Sao Tome and Principe: What to know?

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Sao Tome and Principe is a small island nation off the coast of West Africa, made up of two major islands. It was settled by the Portuguese in the late 15th century for sugar production and later became a transit point for slaves. Slavery was abolished in the late 19th century, but effective slavery continued until the Batepa massacre in the 1919s. A liberation movement arose and the country gained independence in 1975. It has since embraced democratic reforms and offers a unique fusion of Portuguese and African culture, as well as world-class coffee, snorkeling, surfing, and nature hiking.

Sao Tome and Principe is a small island nation off the coast of West Africa. The country covers 370 square miles (960 sq km). The country is made up of two major islands, both more than 150 miles (250km) off the coast of Gabon. Neighboring islands include Bioko and Annobon, both belonging to Equatorial Guinea.

There is no evidence of early settlement on either Sao Tome or Principe, and when the Portuguese first landed on the island in the late 15th century, the islands were completely uninhabited. Their proximity to mainland Africa made them an ideal base of operations for the Portuguese trading empire, which often found mainland tribes hostile to bases built on the coast. The bases of Sao Tome and Principe were close enough to the coast to facilitate regular trade, yet far enough away to protect the Portuguese from unrest or violent epidemics.

In the late 15th century Portugal began to settle in Sao Tome and Principe, with a large percentage of Jews leaving Portugal to escape persecution. Early settlers began growing sugar on the islands, finding the volcanic soil ideal for growing that crop. Within a few decades, the islands had become major sugar producers and Portugal took over direct management of both islands.

When sugar began to be grown extensively in the Caribbean, Sao Tome and Principe found itself unable to compete effectively. As a result, by the mid-16th century the islands had instead become primarily a transit point for slaves en route to the Caribbean and the Americas. Agriculture began to re-emerge in the early 19th century, when both cocoa and coffee were introduced to the islands, flourishing in the same soil that had made sugar so successful centuries earlier.

Slavery was abolished in Portuguese territories towards the end of the 19th century, but the landlord system in place in São Tomé and Príncipe led to effective slavery which continued after its official abolition. Clashes between Portuguese landowners and workers occurred throughout much of the early 20th century, particularly over the use of Angolan workers as de facto slaves. In the 1919s this anti-Portuguese sentiment boiled over and the workers protested en masse until they were brutally repressed by the Portuguese in what is usually called the Batepa massacre.

Soon after, a liberation movement arose, with the inhabitants demanding independence from Portugal. The movement picked up speed in the 1960s and in 1974, when the Carnation Revolution occurred in Portugal, replacing the dictatorial government with a left-wing socialist government, the new government set about liberating all Portuguese territories. In 1975, Sao Tome and Principe was declared a fully independent nation.

Although the early years of independence were characterized by much of the state oppression that marked many other African nations in this era, in the 1990s Sao Tome and Principe began to embrace democratic reforms throughout the political process. With the exception of a brief period in 2003, when the military took over, the country has continued to function in a relatively democratic and open manner.

Sao Tome and Principe is a great island destination a little off the beaten track. The fusion of Portuguese and African culture makes for incredible music and dance, the coffee is considered to be some of the best in the world, the snorkeling and surfing are world-class, and the volcanoes offer some of the best nature hiking in that part of the world.

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