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  • Learning the Ropes in the Tropics:Slavery and the Plantation System on the Island of São Tomé
  • Arlindo Manuel Caldeira (bio)

The aim of this article is to highlight the singular nature of the process by which the archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe became the leading producer of sugar in the world between 1530 and 1560. The pioneering role played by this diminutive equatorial archipelago in the emergence of the Atlantic economy has not been sufficiently appreciated. However, this was where two models of economic and labor organization – European and African – systematically mingled together for the first time. This was also where the system of production for growing and processing sugarcane, which Europe subsequently implemented in the tropics on a large scale, was first developed.

Researchers who have published on the economy of São Tomé have, naturally, emphasized the importance of sugar production in the history of the archipelago. But, almost always, they have focused on commercial aspects, directly associating production on São Tomé with the island of Madeira and as depicting it as a continuation of the model implemented in the latter archipelago.1 In turn, global histories concerning sugar have generally either totally ignored the archipelago or paid very little attention to it due, perhaps, to the fact that the most productive phase on the island of São Tomé was relatively short.2 One of the most notable exceptions is an essay on historical geography by Jock Galloway who, while analyzing the global history of sugar from its origins to the twentieth century,3 acknowledged the singular nature of the São Tomé and Príncipe archipelago and its role in the process of implementing a sugar plantation system, breaking with past experiences.4 This approach was later reprised by Joseph C. Miller in an article highlighting São Tomé’s contribution towards instituting what he calls the “sugar mill complex”5 and that has subsequently become a classic on Atlantic slavery. However, neither Galloway nor Miller investigate the broad chronological and thematic [End Page 35] scopes required to understand the natural and historical conditions amidst which the plantation system emerged on the Island of São Tomé: both have underestimated the African contribution, which in their work is essentially limited to the labor force factor. This contribution aims to go beyond these confines based upon a comprehensive analysis of available sources.

I. São Tomé, from initial colonization to the first sugar mills

The Portuguese first set foot on the Island of São Tomé sometime around 1480, later than what was believed for a long time.6 When the first explorers arrived, they found an unpopulated territory with a rugged terrain but with good ports, lush vegetation, fertile soil and an abundance of water. Since it is impossible to approach the unknown except by juxtaposing it with the familiar, they inevitably compared it to the Island of Madeira. When news of the island’s discovery reached Lisbon, this analogy conditioned the early years of colonization until experience subsequently demonstrated that these two islands had similarities and differences in equal measure.

The Portuguese Crown was initially interested in São Tomé not just for economic reasons, but above all for strategic purposes, even though these are sometimes confused. When the early explorers reached this equatorial island, Portugal had already begun to explore the Gold Coast, also known as the “Mina Coast”, a generic name for the entire stretch of coast along the Gulf of Guinea, extending from Cape Palmas to the Volta River. Here, the Portuguese were finally able to realize one of the objectives that had been nurtured from the time they had begun to explore the African coast: to buy gold in relatively abundant quantities, taking advantage of the supplies brought to the coast from the interior. However, gold was a coveted product, avidly sought by all European powers. Once news of this trade reached their territories, French, Spanish, Flemish and British ships soon flocked to the region. As a result, and to ensure safe storage, in 1481, King João II ordered that a fortified factory be built there urgently: this was the structure that became known...


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