Cabo Verde: First Stop in the New World

What if I told you there was a place that played a central role in the journeys of Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Sir Francis Drake, and Amerigo Vespucci? Does it sound like a fairytale place or a place that must be long abandoned?

In Cape Verde, that place is just called Santiago, its largest and most populated island. On Friday, I took off on one of the world’s more unlikely direct flights: Boston Logan to Praia’s Nelson Mandela Airport, in Cape Verde’s modern metropolis. In search of my own adventure, I came with a longing to connect deeply to places of both personal interest and of greater interest to the history of the Americas.

“But that’s Africa!”, skeptics will whine. Of course, geographically the islands are a physical extension of the Sahara desert. But culturally and socially, the islands are a complete invention of the Portuguese empire as it set sail for riches and human trafficking in the New World and the Far East. Cape Verde’s islands – which through the years were sacked by the British, the French, governed by an eccentric Italian, and coveted by the Dutch – were discovered unsettled by the Portuguese in the mid-15th century.

What if I also told you that the islands served a central role in the way the American continent was divided between the Portuguese and the Spanish? Indeed, the westernmost island of the archipelago, Santo Antão, was the demarcation point of reference for the Treaty of Tordesillas. 

History and treaties are one thing, but of course it is people that make for the most fascinating stories. And, in a number of ways, Cabo Verde’s people share much more in common with North Americans and Latin Americans than with their near neighbors.

Cabo Verdeans are a fascinating mixture of the turbulent history that put these islands at the center of a new maritime superhighway, and can trace their lineage to every continent and many tragedies of history. From the West African slaves that were brought for trade with new world plantations, to Sephardic Jews expelled from Portugal during the Inquisition, to marooned Chinese sailors, the country’s 500,000 islanders are a microcosm of early colonialism. Similarly, the country has exported more than this number of its citizens as Cape Verde lived through family, political instability, Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal and, ultimately, independence in the 1970s.

Today I had the chance to visit Cidade Velha, or “Old City” by way of Praia, and re-traced the footsteps of Messrs. Columbus, De Gama, Drake and Vespucci, getting to know locals that have made their own voyages along the way. Indeed, the first European colonial city in the tropics sits, decadent but recognizable, under this unassuming name.

Cidade Velha was Cape Verde’s first capital, but fell into disuse after the Portuguese began to favor the more commercially-equipped Praia port up the coast. Redolent of the Portuguese settlements on the northeastern Brazilian coast, Cidade Velha fell out of use not long into the islands’ history.

Fast forward 200 years and the city is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, with UNESCO naming it a world heritage site in the 1990s, and the Spanish government dedicating significant funds (and a visit from the country’s queen) to raise the profile of its history.

I’m thrilled to be collecting stories from across the islands of people, places, and history, and look forward to sharing in later posts. Pictures might take a while because internet is spotty (which is delightful).

Fique ligado / Stay tuned!


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