Monday, 5 May 2014

Sao Tome: Journey to the Abyss, Portugal's Stolen Children - Paul D Cohn (Sao Tome et Principe)

In 1485 the Portuguese Crown and Catholic Church began to kidnap Jewish children, forcibly convert the young conscripts, and ship them to São Tomé Island off the African equator to work the government sugar plantations. The collision of slavery, sugar agriculture, and discovery of The Americas transformed this island colony into the nidus of the wholesale black slave trade that infected Africa and Western commerce for the next 350 years. Sao Tome reveals the Medieval Church's complicity in the business of human bondage.

This little-known chapter of the Diaspora tells the story of young Marcel Saulo and his sister Leah abducted with other children from their synagogue in Lisbon and shipped by caravel 4,000 miles to the West-African island where they bear witness to the holocaust of African slavery. This is a historical novel that chronicles one man's courageous struggle against religious and racial persecution, torture, and disease, and explores the abyss of Inquisition, Portuguese and Spanish world expansion, and the blight of slavery fuelled by the calamitous growth of sugar commerce.

When I started the Around the World Reading Challenge at the beginning of 2012 I knew there would be some countries that would be more difficult to find books for that others, and I fully expected the small island nation of Sao Tome et Principe to be one of them. I thought from the name that this was a French speaking island and former French colony, but learnt that it was actually Portuguese - Sao Tome means St Thomas in Portuguese. I found this book simply by going to Amazon and searching for Sao Tome and up it popped. It was not the cheapest I have read this year, but so far is most definitely the best. Every once in a while a book comes along that is so unexpected and so different that it stays with you for a long time. Last year for me it was a book from Trinidad, this year I get the feeling that it may well be this one.

The story is based upon what is known as the Saulo Chronicle, written by a Marcel Saulo in 1491. This chronicle which covers a period of five years details the life of Marcel Saulo who was the manuscript says, abducted from his synagogue in Lisbon, separated from his sister and the rest of his family and community, and shipped to the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome It seems that this is a dark chapter in Portugal's history which I am sure they would rather forget. The shipping of these Jewish children at a time when the inquisition held sway, was supposedly to turn them into "good" Catholics, but was actually a ruse to get unpaid labour for the sugar plantations (slavery by any other name).

The book details five years in the life of Saulo following his abduction and his struggle to make a life for himself in his new home. It is a heart-breaking tale of mans inhumanity to man and of slavery in all its guises for when he arrives Saulo realises that the island nation that is now his home is also home to a myriad of African slaves, indeed a staging post for their trafficking throughout Europe and the newly discovered Americas. Despite these circumstances, and experiencing the most horrendous torture, Saulo makes the island his home and starts a family of his own, only to have this brutally snatched away by sickness in more ways than one. His downfall is his objection to black slavery and support for the the black Bishop who as an African himself is also against this practise. I will say no more, as it will only spoil it for those who may wish to read this book.

This is an excellent book and a most unusual one at that - it is rare to find a book about slavery written from the white perspective and set in this time frame - most other books are set much later on. It is also a great exercise in education - educating yourself not only about mans inhumanity and the now well documented hypocrisy of the Church, but also about the darker chapters in Europe's history and what the colonisation of the so-called dark continent really meant to her natives.

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