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São Tomé e Principe - History

São Tomé was part of Portugal’s African possessions for 500 years. Portuguese navigators first discovered the uninhabited islands between 1469 and 1472. The first successful settlement on Sao Tome was established in 1493 by Alvaro Caminha, who had received the land as a grant from the Portuguese crown. Seven years later in 1500, Principe was settled under a similar arrangement. These grants ended when the Portuguese crown fully took over Sao Tome in 1522 and Principe in 1573.

It was developed as a plantation economy, initially for sugar and later for cocoa, taking advantage of the fertile volcanic soils. By mid-century, less than 100 years after discovering it, the Portuguese had turned the islands into Africa's foremost exporter of sugar with the help of slave labor from the African coast. Uninhabited when the first Portuguese settlers came, Portugal introduced slave labour from Angola and neighbouring countries, and after the abolition of slavery in 1876, Portugal used forced contract labour from its other African colonies to work on the plantations. The makeup of the country’s population reflects that history: many were mixed-blood or mestico, while others were direct descendants of African slaves. However, sugar cultivation declined over the next 100 years, and by the mid-1600s, Sao Tome was little more than a port of call to refuel ships.

This situation lasted for roughly 150 years until in the early 1800s when two new cash crops, coffee and cocoa, were introduced. The rich volcanic soils proved well suited to the new cash crop industry. By 1908, Sao Tome had become the world's largest producer of cocoa. Extensive plantations (rocas), owned by Portuguese companies or absentee landlords, cultivated most of the good farmland.

The rocas system, which gave the plantation managers a high degree of authority, led to abuses against the African farm workers. Although Portugal officially abolished slavery in 1876, the practice of forced paid labor continued. In the early 1900s, an internationally publicized controversy arose over charges that Angolan contract workers were being subjected to forced labor and unsatisfactory working conditions.

Sporadic labor unrest and dissatisfaction continued until they culminated in an outbreak of riots in 1953 in which several hundred African laborers were killed in a clash with the Portuguese. This "Batepa Massacre" remains a major event in the colonial history of the islands, and the government officially observes its anniversary on February 3. Although the Portuguese crushed the riots, an independence movement emerged in the aftermath.

By the late 1950s, a small group of Sao Tomeans formed the Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe (MLSTP). Unable to remain on the islands, they eventually established a base in nearby Gabon. The population had agitated for independence from Portugal from 1960, mainly through the activities of the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Principe (originally known as CLSTP in 1960, becoming MLSTP in 1972). Although the independence movement grew stronger in the 1960s, events accelerated rapidly after the overthrow of the Salazar and Caetano dictatorship in Portugal in April 1974.

The new Portuguese regime was committed to the dissolution of its overseas colonies and in November 1974, their representatives met with the MLSTP in Algiers. There, the two sides worked out an agreement for the transfer of sovereignty. The movement toward independence precipitated an exodus of most of the 4,000 Portuguese residents in the 1970s. Sâo Tomé and Principe acceded to independence as a single Republic without fighting or political resistance from Lisbon. Nationalists of the Movimento de Libertaçâo de Sâo Tomé e Principe (MLSTP) reached an agreement with Portugal on 25 November 1974 , providing that colonial rule should end with elections to a constituent assembly. These were held on 6 July 1975, and gave the MLSTP a 90 per cent majority of votes. On n July the last Portuguese troops and administrators were withdrawn, and independence was proclaimed the next day. After the period of transitional government, Sao Tome and Principe achieved independence on July 12, 1975, and chose as its first president the MLSTP Secretary General, Manuel Pinto da Costa. He established a one-party state and served as president until 1990.

Since gaining independence in 1975, Sao Tome y Principe had been a single-party state governed by the Liberation Movement of Sao Tome y Principe (MLSTP), with political power concentrated in the president, elected unopposed. At least nominally the state in its domestic policy committed itself to socialism and agrarian reform. Opposition was prohibited, and freedoms of expression were highly circumscribed. All legitimate media were under government control, as were trade unions and other cultural and social organizations. An effective, if rudimentary, system of informers allowed the government to monitor and identify lower-level dissidents. Consequently, there was no significant opposition on the islands. Small groups of exiles resided in Portugal and Gabon; none, however, posed a threat to the government, reinforced as it is by as many as 600 Cuban troops and advisers. At the same time, the state still experienced a surprising level of political agitation as manifested by frequent changes among top-level cabinet office holders.





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