industry has moved on from its dark history.
A History of Cacao & Colonialism
Cacao plants are not native to these islands, in fact neither are humans. The islands were uninhabited until the 1470’s when Portuguese Explorers Pedro Escobar and João de Santarem first set foot on São Tomé. At the National Museum I gaze up at the statues of these men who, unlike most colonialists, could truly claim to have “discovered” a land.
After discovery the Portuguese soon began cultivating the islands for sugar with labour imported from Africa’s west coast – and so began the African habitation of the islands. By the late 1500s, sugar from Brazil, which was of much higher quality, had supplanted the islands’ product. Most of the Portuguese planters left for Brazil, making way for the Africanisation of the islands where an African elite governed for 250 years.
It was João Baptista Silva, the Brazilian husband of one of those elite, who introduced cacao to Principé in 1822, marking the first time that it was cultivated on African soil. It was the coffee boom in the 1850’s that drew the Portuguese back to the island where they began cultivating both crops intensely off the back of slave labour.
Despite the Portuguese abolishment of slavery in 1858, the labourers continued to be exploited, many being “contracted” from the Portuguese colony of Angola where recruiters followed the old slave routes deep into the interior and the recruiting process was reputed to be forced. Workers were paid for their work on the islands, but wages were low – on average 2,500 reis per month for men (approximately $2.50 US), and 1,800 reis for women – and the death rates were high – as much as 20% on Principé. Alcoholism was rife as a result of tedious work, depression and cheap imported Portuguese wine.
Labourers signed 5 year contracts which were automatically renewed, and no workers ever seemed to return to their homeland. In the early 1900’s the English challenged Portuguese policy implying that workers were not allowed to leave freely and that this made them slaves on the islands. By then São Tomé & Príncipe was already one of the world’s biggest producers of cocoa, thanks in a great part to its dubious labour policies.
In 1901 William Cadbury heard that the island’s cocoa was probably produced by slave labour, but it was only after securing freely-produced cocoa from the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1909 that Cadbury boycotted ‘slave’ cocoa from São Tomé & Príncipe. Around 1914, due to intense international pressure and political changes in Portugal, Portuguese colonial policies finally changed and Angolan workers regularly returned home at the end of their contracts. However working conditions remained poor on São Tomé & Príncipe, creating discord between locals and landowners. This culminated in the Batepá massacre on 3 February 1953 when landowners killed over 1,000 people. The event inspired fervent nationalist sentiment and independence from Portugal finally came about in 1975, one of the last few African countries to throw off the shackles of colonial rule.
The Chocolate King
The Portuguese roça (estate) owners left, taking with them their expertise. Many of the roças stopped operating, falling into a state of disrepair. Today, most roças are state-owned but some are leased out to private individuals. Claudio Corallo owns Nova Moca on São Tomé, which is the biggest producer of coffee. He also owns Terreiro Velho on Principe, producing the island’s best cocoa. He is known as the ‘chocolate king’ of West Africa.
Corallo runs his empire from the islands and exports the bulk of what he describes as “the best chocolate in the world” to the USA, Portugal, Italy and France. Born in Florence, he moved to Congo after studying as a tropical agronomist. Here he managed a coffee plantation, shipping the beans along the Congo River. But it was in Venezuela where he found inspiration to improve chocolate after discovering they were adding sugar, vanilla and nuts to their cocoa. ‘I couldn’t figure out what the flavour was. It tasted of a mixture, more like a sangria than a fine wine,’ he says.
Corallo moved to São Tomé, acquired a cacao plantation on Príncipe and began his chocolate venture. ‘We set up a laboratory to ensure our cacao beans would be of optimal quality,’ says Corallo, sifting his hands through a bucket of rich-smelling cacao beans. ‘The secret to making good chocolate is using all your five senses.’ At a tasting session I sample a variety of flavours, including one he’s experimenting with: 73% cocoa infused with raisins soaked in a fermented pear juice. I walk away with six slabs of Corallo’s best. ‘Put it in your pocket before eating. Chocolate, like a cheese, should not be eaten cold,’ he says.
After two days in the capital I take the road south, past fields of coconut palms and banana trees. One of the highlights on São Tomé is a trek through the rainforest in Obõ National Park. Nilton Paquete is my guide and we set off on foot from Bom Sucesso for a six-hour hike, past fields of sweet potatoes and raspberries. Nilton shows me a medicinal tree called wild kuinine. ‘The bark is soaked in water and the bitter mixture cures malaria. Another interesting tree is the macambrara which is known to be an aphrodisiac,’ he smiles.
When we reach the extinct volcanic lake of Lagoa Amelia at an altitude of 1483m, I’m sweating and breathing heavily. The birdlife here is prolific and species to look out for include the maroon pigeon, São Tomé scops owl, the sunbird and oriole. Nilton cuts me a walking stick for the slippery track ahead. Proceeding carefully we descend into thick mist, passing big bamboo thickets and giant begonia leaves. It’s slow going along the muddy track and Nilton uses his machete to cut a path through vines and creepers. After crossing the Abade River we stop for lunch in the ruins of Agua das Spelas, an old colonial cocoa plantation.
Near the end of the hike we come across palm trees with plastic bottles attached high on the trunks. ‘The men have been collecting palm wine,’ explains Nilton. ‘They cut a hole in the trunk and attach the bottle with a pipe. By tomorrow it’ll be full of sap. The liquid is then fermented before being sold in the nearby towns. It’s a big business.’
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The Island’s Astronaut
The following morning I fly to Príncipe, São Tomé’s “little sister” situated 160 km to the north. Cargo and charter boats sail between the islands, but the most reliable way to travel is by air. Principé has a population of just 8,000 and a very basic tourist infrastructure. But that’s soon to change after a huge investment made in the region by South African spaceman and IT billionaire, Mark Shuttleworth. One of his acquisitions is Bom Bom Island Resort, a luxury establishment on the northern tip of Príncipe. Set amongst landscaped gardens, it has 19 wooden chalets and two beaches.
The waters around Principé are renowned for their abundance of sailfish, tuna and marlin, making Principé a premier destination for anglers. ‘This is my 8th visit to Príncipe and I’ve caught marlin all over the world, but Bom Bom is right up there with the best,’ says a British angler who has just arrived for a week.
I relax at Bom Bom, swimming, snorkelling and enjoying five star meals. One day I tour the island and stop at the fishing village of Praia Abade where men heave a boat ashore filled with fat red grouper, two large barracudas and a bucket full of octopus. Leaving the sands of the beach, I visit the old plantation of Sundy that Shuttleworth is restoring to its colonial charm. The restoration of this and another plantation are part of a plan to rejuvenate the cocoa industry. Shuttleworth is also building two more luxury lodges and recruiting teachers from South Africa and Portugal to improve education.
UNESCO has classified Príncipe as a biosphere reserve and all projects undertaken by Shuttleworth will be run on a sustainability basis. ‘We have a 15-year development plan and it will be followed in a manner that maintains the natural and cultural heritage,’ says Philippe Moreau who manages tourism for Bom Bom. ‘Príncipe is a jewel so it’s important to us to preserve the island.’ Shuttleworth is also financing a new runway to accommodate larger aircraft. ‘But we don’t want mass tourism so you won’t be able to land a 737 jet,’ says Moreau.
After wandering the capital Santo Antonio, a sleepy town with faded buildings and friendly people, I chat to some of the locals. ‘I was born in Príncipe in 1976 and learnt my English from a South African teacher,’ Oscar da Costa Tebus tells me while devouring a meal of con con and fried bananas. ‘I work as a mechanic and welder. I eat this fish every day because it tastes so good. Try some. You will like. I enjoy my life because there is no problem here. If you drink too much and sleep on the pavement no one will bother you. Príncipe is a place of peace.’
With thanks to Catherine Higgs, Professor of History at the University of Tennessee and author of ‘Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa’, available through Ohio University Press.