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The Roca Plantations of Sao Tome and Principe Provide a Poignant Sense of Their Colonial Past

The Portuguese, who were the early settlers, established plantation estates across large swathes of green lands in the islands to grow sugarcane

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: The historical plantation estates ‘Rocas’ of Sao Tome and Principe are a world by itself. A walk into any plantation provides a captivating and poignant sense of the colonial past and their present.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Historically, Sao Tome has attracted foreign settlers due to its geographical location, fertile land and its potential to become a major agricultural base.

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The Portuguese, who were the early settlers, established plantation estates across large swathes of green lands in the islands to grow sugarcane. They employed locals to work in the rocas.

A world of rocas

The word ‘Roca’ is pronounced as ‘raw sa’. During the 19th and 20th centuries, when Sao Tome was an important producer of cocoa and coffee beans, there were around 150 rocas in activity on the island.

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The rocas were plantation estates with a centralized management, and dedicated to the production of crop only (sugar cane in 16th century, cocoa and coffee in 18th century).

The biggest rocas could employ few thousand people and had their own churches, hospitals, offices, processing shacks, train tracks etc. They were usually self sufficient in food production, and provided housing quarters to the workers.

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Though these rocas were self-contained and self-sufficient entities, they mostly served the owners. The local laborers were practically used as slaves.

For a short period in the middle of the 16th century, Sao Tome and Principe managed to enjoy the status of the world’s largest producer of sugar. But due to better quality sugar produced by Brazil and its own inferior cane, sugar cane industry got destroyed in Sao Tome.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

But after Brazil became free in 1822,  coffee and cacao cultivation were introduced in Sao Tome and Principe in early 19th century. During the first two decades of 20th century, Sao Tome again became famous as one of the world’s largest coffee and cacao producer.

Sao Tome’s prominence led to the sudden expansion of the plantations on these islands. However, this activity coincided with the abolition of slavery in 1875. The Portuguese plantation owners started recruiting “contract workers” from Angola and Cape Verde.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

The hidden costs of forced labour on the cocoa plantations of São Tomé and Príncipe during the period 1875-1914 were soon exposed. The living and working conditions of these indentured laborers were so pathetic, that the enslaved workers either escaped bondage and fled to the mountains or raided the plantations.

It is clear that the Rocas were never run on scientific and commercial lines. Instead they were based on slavery and exploitation and therefore, were doomed for failure right from the beginning.

Around 1920s, there were over 150 large ill managed plantations growing coffee and cacao. But the first thing that Sao Tome did after becoming a free nation in 1975 was to nationalize these plantations.

Photo Credit: FAO

Due to the high nationalistic sentiments, this was a very popular decision at that time. The people of the country viewed the decision as a closure to a dark chapter of their past.

Nevertheless, when they inherited them, these plantations were valuable assets for Sao Tome at that time. They could have helped to kick start its nascent economy. Unfortunately, the free government’s inability to inject or attract investments into the plantations witnessed a steep drop in production. This led to gradual decay of these facilities.

As on date, very few of these estates are operating at optimum levels. Some of them have been converted into luxury hotels and resorts, which stand side-by-side with poor local communities living in the same  laborers’ quarters built years ago. Some of them lie in various stages of disrepair.

Photo Credit: Google Images

Roça Agostinho Neto is the biggest and most impressive plantation in São Tomé. The photo of this plantation was printed on the back of the old 5,000 Dobra note until 2018.  It was the largest producer of cocoa, coffee, coconut and bananas. This was also perhaps the best maintained estate. It gives us a fair idea as to how it was back then.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

The old railway tracks are still there. There is an avenue which has old buildings on either side. One of them still houses a fruit processing unit. The sweeping views from the first floor of the ancient looking hospital building are to die for.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

The Roça Água Izé Água Izé is by far the most visited and most photographed.  Only a half hour drive from the capital, this plantation is one of the largest. This is where commercial cocoa production first started in the mid-19th century. In 1884, Água Izé had 50km of internal railway lines running through its 80 km area. A specialty of this estate was that it then housed one of most modern hospitals in West Africa. A great view of the islands awaits the visitor from the hill top.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

The Roça São João has been turned into an ecotourism culture hub. The ruins of Hospital da Criação lie desolately in a corner of the estate. Roça Uba Budo is where one can see the whole process of cocoa production.

Roça Nova Moca is perhaps the most active plantation in the island. Perched at an altitude of 1000m, Nova Moca plantation grows most of the island’s coffee for export. I was told that this estate was the venue for experimenting with new agricultural initiatives in the island. Claudio Corallo, an Italian entrepreneur, revived the coffee culture here.

Roça Sundy in Principe island, has a special place in scientific history. It was on this estate that Einstein’s theory was proven right. Sundy is the biggest plantation and was the only coffee-producing plantation on Príncipe. Roça Sundy has been converted into a resort.

Memorial in honor of experiments carried out here in 1919 to find empirical evidence for the theory of relativity during a solar eclipse. Photo Credit: Google Images

Roça Belo Monte was built in grand Portuguese style. The Casa Grande mansion is beautiful from an architectural viewpoint. The museum, with all its contents, is steeped in history and can give a nostalgic feeling.

During my visits to some of these iconic plantations, I felt a heavy sense of colonial history on me. Not only did they transport me mentally to an era of slavery and exploitation, they also gave me a poignant insight into the daily struggles of the plantation workers.

These rocas also presented great photographic moments, each of which has its own story to tell. Sao Tome can leverage the history and culture of the rocas to introduce elements of its cultural past into its tourism marketing strategy.

Also Read: Obo Natural Park: Sao Tome’s Biologically Diverse Ecosystem


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