Island of Imaginations: The Historical Dialectics between Experiences and Observations in the Creation of São Tomé (1472-1953)

Staller, Jared Glenn, Department of History, University of Virginia
Miller, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia
Ferreira, Roquinaldo
Mason, John, Department of History, University of Virginia
Drame, Kandioura, Department of French Language and Literatures, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the creation, maintenance, and alterations of a discrete body of symbols used to define the African island of São Tomé from 1472 until 1953. It does so by analyzing the history of the island in printed literature that contains three discernible periods of categorizing the island: São Tomé as tropical island; São Tomé as Portuguese island; São Tomé as African island. It demonstrates that writers attempted to describe São Tomé in print either through their observations as an outside observer or their experiences as an insider. In the process of engaging with each other, the writers contributed to a dialectic that prompted incremental historical change in the number of symbols identifiable as intrinsically ‘Santomense’ and also in the interpretation of them.
The dissertation investigates the constraints and opportunities that were available to writers as they engaged with their literary predecessors to describe São Tomé. In their attempts to write authentically Santomense descriptions the writers recycled images of the island but modified them to fit their own historical context. The historical narrative that the dissertation describes, then, is one in which writers engaged each other throughout the centuries by modifying classic symbols of the island, reinterpreting them to fit a new context, adding new symbols to the repertoire, and ultimately creating an idea of São Tomé that existed in the literature and was available for employment during the nationalist struggle.
The dissertation offers three important analyses of the literature. First, outsiders and insiders are defined by their willingness and ability to engage the local symbols and not by their birth on or off of the island. Second, the time depth of Santomense literature spans nearly five hundred years, which is significantly longer than what scholars usually associate with African literature. Finally, the technology of creating images changes throughout the dissertation. Thus, the imaginings of São Tomé matured alongside international developments in technologies for printing as well as historical change in the criteria for disseminating knowledge from trying to hide imperial knowledge to classifying knowledge for colonial use to an emphasis on internationally accessible knowledge in the twentieth century.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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