Roças of São Tomé and Principe: an [almost] lost treasure

Roças of São Tomé and Principe: an [almost] lost treasure

Roça Agua Izé – winner of the Enaire Award exhibited at PhotoEspaña 2017

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a project by Filippo Poli and Isabella Gama, photography by Filippo Poli 

Discovering São Tomé and Principe is like going to an island that does not exist, so small that it does not appear on maps, and it is hard to notice it in the Gulf of Guinea, but all of us, sooner or later, have tasted a piece of it.

In the mid-nineteenth century, this tropical land, which is made up of two islands lying on the equator, 300 km far from the African coast, came to be the world’s largest cocoa producer. On this island, the cocoa plant found its perfect habitat and labour at will, cheaply imported from Cape Verde and the nearby African continent.

It is not clear, even today, if the archipelago was, before the arrival of the colonizers, virgin or inhabited by a local population of Angolan origin. It is true that, from the 15th century, the economy of the island was principally based on the production of sugar cane as well as on slave trade. For centuries, the island was a classification hub of the African deportees, who were embarked in the ships of the European powers in order to be sold in the American colonies.

It was only in the 19th century that Sao Tomé e Principe turned into a rich colony, when the Portuguese settlers founded large farms to grow coffee and cocoa. This lasted until 1869, when a slow decline began, after the abolition of slavery, due to the rebellion of workers and the international boycott against the “slave cocoa” of the Portuguese colony.

The organization of the work in the roça Agua Izé

The production system resisted until 1975, the latest companies closed their doors in 1990 and, since that moment, this place has fallen into oblivion. A surprising architectural heritage, however, still remains: the “roças”. It is a Portuguese term that indicates the complex landownership system of land exploitation that changed the history of this small country during centuries, carried out by the colonialist empires.

This large intensive farming machinery normally included greenhouses, dryers, warehouses, “senzalas” —the houses where the workers lived—, a church, a school and, sometimes, a railway that connected the branches to the main “roça” and the sea.

The main house, where the patrão —the landlord— lived, and the hospital, dominated the whole settlement from the end of a monumental axis or from an upper position of control. Both architectures, characterized by Portuguese and European style, were a symbol of power. They were off-limits areas for the workers of the fields, who had to comply with a strict arrangement of the working hours and to submit to the patrão as well as to a restriction of individual freedom, they couldn’t abandon the farm or return to their homeland.

General view of Roça Boa Entrada

Drying cacao

Group of workers in roça Vista Alegre

There were insurmountable physical borders such as the access to the main house or to the upper floor of the hospitals, which were better equipped and exclusively dedicated to Europeans, but it is mainly the psychological boundaries, instilled during centuries of domination, which still seem to return to society as ghosts and in the shape of a lack of self-determination and self-organisation. The people of São Tomé still experience different feelings for the roças, a mix of nostalgia and hatred for a past that offered work for everyone, but no guarantee of rights.

The architecture is the last tangible symbol of this world and it is part of the identity of this population. The stories told by the inhabitants of these communities, leak pride about the beauty of these constructions, but they have also a feeling of impotence and oddness for those houses where they would never live. A latent feeling of inferiority and a lack of economic means, even after the expropriations during the ‘80s, impeded them from feeling they had any right to live there. This perception allowed the lootings and, thus, the abandon of the roças.

The imposed border between the world of the master and the one of the workers does not seem to have disappeared, even after the 1975 independence. The dichotomy patrão/ roças and slaves / senzalas, has transformed and created a new frontier that is well described by the pejorative expression “gente da roça” —people from the roça—, which applied to the people living in the plantations, who are still ghettoized and relegated to the lowest social stratum of society.

The photographic narration of about thirty roças, tries to rebuild the memory of these places by documenting the current reality and bringing to life this architectural heritage that is about to disappear forever.

The project is carried out around two themes: the first is about the main structures of the roças, photographed with long exposure times in order to restore the idea of untouchability and to emphasize the fine line, noticeable even nowadays, between the majesty of these architectures and their context; the second is a portrait of these communities’ daily life, that, despite the difficulties, still are an active part of these places’ history.

sao tome principe roças filippo poli

Roça São Nicolau

sao tome principe roças filippo poli

Roça Boa Entrada

sao tome principe roças filippo poli

Roça Java


Awards and exhibitions of the serie “Roças of Sao Tomé, an [almost] lost treasure” in 2017:

  • 1st prize at Enaire Award.  “Agua Izé” is part of Enaire Collection
  • Exhibition at PhotoEspaña, Instituto Cervantes, Madrid
  • Exhibition at Fundació Vila Casas, Torroella de Montgrí
  • Mention at Architekturbild Award, Germany
  • Exhibition at DAM – Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt
  • Honorable Mention at International Photography Awards
  • Nominee at Fine Art Photo 2017

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