The island of São Tomé was discovered by the Portuguese in 1472 - part of the expanding European search for a route to the East, a source of suitable land to colonize for wheat, vine and sugar production, and access to the legendary gold mines of West Africa. In 1493 Avaro Caminha was granted the right to create a settlement on São Tomé (and begin plantations) by the Portuguese crown. In 1522, São Tomé came under direct Portuguese administration.
A Need For Workers
Initially settled by Portuguese overseers and convict laborers, São Tomé's climate proved unsuitable for European workers and an alternative workforce was needed. As the Portuguese extended their reach along the West African coast, they came into contact with Islamic slave traders who bought slaves in West African for their trans-Saharan market. Although the Portuguese at that time were predominantly interested in trading textiles, horses, tools, wine, and copper for gold, pepper, and ivory, a small but significant market developed for African slaves for São Tomé (as well as the other newly discovered islands along Africa's Atlantic coast: Madeira, the Canary Islands, and Cape Verde Islands).
Selling to the Islamic Slave Trade
During the first 15 years of the sixteenth century, slave exports to these islands totaled around 2,500 a year. From 1516 to 1521 the number of slaves transported rose to around 5,400 per year. This wasn't, however, due to an increased demand for slaves on the various plantation islands - it was the result of a developing slave trade from the Kingdom of Kongo, further down the Atlantic coast, and the discovery that a profit could be made selling slaves to the Islamic traders along Africa's Gold Coast. São Tomé became a transit point for traders taking slaves from the Kongo for sale in the Gold Coast and to the other Portuguese plantation islands (a few hundred each year were even taken back to Portugal itself). Between 1510 and 1540, four to six slave ships continually transported slaves from São Tomé to the Gold Coast. The smaller caravels could carry 30 to 80 slaves; the larger vessels could carry between 100 to 120 slaves at a time.
The Portuguese had reached the Congo estuary in 1482. In 1489 the Kingdom of Kongo ruler, Manikongo (Nzinga Nkuma), formed a trading agreement with them, and missionaries and artisans were sent out from Portugal. These carpenters, masons, stock-breeders, etc., were heavily involved in the re-development of the Kongolese capital, previously known as Mbanza Kongo, which was now renamed São Salvador.
The Kingdom of Kongo
Manikongo was succeeded by his son Alfonso (Nzinga Mbemba), who ruled from 1506 to 1543. He modeled his court after that of Lisbon (creating Dukes, Marquises, and Counts, mostly from family members). Members of his royal court wore European dress. The Kongo court spent a considerable fortune importing fabric, wine, and luxury items, the money obtained from the sale of slaves and minerals. Slaves were obtained by Alfonso through border skirmishes with the Loango (to the north), Ndongo (to the south), and Mbangala (further inland), and through tribute collections. Although the Portuguese showed considerable interest in the Kongolese mining operations, Alfonso managed to maintain a monopoly on production.
Although the Portuguese tried to restrict the Kongo's access to other markets (the Gold Coast and even Europe itself) by refusing to sell him ships, the Kingdom of Kongo maintained a small maritime presence at the port of Mpinda. King Alfonso even 'owned' a couple of plantations on the island of São Tomé, operated by two members of the royal household.
Revised from an article first published on 7 December 2001.