The Uncertain Atlantic: African and European Transformations of São Tomé Island c. 1533




São Tomé, Gulf of Guinea, Lisbon, Portugal, sixteenth century, Duarte Belo, sugar estates, African proveniences, guerra do mato


As the first European colony to specialize in sugar cultivation using a labor force comprised exclusively of enslaved Africans, São Tomé island in the Gulf of Guinea is often considered the birthplace of the sugar plantation complex. But the rise of sugar cultivation there took place amidst deep uncertainties. This essay examines a previously unstudied sixteenth-century São Tomé estate inventory from the vantage points of merchants and officials on São Tomé and in Portugal, and to the extent possible, of the Africans they exploited. Without disputing the economic importance of sugar or that of key sites such as São Tomé for later Atlantic histories, we call attention to contingencies that included the waning fortunes of certain planters and their implications for the enslaved; slave routes’ subordination to changing political dynamics on the African mainland; and evidence of African resistance ranging from litigation to escape to maroon wars that threatened sugar production, the slave trade, and the viability of Portuguese rule on the island. During the 1520s-1530s many parties had a stake in the island’s future, and the rise of sugar was by no means a foreordained outcome.


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How to Cite

de Avilez Rocha, G., & Wheat, D. (2023). The Uncertain Atlantic: African and European Transformations of São Tomé Island c. 1533. Culture &Amp; History Digital Journal, 12(2), e016.