I didn’t expect to come across a town called Sinagoga, or “synagogue” on my trip to Cape Verde. In fact, I didn’t expect to come across much non-Christian religious history in a place that was uninhabited before the Portuguese arrived. I was even less prepared to find vestiges of Jewish history, some of which still remain unexplored.
The time of Portuguese discovery of the New World coincided with the end of a dark period in the history of the Iberian peninsula. In English, few would call the systematic exclusion of the Jews in medieval times the “Portuguese Inquisition“, but the atrocities that were happening in the Spanish kingdom were happening across the border as well. Many Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity were also forced to flee Europe, and many of these “Marronos” or “Cristianos Novos” (New Christians) ended up in the emerging colonies like Cape Verde.
Once they arrived in the new territory’s capital, however, colonial authorities relegated them to the same ghettos and living conditions that many faced in Portugal. Looking for ways out, many left for far-flung islands including Santo Antão to build businesses and seek relative peace in a turbulent time. While many of the Jewish arrivals to Cape Verde worked in goods trading, some also worked in the slave trade that built the islands’ early riches. A century later, the Inquisition found its way to Portugal’s colonies, and Cape Verde began to systemically hide their faith and face confiscation of their businesses.
What’s fascinating (and somewhat ironic) is that these Jews followed routes that many slaves escaping their fates in the New World also followed centuries later. While Santo Antão was initially founded by Northern Portuguese settlers looking for new agricultural lands, later waves of migration came from Cabo Verdeans fleeing pirate attacks on other islands, as well as slaves that would tend the land. In the 18th century, the island briefly passed into the hands of the English.
Sinagoga today is a dusty village halfway between Santo Antão’s two main population centers, and has little to offer a visitor beyond a safe swimming beach with a pleasant bar, and the eerie seaside ruins of a lepers’ colony. Up the road lies the Pedra Scrivida, a stone that occupies a prominent location, with inscriptions that many believe may have Hebrew writing (although some believe come from Chinese discovery of the island).
There are excellent articles on this and later histories of Judaism’s fascinating story in Cape Verde – including the history of Moroccan Jews that settled here in the late 19th century – that I won’t replicate here. Recently, the King of Morocco dedicated significant funds to the restoration of the four local Jewish cemeteries across the archipelago, showing the interest in preserving this heritage for future generations.
But I’m struck that, despite all the changes and centuries, the name of the town still reflects the area’s heritage as a location of gathering and prayer for the island’s defunct Jewish community. It provides today’s residents and generations to come with a distinct sense of history, and is a testament to the pride that Cape Verdeans take in their diverse origins.