Posted by: Dr. Y. | November 11, 2015

Why the name: São Tomé and Príncipe?

Sao Tome Flag

I used to love the sound of it: São Tomé e Príncipe… and always wondered: why have two names for one country? why the joined names? why not just name it São Tomé? Just like Trinidad and Tobago, São Tomé and Príncipe is in fact two islands, and just like T&T, the largest one is the first one in the combo name: São Tomé. However, unlike Trinidad and Tobago whose capital is Port of Spain, São Tomé and Príncipe’s capital is named … you guessed it: São Tomé!

São Tomé and Príncipe

São Tomé and Príncipe

São Tomé and Príncipe map

São Tomé and Príncipe map

The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are situated in central Africa, in the equatorial Atlantic ocean and Gulf of Guinea about 300 and 250 kilometres, respectively, off the northwest coast of Gabon; it is Africa’s second smallest country after Seychelles. Both islands are part of the Cameroon volcanic mountain line, which also includes the islands of Annobón to the southwest, Bioko to the northeast (both part of Equatorial Guinea), and Mount Cameroon in Cameroon. Its tallest mountain is with Pico de São Tomé at 2,024 m.

São Tomé 1645

São Tomé 1645

So why the combo name and what does it mean? São Tomé was founded by Álvaro Caminha in 1493, who received the land as a grant from the Portuguese crown to grow sugar. The island was uninhabited before the arrival of the Portuguese sometime around 1470. (I always doubt these accounts which state an island as uninhabited; after all didn’t Christopher Columbus discover America even though it was already inhabited?).  Príncipe was settled in 1500 under a similar arrangement. São Tomé was right on the equator and wet enough to grow sugar in wild abundance. Its proximity to the African Kingdom of Kongo provided an eventual source of slave laborers to work the sugar plantations. The dates of discovery, by explorers João de Santarém and Pêro Escobar, are sometimes given as 21 December (St Thomas’s Day) 1471 for São Tomé, and 17 January (St Anthony’s Day) 1472 for Príncipe. Thus São Tomé stands for Saint Thomas. Príncipe was initially named Santo Antão (“Saint Anthony”), changing its name in 1502 to Ilha do Príncipe (“Prince’s Island”), in reference to the Prince of Portugal to whom duties on the island’s sugar crop were paid. Thus Principe stands for Prince. Hence São Tomé e Príncipe really stands for Saint Thomas and Prince.

Principe in 1727

Principe in 1727

Attracting European settlers to the islands proved difficult, and most of the earliest inhabitants were “undesirables” (like in so many colonies) sent from Portugal, mostly Jews. In time these settlers found the volcanic soil of the region suitable for agriculture, especially the growing of sugar, and brought slaves from the neighboring Kingdom of Kongo to work those plantations.

Sao Tome and Principe today

Sao Tome and Principe today

São Tomé is centered on a sixteenth-century cathedral. Another early building is Fort São Sebastião, built in 1575 and now the São Tomé National Museum. In 1599, the city as well as the islands were taken by the Dutch for two days and again in 1641 for a year. It was the capital of the Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Príncipe and, since São Tomé and Príncipe‘s independence on 12 July 1975, capital of the sovereign nation.

The country’s economy is centered around cash crops: sugar, cocoa, and coffee. Tourism is also another big economic driver for the country.


  1. Could yiu suggest so e authors from São Tomé that I could get in English. I have been struggling to find anything.

    • Hello BookerTalk… I will look into books by authors from Sao Tome that you could get in English rather than Portuguese shortly. Thanks for visiting the blog.

      • that would be so kind of you, thank you

      • Dear BookerTalk, I looked a bit into it. The only book I know in English about Sao Tome is by Paul Cohn titled “Sao Tome: Journey to the abyss – Portugal stolen children”. Santomean authors include: Conceicao Lima, Inocencia Mata (young author, and very promising), Jose Tenreiro (poet), Mario Domingues, Caetano da Costa Alegre and others. However, I do not know if their work have been translated to English, they are all in Portuguese and might have been translated to French given the islands’ proximity to many French-speaking African countries.

      • This is so kind of you, thanks for digging out the info. I shall have to go looking for Cohn

      • You are quite welcome! I hope it helps.

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