Karl’s Chronicles. Article 23 Sao Tome: If These Walls Could Talk
Sao Tome, though a capital falls drastically short of being credited a city as we would know it. A third the size of Eastbourne and where the entire island is still smaller than Greater London its dimensions are belittled again. However, its once palmy and ostentatious architecture still projects an evening light of grandeur. Restored and glorified by the attention of a new coat of paint. A fine cathedral, fortress, merchants stores and public administrative buildings are having to quietly come to terms with the island’s loss of global importance. Looking across with snobbish displeasure at the noisy mayhem of the cluttered Mercado central, where fish guts are mopped up by stray dogs amongst the rubble of a stalled drainage project.
Warm bronze light poured through the open high wooden doors of the Santa Se cathedral. Puncturing through a drifting ceiling of bruised grey and into the holy low-light of the main chamber. With such determination, luminescence, and a reverent location, an open heart could have heralded its manifestation as divine. The two guards outside the black gates of the rose coloured presidential palace opposite failed to observe such simple but pronounced splendour. Their starched focus fixed on a romantic couple at the head of the cathedral’s steps, waving around a camera with oblivious content. However, such vacancy would find sharp focus if the lens fell in the direction of the sensitive palace.
Across the threshold, one’s eyes adapted to the perpetual gloom, bound in years of compounded melancholy and requested hope. Floating in between millions of suspended dust particles which awarded the interior to one of a sunken ship. The Santa Se, blessed and re-blessed in architectural resurrection and tweaking over four centuries, is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest cathedrals. Rising into the humid salt laced air from the hands of the Portuguese colonists in 1576. Flowing at waist height, a band of lapiz-blue and white tiles portray plump faced cherubs, lauded with dragon-fly sized wings. Their celestial happiness overrides the Darwinian rule of natural defects. These cherubs and their earlier cousins, now kept in hallowed storage have seen much change over the centuries.
The domination of the Portuguese settlers, the rise and abrupt collapse of the sugar industry due to Brazil’s higher more superior output, and the growing slave trade originally indentured to work the sugar plantations from which the island quickly morphed into a transit camp. Exporting slaves to other destinations which aside from the long Atlantic voyage to the Americas included the Gold Coast, Cape Verde & Portugal. Triple the number of slaves (close to 6000) were held for export in comparison to those working on the plantations. In thirty years starting in 1510, half a dozen ships were in constant use between Sao Tome and The Gold Coast alone with Akan traders acquiring 10,000 slaves. Such was the profitability that teachers, masons, even priests, fresh off the boat from Lisbon soon engaged in nefarious businesses to profit from the slave trade.
The sugar decline lasted several centuries, and with the economy in tatters, subsistence farming became a way of survival. By the mid 17th century, those angelic cherub eyes under a hem of oily curls would have witnessed a Dutch overtake, lasting just seven years but enough time to destroy over 70 sugar mills. By the beginning of the 19th century, a regeneration known as the second colonisation took place with the introduction of coffee and later cacao, as a swift alternative to coffee labour shortages by the effect of abolition. By 1908 Sao Tome & Principe soon became the worlds largest producer of cacao, fuelling the economy and impressing the Portuguese to invest in modernising the (rocas) plantations. Today, The Ivory Coast produces and exports the most cacao globally, having taken the mantle from Ghana.
The enduring white pillars running either side of the aisle, carrying the weight and burden of the cathedral on its shoulders, might have shaken to the ongoing unrest in regards to continued forced labour, still evident into the 20th century. In 1953 in the hill town of Batepa, tensions boiled over in a series of riots that left hundreds killed in clashes with the Portuguese authorities. The incident propelled the move towards independence, as a political-minded body of Sao Tomeans formed the Liberation Movement of Sao Tome & Principe with its official base in Gabon. With the fall of the Portuguese Caetano dictatorship in 1974, full independence for Sao Tome & Principe came just over a year later on July 12th 1975.
If these walls could talk of man’s restlessness, of progression and power, of inhumanity and freedom, of politics and money, they might draw light on the subject and thank God for deliverance.
The old fort of Saint Sebastian stands staring out across the kyanite-blue of the Atlantic. Built in 1576 the same year as the cathedral and another observer of the islands austere and imperilling history. Saint Sebastian (AD 256-288), martyred during the time of Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians after having converted many soldiers. The fort took the name in honour of the Portuguese King Dom Sebastiao who came to the throne a year later in 1577. Within its series of rooms are artefacts that register five centuries of Portuguese hegemony and the agitating road towards independence — commemorated by a speech given by the islands first president Manuel Pinto da Costa on the painful era regarding slavery and forced labour. Today, perhaps as a quiet testament in ensuring peace and safety, the attached red and white lighthouse still warns seafarers of the threat from nearby rocks and shallows — her light punching through the fading dusk at 7 pm every night.
Facts: The Cathedral of Sante Se, Nossa de Senhora Graca (Our Lady of Grace) is open Tues – Sat: 05:30-10:00 & 15:00 – 19:00. Mon: 05:30 – 07:30 & 15:00 20:00. Sun Mass: 06:00 – 07:30, 10:00 – 11:30, 17:30 – 19:15
Located across from the Presidential palace and behind Avenue de Independencia.
The Fort & National Museum on ave 12 de Julho, east of the port is open Mon – Fri; 08:00 – midday & 14:00 – 16:00. Sat: 08:00 – 13:00. Entry is 50 dobras or 2 euros. All visits include the mandatory guided tour. Most of the exhibits come with Portuguese explanations, and little English is spoken between the guides. French is more common though an outside guide can accompany you. English speaking guides can be hired from Navetur or Mistral Agencies. Both put together tailor-made tours of Sao Tome & Principe with the former acting as a de-facto tourist office.
Accommodation: Try www.booking.com and www.airbnb.com for a variety of deals which are more often cheaper than the hotels own tariff. With booking.com you can reserve without having to pay, though check the cut of date when you book as money is non-refundable after that. Many of the major hotels advertise on booking.com while Airbnb leans towards private homes. Saying that, the Roca Monte Forte plantation uses Airbnb.
For in-depth information on Sao Tome & Principe, the Bradt (second edition – Sept 2014) guidebook by Kathleen Becker is highly recommended. You can buy either paperback or e-versions directly from Bradt. www.bradtguides.com They occasionally have flash sales with 50% off. You can find reduced guidebooks on Amazon, searching in their market place, which often brings up some significant savings. www.amazon.co.uk or www.amazon.com