Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

African Cholera Pandemic of 1989-91

Let’s start with some good news: in 1989, when this pandemic broke out, more people had more access to oral rehydration. But there continued to be issues getting people medicine and treatments they needed. In the late 1980s, cholera in Peru had a fatality rate of less than 1%, while in Africa, the fatality rate was more like 12%.

Glass half full, humans had learned some things about treating cholera, and it showed.

Map of Sao Tome from 1665.

Back to the terrible things: this pandemic was when the islands of Sao Tome and Principe lost their malarial virginity, so to speak.

Sao Tome and Principe are in the shade of Africa if Africa is a tree leaning left. Their two islands are about 90 miles apart. Wikipedia claims no one lived there at all until Portuguese explorers found them. This may be true, but I don’t like it.

A rock formation on Sao Tome that definitely isn’t a penis.

Portuguese assholes named the islands for St. Thomas and the prince of Portugal, who was getting a cut of the sugar profits created by perfectly nice people who were being whipped nearly to death on the daily.

Regular old Portuguese people weren’t that interested in the islands, so Portugal noticed it had these people who were Jewish, and sent them instead. They took 2,000 Jewish children to San Tome and Principe to work in the sugar fields.

Though it be called Principe, it is but little.


The islands became one of the biggest sugar producers in Africa, and a popular stop for people enslaving people.

The shit work of getting the rich white people their sweets.

Although the islands greatly benefitted from the slave trade, and slave labor, I found their changing laws about slavery interesting: in 1515, the black wives of Portuguese men were freed, and the children from those marriages were freed. In 1517, people who had been enslaved by the first settlers were all freed. By 1546, people who had both black and white ancestors could hold office, and participate in politics and business.

Theoretically Portugal abolished slavery in 1876, but in reality, slavery was definitely still going in 1897.

Indeed the Portuguese saw the island and thought, WE SHOULD OWN THIS, TOO!

After sugar became less financially advantageous for them, they began specializing in one my absolute favorite crops: cocoa (hear from local farmer Fatima Horta in this happy video).

Although they’ve had some trouble along the way, Sao Tome and Principe are currently described as free and safe. Portuguese ships continue to patrol their waters, which seems only fair. Their life expectance is 70 years. The place also looks like a goddamn paradise.

I’m happy for them.

Let’s end with a poem by a poet from the islands:

Maria Manuela Margarido, from a page that was in Portuguese, a language I’m not even nodding acquaintances with.

by Maria Manuela Margarido
Translated from the Portuguese by Julia Kirst

Nightfall … grass on the back
of the gleaming black man
on his way to the yard.
Grey parrots
explode in the palm trees’ comb
and cross each other in my childhood dream,
in the blue porcelain of oysters.
High dream, high
like the coconut tree along the ocean
with its golden and firm fruits
like obstructed stones
oscillating in a tornado’s womb
ploughing the sky with its mad
In the sky the severe anguish
of revolt passes by
with its claws its anxieties its uncertainties.
And an image of rustic lines
takes over the time and the word.


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