New Plateaus Geography Spotlight # 3 – São Tomé And Príncipe

*This article was co-written with the help of the talented and intelligent, Thomas Brandt. If you’re ever interested in contributing ideas or material to New Plateaus, please express it. 🙂

Gosh, with a name like São Tomé and Príncipe you’ve got to assume some kind of western European influence, huh? But that doesn’t help a whole heck of a lot in trying to pinpoint this place considering western Europe colonized much of the world.


Okay, how’s this for a clue?:


Africa is one colorful continent. Which flag is your favorite? I like the red and black of Egypt. The blue/yellow star of Ethiopia is pretty sparkly. How about that wicked machete in Angola?

Unfortunately, we can’t even see the flag of the country featured in this article because it’s so darn small. The island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe are the pair of small spots snuggled into the corner, south of Africa’s top half and west of its bottom half. If you need more help, I got my best man on the case:



And if you turn your head to the right Africa sort of looks like a horse or dragon.

Too lazy to turn your head and use your imagination? No worries New Plateaus has tech skillz your ya, too:



Alright let’s get back to the topic at hand—dragons.  Whoops, I mean São Tomé and Príncipe. Haha. (Sadly, though, these islands don’t even show up on the dragon map.) Guess we better go in for a close-up:

Yeah, they’re small, but not insignificant. São Tomé and Príncipe is a historically-telling and beautiful country, a unique African/European offering.

First, though, we gotta learn how to say the darn name. This is a challenge. The Portuguese say, “Suh-ooo  too-meh  ee  Pddih-say-pay” And you need to say it with the “Suh” having an nasally “uh”, the “to” sounding like the English word “to”, the “dd” being like a rolled Spanish “r”, and yes, that’s right–no ‘n” sound. Try it again if you like:

“Suh-ooo  too-meh  ee  Pddih-say-pay”

If you don’t like maybe you prefer the English version:

“sow-to-may and prin-si-pay”

That was easy.

Whatever you call them, (I like to call them St. P) they stand as some of the prettiest places on Earth:

Not the image that comes to mind when you think of Africa is it?

Well, it is to these guys:

toitles 🙂

Canoeing anyone?

Aha! So there are people here! At least one, anyway.

Actually, there are about 165,ooo lucky inhabitants of these pair of paradises. Let’s do the quick history of these folks:

The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe were first settled by Portuguese explores in the late fifteenth century. This is late considering that much more remote islands in the world had been inhabited for millennia before that. But that’s the official history.

São Tomé was discovered on St. Thomas’ day (according to the Western calendar), which is December 21, and Príncipe (originally called Santo Antão) was discovered on St. Anthony’s day (according to the Western calendar), which is January 17.  It was eventually decided that the Prince of Portugal (to whom the natives paid sugar duties) was more important than St. Anthony, so the name of the smaller island was changed in 1502.

The Portuguese started quite the sugar operation, and these islands became Africa’s leading sugar exporter. This labor-intensive work brought in a ton of African slaves. In the 1800’s, sugar was replaced with cocoa and coffee as the islands’ cash crops.

But though the crops changed, slavery still exploited the labor force. Revolts and cries for independence began to come about in the 1900’s, and by 1975 São Tomé and Príncipe gained its independence, and the leader of the revolutionary group which fought for its independence became its first president:

His name was Manuel Pinto da Costa. Black man, Portuguese name.

Say, ‘Hi, Manuel.’

Today,  the country is led by President Fradique de Menezes. It hasn’t been the smoothest ride for this island nation as democratic reform in the 90’s, a brief army take-over in 2003, and an attempted recent coup have all wrinkled the nation’s sails.

Also wrinkling the sails has been economic struggle. Independence can be hard for a fledgling state, and the 80’s and 90’s weren’t great for this country’s bottom line. Coming from a position of state control, reforms privatized much of the economy including tourism, banking, and agriculture. The IMF and UN also have been assisting the country throughout this millennium. Recently, a deal was struck between São Tomé and Príncipe and Niger regarding oil reserves under the ocean, allowing Western energy companies to bid for the rights to drill and allowing tens of millions of dollars to come into São Tomé and Príncipe.

Geographically, these equator-hugging lands enjoy warm—but not hot—days with some inland/highland cooling variation. If you go there you can count on 80 degrees. São Tomé is just 30 x 20 miles in size and Príncipe about 20 x 4. They’re small. As in 5th smallest country in the world small. And of the 165K inhabitants, all but around 6K live on São Tomé. Of these, the lion’s share are African descendents from slaves or more-recent immigrants. Additionally, there are some Portuguese, Jewish, and Chinese inhabitants. (The Jewish population was sent here by Portugal in the 1500’s because they didn’t want them in their country, and the Chinese are from Macau: another former Portuguese colony now in present-day China.)

The language of the country is Portuguese.

Now hello to the Sao Tomeans:

culture time

And enjoy this slideshow if you have two minutes to enjoy the sights and soundtrack of São Tomé e Príncipe! You get to see and hear the unique blend of Euro/Afro and more wonderful views these islands offer:

This country does a nice job of showcasing the variety within sometimes-glossed-over Africa. It also does a nice job of revealing humanity’s past interactions and fruit of those past encounters. It’s a wee nugget of a country but even within the smallest of countries lies an enormous potential for sights, sounds, experiences, and lessons.

til next time,



1 Response

  1. SF Fan

    Since you asked, my fav flag is the flag of Swaziland. It was proudly displayed in my office, which I dubbed The Honorary Consulate of Swaziland in San Francisco. I served as the Great Ndlovukati (the Matriarchal Elephant) until a Great White Banker bought us out. The flag then was used as a window curtain until the strong
    Western sun reduced it to tatters. Then we burnt up the tatters in the middle of the street using charcoal starter,
    ceremoniously, of course.

What say you?