Mindelo – Cabo Verde’s second city and a crossroads of British, Portuguese, French and Creole culture – lies on the far side of São Vicente, a spectacularly inhospitable island. Starved of water, battered by winds, and when I visited, covered by dust that blows over periodically from the Sahara, spending time in São Vicente makes you wonder how and why anyone ever chose to live here.
Across a 7-mile channel lies Santo Antão, with mountains bursting with trees, water flowing through deep gorges, and life abounding in its hills and plains. In the past, the island needed to ship water in from neighboring islands. Today, water needs to be desalinated to keep the island from parching.
But its prosperity came through other natural features, including a deep harbor that became the focus of British interest in the island and the source of the food, water, and goods that has kept the islands’ inhabitants alive for its short two-century history. Founded in the late 17thcentury, somewhat of an afterthought in the otherwise busy island chain, Mindelo quickly grew into a mid-Atlantic logistics port for the coal industry. This was a very different business than the other islands, and the position as a locus for trans-Atlantic trade brought interest from the British in the late 19thcentury.
It was in Mindelo that the first trans-Atlantic cable from Europe to South America became a reality, and shortly afterwards cables were laid to West and Southern Africa, and later onto North America. The combination of modern, industrial jobs and important foreign investment drew significant immigration to the island from the rest of the archipelago. Famine and difficult crop conditions in the mid-20thcentury across Cabo Verde heightened the inward migration, and dusty, dry São Vicente was able to feed a growing population through its links with the world.
It’s less common to find people whose families migrated to America here, and it’s much more common to find people whose families migrated from other islands to this island. Santo Antão, for instance, with all its green abundance and natural splendor, has provided the bulk of Mindelo’s population.
In a way, Mindelo’s success is a testament to some of the core values of British colonialism, namely how free trade and open ports are necessary to create prosperity even in uncongenial places.
Today’s Mindelo preserves a lot of that spirit, despite the ways that technology has reduced its importance in the trans-Atlantic economy. The island’s scarcity has generated entrepreneurship, and the mix of old and new uncharacteristic to Cabo Verde has built a culture and spirit that feeds its neighbors in famine, brings foreign goods and ideas to the country, and projects them to the world. It is the cultural capital of the islands, and the site of the country’s raucous Carnaval celebrations. It played host to the global capital of Portuguese culture last decade and continues to draw in artists from Brazil, Portugal, the Caribbean and the world.
São Vicente’s most famous daughter, Cesária Évora, is testament to that spirit. On my first night here, I met Toya, a woman that was friends with Cesária and runs one of the city’s emblematic street cafes. Tonight I’m going to catch up with her to learn some of Mindelo’s secrets and get a deeper handle on its fascinating past. Stay tuned / fique ligado!