São Tomé Day, or Dia de São Tomé, is commemorated each year on December 21. It marks the arrival of the first Europeans to the island in 1471. São Tomé is Portuguese for Saint Thomas, whose feast day also falls on December 21. Príncipe was first called ‘Santo Antão’ or Saint Anthony, but it was later changed to Príncipe in honor of the Prince of Portugal. It’s a special day for the islanders, celebrated with music and dancing.
History of São Tomé Day
São Tomé and Príncipe is Africa’s second-smallest country, situated in the Gulf of Guinea. As Portuguese explorers made their way around the coast of Africa looking for a trade route to India and the near east, they discovered them in the late 15th century. They arrived in São Tomé on December 21 and in Príncipe on January 17. Both islands were uninhabited when they arrived. They made suitable bases from which to trade with the African mainland, and the first successful São Tomé settlement was established in 1493.
The islands were populated by ‘degredados’ or ‘undesirables’ sent from Portugal and African slaves who were forced to work on sugar plantations. Later on, sugar gave way to cacao and coffee. In the 1890s, cacao became the main cash crop. For a time, it was the world’s largest producer of cacao. Slavery was abolished in 1852, but workers from places like Angola worked the plantations until 1910.
After World War II, cocoa production declined, making the islands isolated. Corruption and brutality were rampant among the plantations belonging to corporations. Forcing local ‘Forros’ or free men to work at the plantations led to the Batepá Massacre in 1953. This was a clear example of violence under Portuguese rule. The Committee for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe was established in 1960 and changed its name to the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe (M.L.S.T.P.) in 1972.
After a coup in Portugal in 1974, the new government agreed to hand over power to the M.L.S.T.P. the following year. Most colonists returned to Portugal, and independence was granted on July 12, 1975.
São Tomé Day timeline
The Portuguese arrive and bring enslaved people to work on sugar plantations.
The cocoa plant is introduced, making São Tomé one of the world’s leading cocoa producers.
The island becomes an overseas province of Portugal.
São Tomé gains independence from Portugal and elects Manuel Pinto da Costa as its president.
São Tomé is one of the first African countries to embrace democratic reform; changes to the constitution and the legalization of opposition parties led to nonviolent, free, and transparent elections in 1991.
São Tomé Day FAQs
Why was São Tomé important?
By the mid-16th century, it became the model for the island plantation societies that later rose in other parts of the West Indies. This was because it was Africa’s most prominent exporter of sugar grown by slave labor at the time.
What language do they speak in São Tomé?
Most of the population speaks its official language, Portuguese. Forro, Angolar, Tonga, and Principense are locally developed restructured versions of Portuguese or Portuguese creoles.
How safe is São Tomé and Príncipe?
It’s a very safe place for travelers to visit. There is minimal violent crime, and armed robberies and rapes are rare.
How to Observe São Tomé Day
Learn the history of São Tomé
Delve into the origins of one of the smallest African countries. From being a deserted island, then a European colony with slave plantations and eventually independence, its history makes for an exciting read.
Have some chocolate
In honor of what was once São Tomé’s prime export, have a bite (or two) of chocolate. This special day calls for special chocolate. Look for one with no more than six ingredients and a high percentage of cocoa solids.
Add sugar to jumpstart your day
Before cacao was king in São Tomé, sugar reigned supreme. Put a little sweetness in your coffee or tea to start your day. Remember, a little goes a long way!
5 Unusual Facts About São Tomé
No UNESCO World Heritage Site
São Tomé and Príncipe is one of 27 countries where no UNESCO heritage site exists.
Only one fine chocolate maker exists
For a country formerly famous for its chocolate, only one chocolatier is left; Claudio Corallo exports his chocolate to high-end stores and chefs worldwide.
There are no dangerous animals
Unlike mainland Africa, there are no tigers, lions, deadly spiders, or snakes in the jungle of São Tomé.
The population was formed on slavery
A large part of the country’s ancestry came from enslaved people from West Africa and as far as Angola.
Mountain range of non-active volcanoes
It’s part of the Cameroonian volcanic mountain range with other islands like Bioko and Annobón.
Why São Tomé Day is Important
It’s Africa's Eden
Along with São Tomé, Príncipe also makes up the two islands in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Gabon. Its vast rainforest, volcanic rock formations, spectacular beaches, marine life, birds, and plants make it a tropical paradise.
There’s so much to do in a small place
Visitors can enjoy various activities like snorkeling in the bays, canoeing through mangrove rivers, and exploring old plantations. If you’re lucky, you may even witness turtles hatching!
Not a lot of people know about it — yet
This tiny island state is not on the usual tourist bucket list, though considering its spectacular natural beauty, it should be. It’s possibly one of Africa’s best-kept secret destinations.
São Tomé Day dates