São Tomé and Príncipe were probably uninhabited volcanic islands when the Portuguese landed there in 1471. In 1485, São Tomé was made a donatário (concession) of João de Paiva; the donatário provided for de Paiva to administer and profit by his administration of São Tomé according to Portuguese law. Subsequently, São Tomé served as a slave station.
The islands were settled by a group of Europeans and their African slaves. In 1493, 2,000 Jewish children were taken to São Tomé in an effort to populate the islands and raise the children as Christians, but by 1532 only 50 or 60 were left. It was Portuguese policy to deport its criminals, degradados, and orphans to remote colonial areas, and many of São Tomé's earliest male settlers came in this fashion. Female settlers were more often African slave women, and from the ensuing marriages a large mestiço population developed. A third group, separate from the European and mestiço populations, consisted of Angolares, descendants of shipwrecked Angolan slaves.
By the mid-16th century, the islands were Africa's leading exporter of sugar. São Tomé and Príncipe were taken over by the Portuguese crown in 1522 and 1573, respectively. Eventually, sugar lost its commercial importance, but in the early 19th century, two new cash crops, coffee and cocoa, were introduced, and by 1908 São Tomé had become the world's largest producer of cocoa. Plantation slavery or slavelike contract labor remained the basis of island labor for hundreds of years, and even when slavery formally ended, in 1869, the plantations employed laborers "recruited" on "contract" from other areas of Portuguese-speaking Africa. In 1906, Henry Nevinson published his book, A Modern Slavery , which exposed the use of involuntary recruits, unacceptably high labor mortality, and poor work conditions on the islands. The outcry resulted in a boycott of São Tomé cocoa. The scandal occasioned some reforms, but oppressive conditions continued. As late as 1953, the governor of São Tomé ordered Portuguese troops to open fire on striking plantation workers, leaving nearly 1,000 people dead, an action that aroused nationalist feeling.
A liberation group formed in the islands in 1960, but Portuguese control made it impossible to wage an effective guerrilla war. The organization, the Committee for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe (later renamed the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe—MLSTP), remained in exile in Gabon until it was recognized by Portugal in 1974 as the sole legitimate representative of the people of São Tomé and Príncipe.
An independence agreement was concluded between Portuguese and MLSTP negotiators on 26 November 1974, and a transitional government was installed on 21 December. On 12 July 1975, São Tomé and Príncipe achieved full independence. On the same day, Manuel Pinto da Costa, the secretary-general of the MLSTP, was inaugurated as the country's first president.
Following an alleged plot to overthrow the government, about 1,500 troops from Angola and Guinea-Bissau were stationed on the islands in 1978 at Pinto da Costa's request. Soviet, East European, and Cuban personnel were also reportedly on the islands. In 1979, Prime Minister Miguel dos Anjos da Cunha Lisboa Trouvoada was arrested and charged with attempting to seize power. His post was assumed by Pinto da Costa, and the MLSTP was reported to be seriously split. In the early 1980s there was unrest on Príncipe, apparently provoked by separatists. By 1985, São Tomé and Príncipe had begun to establish closer ties with the West.
In 1990, a new policy of abertura, or political and economic "opening," was adopted. It led to the legalization of opposition parties and direct elections with secret balloting. The secret police were purged and freedom of association and press were encouraged. A number of groups, many led by politicians in exile, united as the Party of Democratic Convergence-Group of Reflection (PDC-GR) and were led by Miguel Trovoada. An independent labor movement was launched and strikes were legalized. Abertura was also reflected in the evolution of a market economy and the privatization of state farms and enterprises.
On 20 January 1991, the nation held its first multiparty legislative elections. The former ruling party (MLSTP) was defeated by the PDC-GR. PDC-GR got 54.4% (33 seats) of the vote, the MLSTP 30.5% (21 seats), and the Democratic Opposition Coalition (CODO) 5.2% (1 seat). In the presidential election on 3 March 1991, Trovoada was elected unopposed. In 1992, the government imposed a strict structural adjustment program at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank, which increased the price of gasoline and depreciated the value of the currency by 40%. The measures prompted massive demonstrations and calls for the dissolution of the government headed by Prime Minister Daniel Lima dos Santos Daio. The parliament then appointed Norberto Alegre prime minister, who then formed a new government.
In 1993, the PDC-GR continued to dominate the central government, but partisan activity has accelerated. The president and the prime minister, both PDC-GR, also became involved in a dispute over interpretation of the constitution on the separation of powers. In November, a joint communique by four opposition parties accused government of "leading the country towards a social explosion" and denounced its "authoritarian and repressive attitude." By 1994, Trovoada was forced to again dissolve the government amid continued protests. The PDC-GR was increasingly seen as corrupt and complacent, but Trovoada was viewed with equal skepticism. After firing Alegre, Trovoada appointed a new prime minister from the PDC-GR, but the PDCGR refused to acknowledge the president's right to do so, and expelled the prime minister from the party and refused to participate further with the government. In response, Trovoada announced new elections for 2 October 1994. The MLSTP won 27 seats; the PCD-GR, 14; and the Independent Democratic Action Party, 14. Carlos Alberto Monteiro Dias da Graça was appointed prime minister. Regional elections were held on Príncipe in March 1995, resulting in a commanding majority for the MLSTP.
Social unrest, fueled mainly by stagnant wages, continued to plague the country and in August 1995 five Army officers led a bloodless coup. Trovoada and da Graça were detained and the Assembly was disbanded. International condemnation was swift and the coup leaders backed down. The elected government was reinstated, with Trovoada promising to institute reforms and bring opposition members into the government. At year's end, a new government of national unity was created, headed by Prime Minister Armindo Vaz d'Almeida. In June 1996, Trovoada won presidential elections, taking 52% of the vote to (MLSTP) Manuel Pinto Costa's 48% in a rerun. The election was deemed generally free and fair by international observers, despite allegations of an unconstitutional modification of the voter lists between the first and second rounds. In September, the prime minister resigned and was replaced, after much infighting, by Raul Vagner de Conceição Bragança Neto.
As the 1998 parliamentary elections approached, the country was submerged in political, economic and social crisis. In March 1998 the civil service went on strike, the first since independence, demanding payment of six months of wage arrears, but government coffers were then said to be empty. Demobilized soldiers threatened to destabilize the country, demanding financial benefits as provided for by a pact that ended the 1995 coup. Constant struggle between Trovoada and the government, partly responsible for the six changes of government since the introduction of a multiparty system, had blocked most of the major political and economic decisions, such as the privatization of private companies.
The MLSTP won the 8 November 1998 election, taking 31 of the 55 parliamentary seats. The ADI won 16 and the PCD-GR, 8 seats. After Trovoada's veto of the first cabinet, new Prime Minister Guilherme Posser da Costa formed a government in January 1999, announcing an austerity program to relaunch the economy and promising to fight corruption.
In July 2001, a relatively unknown wealthy businessman, Fradrique Melo Bandeira De Menezes, became head of state in free and fair elections. De Menezes had previous public sector experience, but more importantly he had received the blessing of former President Trovoada. Barred from seeking a third term, Trovoada needed a successor, who would protect his political and financial interests, and it was widely speculated that Trovoada and his son Patrice believed they could control de Menezes from behind the scenes. De Menezes adopted a widely popular platform, ran a successful campaign, and gained enough votes on the first round to defeat Manuel Pinto da Costa, the candidate of the Movimento de Libertacao de São Tomé e Príncipe-Partido Social Democrata (MLSTP-PSD). While Guinea-Bissau President Kumba Yala and more than a thousand diplomats looked on, de Menezes was inaugurated São Tomé and Príncipe's third president on September 3, 2001.
The years 2003-05 should test de Menezes's character. He fought with parliament to revoke a pro-Nigeria oil deal, and has vowed to utilize future oil revenues to eradicate poverty. De Menezes' plan to prosecute former public servants and politicians found guilty of corruption, could implicate the Trovoadas and other powerful figures. Given the influence of the MLSTP-PSD, it remains to be seen whether de Menezes will be able to dislodge entrenched patronage networks.