Our Top 10 of 2013. No. 3: once the world’s leading cacao producer, the tiny nation of São Tomé and Príncipe seems to have fallen off the map. Samantha Weinberg, entranced, went twice in a year—and unearthed a dark history

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

BEFORE I WENT to São Tomé and Príncipe, I wouldn’t have been able to pick out a cacao—or cocoa—pod from a police line-up of tropical fruit. But it is impossible to spend time on this west African archipelago and not become immersed in the culture of chocolate. The two islands—São Tomé is the larger, a comma of green with its tail nudging the Equator; Príncipe, to its north, is smaller and more verdant still—were the first African nation to cultivate cacao, and, for a few years around the turn of the 20th century, the world’s leading cacao producer.

Chocolate, in a way, lured me to São Tomé the first time. It was a bleak midwinter and I had a week to kill between jobs. In a smart London chocolate shop, I’d seen a little pouch of dark chocolate buttons labelled "Origin: São Tomé". It nudged a memory of a friend who had been evacuated from Angola 20 years earlier and found himself on an island "as close to paradise as it’s possible to get". That was São Tomé, and I had heard no further mention of it. The promise of remoteness and chocolate proved irresistible.

A month later I’m on the weekly TAP flight from Lisbon, wedged between two women with braided hair. Woken as we begin our descent over the Gulf of Guinea, I crane towards the window for a glimpse of the islands. I have no idea what to expect: a rummage around the internet revealed little apart from that it rained a lot and that there were no cash machines for visitors. But here it is: a green, mountainous mass, sloping down to slim crescents of pale sand skimming the edges where the forest gives way to the blue of the ocean. When São Tomé was discovered by two Portuguese explorers, João de Santarém and Pedro Escobar, in about 1470, it was probably uninhabited, and even now there is little sign that it was once among Portugal’s most productive dependencies.

Although the islands are steamily beautiful, it is hard to imagine what made Portugal think that they would be a useful colony. They’re small—only 1,001km between the two of them—volcanic and thickly vegetated. Exploring São Tomé and Príncipe, on foot, by jeep and on a bike, I am struck again and again by the power of that nature, both to feed—crops grow here almost visibly—and to destroy. The pavements of the capital (also called São Tomé) are ruptured by roots that force their way up through the thick stone. In the virgin rainforest, giant figs strangle the life out of tall oka trees and without constant care each cacao tree or coffee bush is soon smothered under a blanket of vines, so it is almost impossible to make out where the abandoned plantations were.

The early settlers, and the slaves they brought from mainland Africa, had to cope with disease and isolation. They hacked away at the forest and planted sugar cane and pepper. It must have been a constant battle to plant, nurture and harvest, and keep the crops clear of weeds in the wet heat of the tropics. In time São Tomé was trumped by Brazil, where the terrain was better suited to large-scale agriculture.

It wasn’t until the 1820s that São Tomé and Príncipe found their métier. Cacao had been grown since the time of the Aztecs in Central America, but only in a narrow girdle around the Equator, between 18 degrees north and 15 degrees south. By the early 19th century, however, the European tongue had been so tantalised by the taste that demand started to outstrip supply. "And so cacao set forth into its great diaspora," Paul Richardson writes in "Indulgence: Around the World in Search of Chocolate" (2003). "How it travelled is something of an enigma, since cacao beans lose their ability to germinate after a couple of weeks and the portable Wardian greenhouse…had not yet been invented." Somehow a Brazilian named João Baptista Silva managed to keep them fertile during the Atlantic crossing, and the first plants were introduced on Príncipe in 1820. When they responded well to the conditions, they were shipped on to São Tomé. Over the succeeding decades more land was cleared for more acres of plantations, more slaves imported mainly from Angola, more settlers, more machinery. And more cacao.

Picture: An engine lies abandoned on Príncipe. When cacao production was at its height the major plantations were laid with hundreds of kilometres of narrow-gauge track