The Jewish history of Sao Thome e Principe, two small islands off the west coast of Africa, close to Guinea, includes a tragic era. In 1493, one year after the Jews were expelled from Spain, a large percentage of them had taken refuge in Portugal, where the edicts of banishment did not begin until 1496. King Emanuel I of Portugal, seeking funds to finance his program of considerable colonial expansion, exacted huge head taxes from the Jews, giving them very little time to pay, and fines if not paid by a certain date. The king wanted to colonize the islands of Sao Tome Y Principe in the Gulf of Guinea, which had been discovered by Joao de Santarem and Pero Escobar in 1472, and claimed by the King of Portugal (to "whiten the race," as he put it), but few Portuguese relished settling in the fever- and crocodile-infested islands. When it was seen that there was very little likelihood that the majority of the Jews would pay the demanded tax, the king deported their young children, aged 2 to 10, to Sao Thome e Principe.
In the port of Lisbon, no fewer than 2000 children were torn from their parents and herded on to boats as slaves (Rabbi Samuel Usque reports this in his book, The Trials and Tribulations of Israel, now available from the Jewish Publication Society, New York). Within a year, only 600 of the children remained alive. Rabbi Usque records that when the parents of the children saw that the deportation was inevitable, they impressed on the children the importance of keeping the Laws of Moses; and some even married the children off amongst each other.
The entreaties of the parents apparently did not go in vain; for reports reached the Office of The Inquisition in Lisbon that in Sao Thome e Principe there were incidents of obvious Jewish observance. The Roman Catholic Church was greatly incensed. The Roman Catholic bishop appointed to San Thome e Principe in 1616, Pedro da Cunha Lobo, became obsessed with the problem.
According to an historical source, on Simhath Torah 1621, he was awakened by a procession, rushed out to confront them, and was so heartily abused by the demonstrators that in disgust he gave up and took the next ship back to Portugal.
There was a small influx of Jewish cocoa and sugar traders to the islands in the 19th and 20th centuries, two of whom are buried in the Sao Thome e Principe cemetery.
Today, these islands of approximately 100,000 inhabitants are independent of Portugal. Two years ago Israel's first ambassador, Dr. Moshe Liba, was warmly received. He found that the descendants of the child slaves were still a very distinctive section of the population (distinguished by their by their whiter skins) proud of their historic past and desirous of contact with Jews outside. Some Jewish customs seem to have continued, although by now mixed with heavy Creole society values and culture.
In order to commemorate the children who were torn from their parents in the 15th century, an International Conference was held to coincide with the islands' twentieth Independence Day, on July 12, 1995. Participants attended from Israel, the US, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain. It is hoped that sponsorship will come forward for further research and studies in the area.
Inquisition archives that have been closed for hundreds of years, including 571 pages dealing just with Jews in Sao Thome e Principe, have now been opened to researchers and are eagerly being awaited at the Institute for Marrano (Anusim) Studies in Gan Yavneh, Israel. It is hoped that interested persons will come forward to enable this valuable opportunity to be used.
I can assure you there can be found many Jewish names and Belifonte is one of them. It was striking to see some dark-skinned children with blondish hair and blue eyes. The then prime-minister himself, Posser da Costa, was aware of his Jewish ancestry through the unfornatunate Jewish children taken from their parent and deported to the islands 5 centuries ago.
Santomeans are among the most hospitable people I know, there is no crime in the islands other then petty theft owing to great poverty. One can go around at any time, night or day, without problems. In Sao Tome City there is a 4-star hotel with good service, the Miramar, owned and run by a German, Manfred Galland and a South African, Beverly Clarke. About 10 km away there is the Club Santana Resort in superb surroundings of Rain Forest, run by a Portuguese couple. In Principe Island, nearer to Gabon, there is the famous Bom Bom Resort owned and run by South Africans. The islands are beautiful and afford an truly African experience without the turmoil one finds on the African mainland. The Islands are served by a TAP Air Portugal weekly direct Airbus 310 flight out of Lisbon into Sao Tome International Airport, as well as Air France via Paris, but that requires a connection flight at Libreville, Gabon. There is only one problem, malaria, but that can be easily prevented.
St. Thome e Principe has no embassy in Israel. The address of its Embassy in New York City is:
801 2nd Ave, New York, N.Y. 10017,