Alda Neves da Graça do Espírito Santo (biography)

African writers from former Portuguese colonies probably have had the hardest time getting international recognition.  Alda de Espirito Santo is hardly known outside of the Portuguese-speaking world. But neither is most of the literature from her homeland of Sao Tome and Principe, where she is known as “The Mother of the Nation.”

Born in 1926 in Trindade to the prominent Espirito Santo family, Alda attended school in Lisbon, Portugal in the 1940s. There she experienced racism such as being called “monkey”. Her earliest writing was actually a feminist article published in a 1949 issue of Mensagem (Message), the journal of the Casa dos Estudantes do Imperio (The House of the Students of the Empire). Casa was initially supported by Portugal’s Salazar government; however it was actually a place where African students received their anti-colonial and Marxist education as they discussed politics and literature. It was at Casa that Alda had the opportunity to connect with the leaders of African resistance movements to Portuguese colonialism such as Guinea-Bissau’s Amilcar Cabral, Angola’s Agostinho Neto and Mario de Andrade, who published her poetry in his collection Caderno: A Collection of Poetry by Portuguese Speaking Black African Writers. The Casa was eventually shut down by Portuguese secret police in 1964.

Alda left her university studies and returned to Sao Tome in 1951 as an ardent nationalist who longed to see the independence of her country from Portugal. She began working as a school teacher, which was also her mother’s profession.

As the descendants of freed slaves, the Creole population in Sao Tome, called Forros,  had always refused manual fieldwork on the cocoa plantations as they considered it slave labour. After slavery was abolished, labour on the plantations was usually performed by indentured labour/contracted labour from the African mainland. The Governor of Sao Tome, Carlos de Sousa Gorgulho, had planned to force members of Sao Tome’s Creole population to labour on the island’s cocoa estates in order to address the demand for labour. In protest, members of the Creole community began to spontaneously revolt against these plans. On February 3, 1953, in Batepa, just north of Trindade, an officer was killed by a machete. Governor Gorgulho ordered the suppression of the revolt. This was carried out by police and African contract workers.

During the repression that followed, forros were rounded up, some burnt alive trying to hide in a coca drier, and many taken to a forced labour camp at Fernao Dias. Prominent forros such as Salustino Graca and sympathetic white planters were deported to Principe. Physical and psychological torture was used, with the nortorious former prisoner Ze Mulato, from the Ponta Figo plantation, the most feared. (The Brandt Guide to San Tome and Principe by Kathleen Becker, p. 7)

Ze Mulatto, who is referenced in Alda’s poem , “Where are the men chased away by the mad wind?”, was an agricultural worker named Jose Joaquim who had been convicted of murder. The suppression of the 1953 revolt in San Tome led to one of the bloodiest actions against civilians in the history of modern Portuguese colonialism.

In one of the most notorious incidents, of the 46 people crammed into a cell intended to hold only ten, only 18 survived the night. It remains unknown how many died in total; the often-cited figure of 1,032 deaths is taken to be largely symbolic as the last two digits reference the day and month of the beginning of the massacre: 3/2/1953. (The Brandt Guide to San Tome and Principe by Kathleen Becker, p. 7)

Alda’s mother was also imprisoned at this time. While working with a Portuguese lawyer, Alda helped to collect testimonials from survivors of the massacres.

In the poem “Where are the men chased away by the mad wind?”, she writes:

Ze Mulatto in the annals of the wharf

Executing men

Amidst the thump of falling bodies.

Ah! Ze Mulatto, Ze Mullatto

Your victims cry out for revenge.

And the sea, the sea of Fernao Dias

That has swallowed up those human lives

The sea is red with blood.

This poem, as well as a few others, is available in English Translation in The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry edited by Frank and Stella Chipasula. Unfortunately, this book is itself out of print.

This massacre was a catalyst for Sao Tome and Principe’s independence movement.

In Sao Tome, February 3 is still commemorated by youth marches, speeches and storytelling at Fernao Dias.

Alda was imprisoned from 1965 to 1966 as a subversive. Alda was a member of the Political Bureau of the Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome e Principe and was in the transitional government that led Sao Tome e Principe to independence. From 1975 to 1978, she was the Minister of Culture and Education. From 1978 to 1980, she was Minister of Education, Social Affairs and Culture. She was the first woman to become President of the National Assembly of Sao Tome e Principe, making her the Deputy Head of State. She was also the founder of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Sao Tome. The lyrics of Sao Tome e Principe’s national anthem,Independencia total, were written by Alda.

Alda de Espirito Santo died in Luanda, Angola where she had been taken for emergency treatment. The government of Sao Tome e Principe declared five days of mourning in honour of her passing.

Literary critic 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.” Angolan writer, Pepetela, considered her death a “great loss” for Portuguese Literature.


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