The boys have just returned from a holiday on the island of São Tomé with their father and they tell me they have spent a wonderful week exploring this island, a former Portuguese colony in the equatorial area.
In fact the country is called São Tomé e Príncipe, the main island being São Tomé where the capital city is located; Príncipe (meaning prince, thus called after a prince of Portugal) is much smaller, but even more beautiful, or so people say.
São Tomé was discovered by Portuguese navigators in 1470, who found its location an interesting one for the establishment of a trading base; the islands did become an important trading point but unfortunately not for good reasons, serving as a stop for the Portuguese slave trading ships who brought slaves from the coast of Africa. Some slaves were also brought to São Tomé to work in the sugar cane plantations. Much later, in the 19th century, cocoa and coffee plantations were introduced with great success, and huge plantations belonging to Portuguese settlers developed, called the “roças”. Today they can be seen by tourists as one of the main attractions of the island.
The island’s colonial life is brilliantly depicted in one of my favourite books ever, called “Equator”, written by one of our most famous journalists, Miguel Sousa Tavares, who also happens to be a great writer.
The story begins in 1905 when Luis Bernardo Valença, an upper class Portuguese dandy who leads a very comfortable and pleasant life in Lisbon, is given a very difficult mission by the king of Portugal himself: he is named governor of São Tomé, with a double, yet difficult task: on one side, he is to put a stop to the rich “Roça” owners treating their plantation workers as slaves, even if Portugal has been the first European country to abolish slavery back in 1876. On the other, he is expected to welcome the British consul being sent to São Tomé to ascertain if the Portuguese are in fact practising slavery and convince him this is not the case. The mission entrusted to him is an impossible one and Luís Bernardo faces many hardships, including the heat and humidity that suffocate him and all Europeans. Soon he embarks on a journey filled with danger and intrigue, with the British consul as his only friend and supporter, only to discover the British motives are not as altruistic as they seemed, being tied to interests in the commerce of cocoa and coffee rather than with the wellbeing of exploited human beings. As Luis Bernardo finds himself falling in love with his friend’s wife and living this passion in a midst of exhilaration and regret, things become increasingly dangerous but nothing could prepare him for the shock he feels when he learns the truth about the woman he loves. The shock that will ultimately lead to his downfall.
I will disclose no more as this book is really capable of surprising you and even shocking you, the outcome being totally unexpected. You will find it in English on Amazon and I strongly recommend it as a highly interesting read. Or you can watch the TV series filmed on the island and discover the beautiful settings and costumes…
As for the boys, I’m afraid they have not read the book yet, but they have certainly enjoyed their holidays there. In spite of the grey sky during most of the days –apparently usual at this time of the year – it was very warm and the sea temperature as different from the Portuguese Atlantic coast’s as you may imagine, so they could swim for a long time; but rather than going to the beach they explored the island, visiting the old plantations and other remains of Portuguese presence there; they went fishing one day – apparently not catching too much fish but still enjoying the experience – and on another visited the “Ilhéu das Rolas” (literally the Turtledove islet) where they stood on the equator line that divides the northern and the southern hemispheres. But as much as they loved the landscape, so different from what they are used to, when I asked them what was the thing they had enjoyed most, they were unanimous “The people”. They went on to tell me that the population even if very poor had received them in such a warm way that they were touched. They took clothes and trinkets to distribute among children, and even a rugby ball.
Ater dinner as I was putting the dishes in the dishwasher I thought we must really start planning our long awaited trip to Mozambique. But this will be different, so much more than a holiday in an exotic place, it will be a trip back in time in which I will share my memories with them, tell them many stories of my childhood and show them so many places where I have been so many years ago. For me, it will be a mix of excitement and regret, exhilaration and sadness for all that has been lost and for all those who were with me when I lived there and who are no longer…but one thing I’m positive about – my boys are the ones I want to go back with, the ones I want to share this trip with. And I will look back to the past and cry and be comforted by my two beautiful boys who are the greatest gift life has given me. And I will close the past and move on, as the future will not only be ahead of me, but walking beside me as well.