Inside Africa

Lost slave history of Cape Verde is being unearthed

Michelle Cohan and Thomas Page, for CNNUpdated 5th April 2017
Up next
(CNN) — Founded by Portuguese colonialists, the island nation of Cape Verde draws its influences from both Africa and Europe. Small, diverse and laid back, the archipelago nonetheless has a dark past.
New finds from archaeologists have brought to light fresh evidence of Cape Verde's role at the center of the transatlantic slave trade.

A pirate's battleground

Kiki Lima, one of Cape Verde's most famous artists, depicts the islands' mixed European and African heritage through stunning art work.
Cape Verde's oldest city, Cidade Velho (formerly Ribeira Grande) was settled by the Portuguese in 1462. Exploration had found the island -- like the rest of the archipelago -- was completely uninhabited; a blank canvas to build a strategically important gateway between Europe, West Africa and the soon to be 'discovered' Americas.
As a huge wealth creator for the Portuguese, the city naturally came under attack from its rivals, the English and French. Charles Akibode, director of Cape Verde's Institute of Cultural Heritage claims nations often sent pirates to do their dirty work.
"We know that pirates were like the army of the enemy in order to destroy the economy of the other," he explains. "To attack Cidade Velha [was to intend] to destroy the economy of Portugal."
The city was destroyed on seven occasions, says Akibode, but such was the wealth of the place that it was rebuilt, time and again.
Some clear vestiges of the city's slave past still remain: balconies from which owners would negotiate prices for human property, or the city's imposing fort. Others are more subtle, lying underground.

Beneath the surface

One of Cape Verde's volcanoes has erupted twice in the last 21 years, providing fertile soil for wine making, and sometimes destroying nearby villages.
Using 18th century maps, archaeologists are busy unearthing these chapters of Cape Verde's past. So far they've discovering marble from Italy, limestone from neighboring Maio Island and tiles in Islamic styles.
"The remnants of the Grao Parara and the Maranhao company are still here -- it handled slave trade and business with the African coast," says Jailson Monterio, an archaeologist from the Instituto do Patrimonio Cultural.
"To the east we have the home on an army colonel. There is a Jesuit school to the west. There are many structures to be found."
A team from the University of Cambridge in the UK have recently uncovered the first church to be built by Europeans in Sub-Saharan Africa.
"It may be hard to understand why the church was built here," says Monterio. "It's built right on the shore. The water flows right through here."
Like many other structures in the city, the church was rebuilt multiple times -- in this case mainly because of rainwater damage.
Meanwhile, off the coast lie multiple untouched shipwrecks, evidence of a transitional moment in Cape Verde's history, when the slave trade declined and the archipelago was forced to repurpose itself, becoming a port of call for whalers and ships on transatlantic journeys.
There's a wealthy of artifacts to explore, but Cape Verde is not a rich nation. Compounding the issue is the problem that many sites on land are privately owned, and permissions are not always straightforward.
"Excavation requires a lot of funding," admits Montiero, who hopes money can be found for further discoveries.
"We already have some idea of what is here. What we don't know is the scale and magnitude of it."