Seibert on Burness, 'Ossobo: Essays on the Literature of Sao Tome and Principe'

Donald Burness
Gerhard Seibert

Donald Burness. Ossobo: Essays on the Literature of Sao Tome and Principe. Trenton and Asmara: Africa World Press, 2005. xvi + 160 pp. $24.25 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-59221-372-6.

Reviewed by Gerhard Seibert (Instituto de Investigacao Cientifica Tropical (IICT), Lisbon, Portugal) Published on H-Luso-Africa (July, 2006)

A Social Scientist's Reading of a Book on Sao Tome and Principe's literature

Donald Burness, a founding member of the African Literature Association, has written "the first book in English devoted solely and specifically to the literature of Sao Tome and Principe" (quote from the back cover). He has identified three themes he considers representative of the African archipelago's literature: the Angolares maroons, the Massacre of February 1953, and the "mythical" bird Ossobo. The three themes correspond largely to the literary genres of play, historic novel, and poetry that are dealt with in the three chapters of the book. The second half of the book contains a worthy appendix with twenty-three poems by ten writers, in both their original version and English translation. The inclusion of play and novel is quite remarkable since these two genres are virtually non-existent in Sao Tome and Principe (a former Portuguese colony that became independent in 1975, with a current population of some 150,000). Local literary production in this small and impoverished country, that has no daily newspaper or bookshop, let alone a publisher, has, indeed been dominated almost entirely by poetry.

Burness claims to be the first critic who has dealt at great length with the three literary themes. This is possibly true. But compared with other books on Santomean literature, some of which are included in his bibliography, his literary analysis and contextualization is less profound. For example, about the Luso-Santomean poet Francisco Tenreiro (1921-1963) Burness says that "he came to see poetry as a vehicle for consciousness raising and celebration of blackness. No African of his generation was more influenced by the voices of Harlem [Renaissance]" (p. 77). In contrast, Luciano Caetano da Rosa stresses the important fact that Tenreiro was the first Negritude poet in Portuguese language. Further this scholar explains: "Tenreiro knew this movement and was also informed about the struggles of the North-American blacks. On the other hand, through the public posts, which he occupied, he saw himself sometimes forced to support the colonial politics of the Estado Novo that ideologically was influenced by Freyre's Lusotropicalism... In Tenreiro's case not a forgotten identity is at stake, but the strong will, to conquer an African identity for himself."[1] Russell Hamilton, a pioneer of Luso-African literature studies, writes that "to say that Tenreiro insisted in the Negritude as a cultural movement, a taking of consciousness towards Africa and a fraternal dialogue between African and European intellectuals, is not to suggest that he simply wished to accommodate, one with the other, two apparently antagonistic ideologies, i.e. Negritude and Lusotropicalism. However, it would not be wrong to affirm that Tenreiro, the geography professor and deputy of the National Assembly, used these functions to open a liberalizing political space in the reactionary and colonialist system... Occupying a simultaneously contesting and conciliating position, Tenreiro, as African, intellectual and poet, defended the Negritude as a kind of metaphor."[2]

Burness calls Alda Espirito Santo (1926-) "the great poet and activist and lover of her people and champion of her country" (pp. 47-48) and claims that "she is a traditional African poet-storyteller in that she sees her role as voice of the community." (p.62). Yet Caetano da Rosa says: "Alda Espirito Santo's poetry consists of a two-coordinate system: on the one hand the protest against injustice, on the other hand the hope for a better world. The island's historical stages of development thus frequently define the setting of her poems. Her discourse is determined as well by Marxist as by folkloristic elements and influences. In technical terms her poetry is largely based on long stanzas with free, heterometric verses, whereby rhythm and melody rely on the mechanisms of anaphora, alliteration as well as the one or another assonance."[3]

More importantly, what stands out in this reader's view from Burness's discussion are some affirmations and ideas concerning the archipelago's history and culture, of which I would like to review the most important ones in some detail. The first chapter deals with Fernando Macedo's (1927-2006) poetry and a play about the Angolares, a linguistically and culturally distinct group in Sao Tome. Clearly it is strongly influenced by Burness's talk with Macedo, whose literary work centers largely on a colonial myth about the origin of the Angolares. According to this myth, the Angolares are descendents of survivors of a slave ship that shipwrecked at the Sete Pedras rock off the east coast in the southern part of the island in the mid-sixteenth century. Yet, amazingly, Burness confuses Macedo's literary imagination with history. He tells the story of the shipwreck without acknowledging that it is a myth created in the nineteenth century by Portuguese authors based on oral tradition that appeared in the early eighteenth century. There is no historic document on the castaway legend. In the mid-twentieth century Francisco Tenreiro, poet and geographer, further popularized the myth of the shipwreck with his book A Ilha de Sao Tome (1961), a monograph very much conditioned by the dominant Salazarist views of the time. Burness repeats that the slave ship had shipwrecked at Sete Pedras. This detail of the myth appeared first in a Portuguese book published in 1844. Subsequent nineteenth-century colonial authors invented further details of the myth, and it has become widespread in Sao Tome and Portugal alike.

Burness also follows Macedo's imagination by writing that historically Amador, the leader of Sao Tome's great slave revolt in 1595, was the chief of the Angolares. This is another myth invented by Tenreiro in his monograph, where he also maintained that in the sixteenth century there was no slavery in Sao Tome, but rather a form of serfdom. Consequently, Tenreiro denied the occurrence of slave escape and revolt and reduced Amador to being the chief of the Angolares. Burness also repeats Tenreiro's affirmation that the Angolares had only become fishermen in the late nineteenth century when the expanding cocoa plantations expelled them from the forest. However, an examination of Tenreiro's own nineteenth-century sources shows that they do not associate the slave leader Amador with the Angolares. The same sources also clearly state that the Angolares's economy was based on fishery before the Portuguese drove them to the coast. Macedo used Tenreiro's invented traditions for his play and poetry, and surprisingly Burness presents these as historical facts. This in spite of the fact that since the 1970s various researchers including linguists, anthropologists, historians, and geneticists have demonstrated that the Angolares are descendants of runaway slaves of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[4] They were in fact the first maroon community in the history of modern slavery. Unfortunately Burness ignores this and repeats an old nineteenth-century colonial myth. He even affirms that Fernando Macedo was an Angolar. It is true that Macedo, a white Portuguese national born in Lisbon, claimed to be the grandson of a sister of the last Angolar chief Simao Andreza. There is no doubt that emotionally, Macedo felt attached to the Angolares, who became the focus of his literary creativity that he developed from 1989 at the age of sixty-two when his first poems on the Angolares were published. He visited Sao Tome regularly from that time, but never lived there permanently. Therefore it would be much more accurate to consider Fernando Macedo a writer of Santomean themes, rather than a genuine Santomean author.

Burness's second chapter is entitled Literary Responses to the Massacre of 1953. In February of that year, on the orders of Governor Carlos Gorgulho, the police, supported by white colonists and African contract workers, unleashed a wave of excessive violence against the Creole population, who had waged a small spontaneous revolt against the governor's plans to force them to work on the cocoa estates. The Creoles, descendants of manumitted slaves, had always refused manual fieldwork on the plantations, as they considered it slave labor. In his introduction to the bloody events Burness maintains that the first contract workers, known as servicais (servants), arrived after the abolition of the slave trade in 1836. In reality, the servicais arrived only after 1875, following the abolition of slavery in Sao Tome and Principe. Further he equates indentured labor with forced labor. De facto, the inhuman labor and living conditions on the estates were frequently shared between the two types of situations, however, de jure they represent different conditions.

Further mistakes in this section include the fact that in his description of the massacre Burness writes erroneously that second lieutenant Fernando Ferreira was nicknamed Ze Mulato. In fact, the true name of Ze Mulato, Gorgulho's notorious henchman, was Jose Joaquim, an agricultural worker convicted for murder. Burness correctly writes that more Africans were killed in this massacre in Sao Tome than in Sharpevillle in 1960, but the actual numbers he provides are suspect. Based on his Santomean sources, Burness twice asserts that 1,000 Africans were murdered during the massacre and once he even quotes the figure of 1,032. Given the circumstances of the time, such figures are highly unlikely. Burness appears to be simply repeating the nationalist and anti-colonialist propaganda of the 1960s. Indeed, while the massacre was one of the most violent actions against civilians of modern Portuguese colonialism, the number of innocent and defenseless people brutally killed was more likely in the hundreds. In a situation of arbitrary killings, it is rarely possible to give exact numbers. Therefore, whatever the true figure of people killed in 1953 may be, as this reader has always argued, the number 1,032 should be read rather as a symbol than an exact figure, since the last two digits three and two indicate the day and month in 1953 (3 February) when the violence started.[5]

Chapter 2 is based on the historic novel Cronica de Uma Guerra Inventada (1999) by Sum Marky (1921-2003), and the historical study Historia do Massacre de 1953 em Sao Tome e Principe: Em Busca da Nossa Verdadeira Historia (2002), by Jose Deus Lima, a local history teacher. This second source is not a literary response, as announced in the chapter title, but history based on Deus Lima's research. Burness asserts that, "most of the witnesses provided information to Deus Lima in the 1950s" (p. 31). This, however, is impossible since Deus Lima was born in 1960. Burness further confuses fiction with historic facts when he writes that Gorgulho was recalled to Portugal after a reporter of the New York Times had shown up in Sao Tome. Indeed this fictitious reporter only exists in Sum Marky's historic novel. The same applies to Burness's allegation that "doctors, using injections, murdered an unknown number of prisoners, who had been taken to the hospital" (p. 52). This is also fiction stemming from Sum Marky's novel. There is nothing about this in historic documents relating to the massacre. Burness calls Sum Marky, a "white Santomean writer". Sum Marky, meaning Mister Marques in local Creole language, is one of the three literary pseudonyms of Jose Ferreira Marques, who was born of Portuguese parents in Sao Tome. He was twenty-two years old when he went to Lisbon. In 1948, he returned to the island and in 1956 definitively departed to Portugal where he spent the rest his life, paying only three visits to Sao Tome before he died in 2003. From 1956-2001 Sum Marky published in Portugal seven novels taking place in Sao Tome, of which three are related to the massacre. He was a member of the Portuguese Writers Association. His Cronica de Uma Guerra Inventada is the only book for which he found a publisher - the other books were author's editions. There is no doubt that Marques dedicated part of his literary production to denouncing colonial injustice and violence in Sao Tome. However, this does not make him necessarily a Santomean writer. Like Macedo he should rather be considered as a Portuguese writer of Santomean themes.

The third and last chapter is dedicated to the "literary bird" ossobo. Though short, the chapter is the most authentic, both in terms of local authorship and genre, i.e. poetry which is dominant in the archipelago. When Burness came to Sao Tome, after having consulted A Field Guide to the Birds of West Africa(1992 [1977]), he realized that what he had considered a mythic bird is the emerald cuckoo (chrysococcyx cupreus), a parasitic bird preferring warbler and weaver nests, that is found from Senegal to Gabon. Possibly Burness would have been more satisfied with several other ornithological guides on Sao Tome, which consider the ossobo as a distinct subspecies (insularum) in the archipelago.[6] Be this as it may, Burness discovers that the bird's Creole name comes from the Portuguese assobiar (whistle). He then reviews various poems on the ossobo by Francisco Stockler (1834-81), Herculano Levy (1921-63), Marcelo da Veiga (1892-1976), and Francisco Tenreiro. About Tenreiro, born of a Portuguese father and an African mother in 1921 in Sao Tome, Burness informs the reader that he "spent much of his life in Portugal, but returned often to Sao Tome" (p. 76). This, however, is misleading. In fact, Tenreiro was taken to Lisbon when he was one year old. He did not return to Sao Tome until 1956, for a three-month research mission for his Ph.D. thesis. When he died in 1963 at the early age of forty-two years he had only spent about one year of his adult life in Sao Tome. Similarly, Burness grossly exaggerates when he maintains that "today there are about two thousand Nigerians living in Sao Tome" (p. 80). In reality, officially there are about one hundred Nigerians permanently resident in the archipelago. The number of 1,900 unregistered Nigerian residents in Sao Tome seems highly unlikely. Burness, yet again, idealizes the situation when he asserts that "Santomeans, with a tradition of welcoming immigrants, recognize that the Nigerians among them constitute a unique presence" (p. 81). Closer to the reality, many Santomeans are suspicious of the cleverness and competition of the resident Nigerian traders and they fear a possible domination by an increasing number of immigrants from the giant and populous neighbor country that since 2001 has become an important partner in the archipelago's emerging oil industry.

The book contains other inaccuracies. Forro is not "the pidgin language" of Sao Tome, as Burness maintains (p. 3). It is a Creole language, since it is the mother tongue of the majority Creoles. The socope is not the "most popular dance" in the archipelago (p. 28) either. It is an older dance form that first appeared around 1900, and is currently only performed by a few cultural groups in Sao Tome. Burness also writes that, "by 1519 Sao Tome received most of its slaves from Elmina in present-day Ghana" (p. 33). In reality, at that time, Sao Tome re-exported slaves to Elmina, an important regional market for the sale of slaves. Only in the seventeenth century, due to the decline of the local gold trade, was Elmina transformed into a slave-exporting market. Last but not least, the book's bibliography misses three relevant titles on the country's literature, namely Luciano Caetano da Rosa, Die lusographe Literatur der Inseln Sao Tome und Principe. Versuch einer literaturgeschichtlichen Darstellung(1994); Patrick Chabal et al., The Postcolonial Literature of Lusophone Africa(1996), and Michel Laban, S.Tome e Principe. Encontro com Escritores (2002).

In spite of its shortcomings and factual errors, Burness's book is interesting and it has the incontestable merit to have brought the largely unknown literature on and of tiny Sao Tome and Principe to the attention of an Anglophone readership.


[1]. Luciano Caetano da Rosa, Die lusographe Literatur der Inseln Sao Tome und Principe. Versuch einer literaturgeschichtlichen Darstellung(Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Teo Ferrer de Mesquita / Domus Editoria Europaea 1994), pp. 229, 331.

[2]. Russell G. Hamilton, Literatura Africana, Literatura Necessaria (Lisbon: Edicoes 70, 1984), pp.248-249.

[3]. Caetano da Rosa, ibid. p. 237.

[4]. For an overview see Gerhard Seibert, "Castaways, Authoctons or Maroons? The Debate on the Angolares of Sao Tome Island," in Creole Societies in the Portuguese Colonial Empire, ed. Malyn Newitt (Bristol: Bristol University Press, forthcoming).

[5]. See also Gerhard Seibert, "The February 1953 Massacre in Sao Tome," Portuguese Studies Review 10. 2 (2002): pp. 53-80.

[6]. Rene de Naurois, Les Oiseaux des Iles du Golfe de Guinee (Sao Tome, Prince et Annobon)(Lisbon: Instituto de Investigacao Cientifica Tropical 1994); Patrice Christy andWilliam V. Clarke, Guide des oiseaux de Sao Tome et Principe(Sao Tome: ECOFAC, 1998).

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