GULF OF GUINEA CONSERVATION GROUP

GULF OF GUINEA ISLANDS' BIODIVERSITY NETWORK


TELECOMMUNICATIONS AND THE NATURAL HISTORY OF SÃO TOMÉ E PRÍNCIPE

A number of scientists who have worked on the natural history of São Tomé and Príncipe received assistance from the staff of the telegraph stations that linked the two islands to the world by submarine cable from the late 19th century. This page is not so much concerned with biodiversity, but provides a little bit of local history.

In 1885 the West African Telegraph Company, owned by the India Rubber Gutta Perch and Telegraph Works Ltd, laid a submarine cable along the west African coast from St, Louis, Senegal to Cotonou, Benin and then south-east to São Tomé and Luanda, Angola. Cables were also laid from São Tomé to Príncipe and Libreville, Gabon. Telegraph stations were opened on the two islands in 1886. In January and February 1886 J. Rattray, surgeon on the cable-laying ship, the Buccaneer, visited both São Tomé and Príncipe and collected plant specimens that were deposited at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. 

By 1890 the West African Telegraph Company had become part of the Eastern Telegraph Company which much later, in 1934, became part of today's Cable and Wireless.

The Eastern Telegraph Company employed a staff recruited from Europe and Britain's west African colonies. Two photos showing the staff of the telegraph stations in 1904 reveal that the São Tomé station had five European and nine African staff while the Príncipe station was staffed by just two African employees, Mr. Bull and Mr. Johnson. One wonders how the Portuguese landowners and administrators, as well as the African contract labourers on the plantations, regarded these relatively educated, English-speaking Africans at a time when Portugal was under increasing criticism for what amounted to slave-labour in its colonies.
(Courtesy of Cable & Wireless Archive, Porthcurno, U.K.)
 

 

The Eastern Telegraph Co. staff in São Tomé, March 1904. (Courtesy of Cable & Wireless Archive, Porthcurno, U.K.)

Mr. Bull and Mr. Johnson, of the the Eastern Telegraph Co.on Príncipe, March 1904. (Courtesy of Cable & Wireless Archive, Porthcurno, U.K.)

On January 18 1909 Lt Boyd Alexander, by then a famous explorer and ornithologist having previously completed an expedition from the Niger to the Nile, arrived in São Tomé on what to be his last expedition (he was later murdered in April 1910 in eastern Chad - further details here). São Tomé was the starting point for his last expedition and upon arrival and having inspected the local hotel, he 

"then rushed off at once to see Mr. Durrant, the head of the Telegraph Station, which is situated some ten minutes' walk from the town. In him I found a good Samaritan; he offered to put me up, and a place to store my goods in. This gave me much satisfaction, as I had visions of having to store my things (and this was the Governor's suggestion) in the Customs. The latter arrangement would have led to endless bother, whenever I should want to take anything out."

In his diary entry for February 12 he describes his accommodation. Having declined the offer of the cable station's accommodation, one supposes due to the size of his party which consisted various west African ethnic groups, he states 

" ... I made my camp in front of the Telegraph Station, practically on the shore. I thought this was better. When one has a large camp, it is best to isolate it. Durrant, the chief superintendant, has been very kind, always insisting upon my lunching and dining with him."

His camp outside the Telegraph Station composed of several old-style tents, and a community of twenty three Hausa and Mendi assistants must have made quite an impression!

Again, on Príncipe at the end of February he was able to take advantage of the cable station's hospitality, after encountering more difficulties with the local customs official, who had left ll his cartridge boxes in the rain,

"A large part of my stores, which I shall require to draw upon while I am away, I have left at the Telegraph Station. The Director, Mr. Hurdas, who is just now here on a visit of inspection (from here he goes to on San Thomé), has been very kind and given me a store for my things. He is a very old "African". He comes out every afternoon to see me at my camp."

In 1912 and 1913 J. R. B. Tomlin and L. J. Shackleford published three papers in the Journal of Conchology describing species of the marine mollusca genera Marginella and Mucronalia of São Tomé. These had been collected by the Superintendent of the cable station on São Tomé at that time, Mr. J. W. Chalmers (presumably having recently replaced Mr. Durrant), who received the honour of having Marginella chalmersii named after him. He also collected the holotypes of several other marine molluscs described by Tomlin and Shackleford.

In 1932 Arthur Exell, author of the Catalogue of Vascular Plants of S. Tomé (with Príncipe and Annobon) and W. H. T. Tams, a British Museum entomologist arrived in São Tomé and then visited Príncipe and the other islands of the Gulf of Guinea. Tams wrote an account of their expedition which was published in 1933/34 in the British Museum's Natural History Magazine. Upon their arrival, Tams writes ...

"After a visit to the agent of the Shipping Company, we hired a car and drove round to the Cable Station to make the acquaintance of Mr. L. P. Cauvin, the Superintendent, to whom we had an introduction. From that moment, so far as concerned the Portuguese islands, any difficulties that might have been lying ahead of us vanished into thin air, and it will be difficult for us ever to express adequately our gratitude to the only Englishman - or rather Irishman, if that be not too Irish - in São Tomé at the time of our visit. Mr. Cauvin spared nothing in his efforts on our behalf, and I can only express the hope that any English visitor to São Tomé in the future will find in his successor such another friend. Until we finally left the Portuguese islands for Fernando Po, we were always sure, not only of a warm welcome at the Cabo Submarino, but also equally certain of every facility for storing, packing and unpacking, and handling our baggage, or arranging for our future movements.

Mr. Cauvin without delay presented us to His Excellency the Governor of São Tomé and Principe, who at once gave instructions for all Customs formalities to be dispensed with, and offered to assist us further in any way that lay in his power."

Clearly, the Superintendent of the telegraph station enjoyed a certain social status and influence with the Portuguese colonial authorities. Tams and Exell were certainly indebted to Mr. Cauvin and Exell acknowledges his assistance in the Introduction to the Catalogue of Vascular Plants of S. Tomé (with Príncipe and Annobon) published ten years later. The first photo in Tams' travelogue shows the telegraph station as it then was.

At the beginning of December, 1932 "we succeeded in getting away ... to Principe, where we received a wonderful welcome, Mr. Cauvin having prepared the way in a manner that took one's breath away".

The telegraph station on Príncipe was much smaller and was staffed by two African employees, Mr. J. Forster Cole and Mr. F. E. Wright.

"The fact that there was no Englishman on Principe made no difference to us; for the two Africans in charge of the Cable Station ... spoke English and Portuguese so perfectly that they were able to do us many a good turn, and we were always sure of a warm welcome from them whenever we went to the town. We recall their kindness with pleasure and gratitude".

Tams and Exell left Príncipe on the night of January 4th 1933 after having dined with Cole and Wright. A further six days were spent on São Tomé until they "reluctantly said good-bye to Mr. Cauvin and the truly beautiful island where we had spent so many happy hours in his company".

TODAY

The cable station on São Tomé was demolished in 1985 to make way for the Hotel Miramar, the foremost international standard hotel in the country. The residences of the cable station staff are now privately owned houses along the Avenida Marginal between the hotel and the fort. On Príncipe the old telegraph station is now a shop just down the street from the Pensão Romar on the Rua Guiné

The telegraph station on Príncipe in 1904. (Courtesy of Cable & Wireless Archive, Porthcurno, U.K.) The site of the telegraph station on São Tomé, now the Hotel Miramar.

 

Residences of the Eastern Telegraph Company on São Tomé.

For more on the laying of the submarine cable and São Tomé and Príncipe in the 1880s see Glimpses of Feverland on this website.

For more on the history of Cable and Wireless and submarine cables follow these links http://www.cwhistory.com and http://www.atlantic-cable.com/

The quotes from Boyd Alexander's diary come from: Alexander, H. (ed.) 1912. Boyd Alexander's Last Journey. Edwin Arnold, London. For more information on Boyd Alexander's visit to the Gulf of Guinea islands see the Boyd Alexander pages on this website and also Boyd Alexander in Bioko (an external link).