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Articles Blog

São Tome and Principe

Karyn Planett

Where Bonbons Begin, More Or Less

“Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.”--Forrest Gump’s Mama. 

And you never know how far you’ll travel to discover the story of chocolate because you’ve come a long, long way here to the country of São Tome and Principe.  Look on any map.  It’s not exactly easy to find.  And, Bom Bom Island’s even harder!

Did You Find It?

First, we need clarity.  The Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe is just that.  This country features two major islands (São Tome and Principe, ahem) found 87 miles apart plus a few other rock outcroppings.  It’s the second smallest nation in Africa and home to 170,000 people, only 7,000 of whom live on Principe.  Principe itself is only 19 miles by 4 miles.  And, Bom Bom Island Resort is an even weensier little islet connected to Principe’s mainland by a wooden walkway.  For further clarification Bom Bom Island Resort, where you’re going, can be found at one degree thirty-seven minutes north latitude and seven degrees twenty-seven minutes east longitude.  First, find the equator.  Then track these coordinates.  Eh, voilà.  Yes, that’s the one 80 miles out into the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Gabon.  (Rest assured your Captain knows where it is.)

Bom Bom Island measures less than one kilometer in diameter.  As a single island in the small nation of São Tome and Príncipe, it takes almost more time to say the name of the country than to walk around this entire island. 

But, you’re here.  And you have three choices of what to do with your day.  Discover its important Portuguese history, learn about the cocoa trade, or do absolutely nothing in the shade of a breezy island palm.

Portugal Takes An Interest

Portuguese navigators first called in neighboring São Tome (St. Thomas Island) in approximately 1470.  About this time, their sailors were cruising up and down the West African shores searching for suitable trading posts to help them expand their empire.  Pedro Escobar and Joao de Santarem are credited with the discovery of the islands.  Early contact with local tribal chiefs involved the exchange of ivory and gold. 

Within 20 years the Portuguese had constructed an impressive fort in nearby Ghana, which they factored into their scheme for developing lucrative trade routes between Europe, Africa, and the Far East.  For the record, this trade never quite panned out exactly as they had planned.

The earliest successful settlement on Principe was in 1500, though conditions were far from idyllic.  In fact, not everyone settled here voluntarily including Portuguese Jews.  Two thousand Jewish children from 2-10 years old were sent to these islands in 1496 by Portugal’s King Manuel.  Their families had been driven from Spain when they refused to convert to Catholicism three years earlier.  They also refused to pay taxes levied on them to finance the colony.  Only 600 children survived the first year.

Slaving flourished, as did sugar cane cultivation because the volcanic soil was perfect for this crop.  The entire process, however, was really labor intensive hence the need to import slaves from the mainland.  The two islands together were at one time the most productive cane exporters in Africa.  But sugarcane production dwindled over time.

Thankfully the climate here was ideal for growing other crops such as coffee, copra, and cacao beans.  In fact, São Tome was referred to as the “Chocolate Island” at one time.  In 1908, São Tome was recognized as the largest producer of cacao in the world.  Even today, cacao represents 95% of the islands’ exports.

The islands also served as a trans-shipment point for slaves being sent to the New World.  Slaving was officially abolished in 1876 but abuses continued.  Portuguese coffee plantations, known as rocas were the scenes of virtual slavery long after the official practice had ended.

Independence came to all islanders when they formally severed relations with Portugal July 12th, 1975.

Who Doesn’t Like Chocolate?

The cacao plant produces a purplish cacao bean that is essential for cocoa and chocolate production and, therefore, essential for our survival and happiness, as well. 

Mother Nature has thankfully blessed these islands with enough rainfall to nurture these plants.  In fact, the average annual rainfall is close to 100 inches while nearly 400 inches of rain have fallen in one year in certain areas. 

A mature cacao pod holds 50 or more seeds and can weigh several pounds.  They were traditionally harvested daily then dried by spreading them about in the relentless African sun.  These beans were then bagged and shipped off to Europe where master chefs added their magic to sate the Europeans’ insatiable desire for bon bons, bickies and beautiful gateaux au chocolat. 

Meanwhile, Under A Palm Tree

Well, all this is simply too much to ponder, really.  Why not just pause to reflect upon the journey you’ve taken?  Perhaps mail postcards to friends back home, challenging them to find today’s island get-away in their leather-bound atlases.  Or, spend the afternoon lost in the writings of Alda de Espirito Santo.  She is remembered for her poetry as well as for serving as the first female President of the National Assembly of São Tome and Principe.