Cabo Verde: A Slavery Hub

Continuing with our ABC of world history, today as part of our third entry in this yearlong enterprise we invite you to come with us to the beautiful archipelago of Cabo Verde. If you’re an Anglophone, I must warn you that you may still be referring to this country by Cape Verde, and if that’s the case, you really should stop, as the government officially changed the name for all purposes as of 2013. (It seems there was a need there to reflect the Portuguese inheritance of the country and the common use of the English terms in a global sphere didn’t really stick). The name Cape Verde came from Cap-Vert which was the closest landmass to the archipelago: a peninsula on the western coast of Senegal. At this stage, you may be wondering exactly where this place is I am talking about and what I will be discussing today. Well, let’s not rush things but, here is the deal.

Cabo Verde was first discovered and occupied by Portuguese navigators in the mid-1400s, even though evidence suggest these islands may have been sighted or even visited by other before he Portuguese. There are some contenders for this first point of contact: their neighbouring Senegalese fishermen, or if we take some classical accounts with a pinch of salt and contextualise them, it could even have been the Phoenicians. It is one of the archipelagos in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa in the region known as Macaronesia along with other Iberian settlements such as the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands, and the Savage Isles. It consists of a total of 10 islands (out of which only 9 are inhabited) and 8 islets. The key islands are Santo Antão, São Vicente, Santa Luzia, São Nicolau, Sal, Boa Vista; Maio, São Tiago (known also as Santiago the main island where the capital is located: Praia), Fogo, Brava. Nowadays is mostly known for its tourism and for being one of the most stable African countries. The first island to be settled by the Portuguese São Tiago, with Boa Vista being the second.

Now that you know where Cabo Verde is, I shall tell you why I want to talk about it today. This is due the fact that these Portuguese colonies were a key hub for the Atlantic slave trade. And so, I present you with a quick overview of how the islands develop and why their name cannot be removed from the concept of slavery. Slave smuggling had been taking place in Cabo Verde since shortly after it was occupied by the Portuguese according to Richard Lobban. He says that grants had been given to the first settlers for the purpose of growing sugar plantations and by proxy bringing people from aminland Africa to work the land as slaves. Slave trading from the west African coasts, particularly from Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and the Gambia, came in large numbers creating a parallel system for sexual exploitation of female slaves according to Lobban. Slaves that came from the Wolof people (an ethnic group located in the areas of Senegal, the Gambia and some part of Mauritania) were particularly valued for the cotton industry as spinners and weavers, which contributed to the development of a textile industry for items such as panos and barafulas, which in return became common currency in slave trade.  Toby Green argues that by the 16th century, slavery was so ingrained into Cabo Verdean society that new administrative structures were integrated in the islands to promote and regulate the vibrant economic growth this was attracting, which seemingly contributed towards the creolisation of Cabo Verdean society (European and African cultures and people mixing in this chain effect) as well as the internalisation of violence as part of the administration system adopted by colonists and locals alike.

Due to its geographical location, it became a crucial enclave in the maritime routes going from west Africa to the new world. Therefore, by the mid-18th century, the island of Santiago was a key stopping point, particularly Praia the capital with its port for the American slaver ships looking to resupply as well as for the whaling industry. However, the geographical and geological nature of the archipelago and the constant overexploitation of the land by the Portuguese authorities started causing issues for the slavers already in the 17th century. Different volcanic eruptions particularly steaming from Fogo, and the aridity of the land all around mixed with the lack of agricultural resources had a huge impact in the supplies available. Thus, the authorities became aware of the crucial and vital importance of securing these resources to be able to keep their slaves fed and alive. Drastic changes were introduced to the socioeconomic structure of Cabo Verde entirely revolving around sustaining slave trade according to Green. By the end of the 18th century George Brooks states that the key items that contributed to the commercial enterprises at this Portuguese colony were the slave trade of people specifically coming from the area of Guinea-Bissau which were then sent to Brazil which was the main receiver of the Portuguese slave trade, along with the previously mentioned panos, salt from the area of Boa Vista, goatskins and donkeys, which demonstrates the agricultural shifts undertaken to keep up with slavery.

I could carry on into telling you how by proxy this created a creole society with a mix of races amongst which they were different social strata, cultural hybridity, linguistic exchanges etc, but frankly I find anything related to slavery difficult to digest, particularly after discovering that the Portuguese colonists were prioritising the wellbeing of their slaves to be able to sell them better, and thus change bureaucracy and political system around their colonies in Africa purely to maintain their circle. It seems that even when it came down to things such as illness (malaria, smallpox, and venereal diseases) these were equally distributed amongst the population so Brooks extrapolates given the huge number of African natives and creole society, the treatment must have been good enough for not a single revolt or uprising to take place. Left with no words, the fate of Cabo Verde changes dramatically as slavery declines in the 19th century. The archipelago suffers an enormous economic backlash which causes the mass migration of Cabo Verdeans, mostly to Europe and America. Interestingly, emigration has been in such number that the diaspora is still palpable to date, with more Cabo Verdeans living away than in the islands themselves. That is how dependant this colony was on slavery alone, that when the system they had ingrained into every aspect of their society collapsed, so did they.

 It may shock you even more to know that currently Cabo Verde is actually one of the most stable and democratic places in all Africa, and have been working into making their nation a light for the continent since the end of the 20th century. Such a flip of circumstance came after several wars and disturbing political regimes, but I guess it demonstrates people communally can grow and accept their past, own it and move forward in a better direction.

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