The history of Cape Verde is typical and yet unique for its location. For three centuries, the islands were a setting for the transatlantic slave trade, exile for political prisoners of Portugal and a place of refuge for Jews and other victims of religious persecution during the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. But even in the 19th century, the slaves led very different lives than those of North or South America: On Cape Verde, families developed from the “free” people and slaves who lived together in peacefully and as a matter of course. Situated at the hub between Europe, America and the Indian Ocean, Cape Verde can now look back at a significant achievement: the birth of a completely new Creole culture and language, evolving from the blending of very diverse ethnic groups. The Creole people assumed a forerunner role in the independence movement of Africa in its seemingly never-ending battle against colonization. They also assumed the intellectual fatherhood for one of the most modern constitutions in one of the few pluralistic but stable systems in the region.
Discovery period, slave trade and famine
The discovers of Cape Verde, the Portuguese, described the islands upon their arrival in 1456 as “completely uninhabited.” In any case, there is still no evidence of any human life before the descoberta.
The Portuguese intended to establish new trade routes and goods, as well as expanding their knowledge of geography since Islamic traders controlled the Trans-Saharan trade of gold and slaves to the north and salt to the south. The Turks dominated the overland route along the Mediterranean for the trade of spices and fabric with India, charging high customs duties. The goal was to discover a new, Christian-controlled access to gold, slaves and spices in West Africa and India.
Henry the Seafarer (1394-1460), pioneer of the Portuguese expeditions, assumed the role of a trailblazer. He conquered Ceuta in 1415, Madeira in 1418 and the Azores in 1431. Henry the Seafarer hired captains of various countries such as Spaniards and Italians to help him achieve this goal. As a result, the Venetian seafarer Aloisio Cadamosto saw the island group on 25 July 1456 while travelling to the Gambia River in keeping with Henry’s orders. But since Cadamosto did not fulfil the criteria of a “discovery“ according to Henry (cartography, description, leaving behind artefacts, demonstration of the ability to return), the discovery was officially attributed in 1460 to the Genoese António da Noli, who also was commissioned by Henry. After Henry’s death, Prince Ferdinand of Portugal coordinated the expeditions and sent the seafarer Diego Afonso to Cape Verde for further exploration. Afonso named the islands after the saint for each date of the discovery: São Nicolau on 6 December 1461, Santa Luzia on 13 December 1461, Santo António on 17 January 1462 and São Vicente on 22 January 1462.
In 1461, the first settlement was established in Santiago and became the very first European overseas colony in sub-Saharan Africa. This was followed a short time later by the colonization of Maio as a settlement of shepherds, of Fogo as the residence for colonial townspeople, of Boa Vista as the new domicile for lepers and of Brava. The citizens of Santiago obtained the right to keep slaves in 1472. While the proportion of slaves and free people was still 160 settlers and 30 slaves in Santiago in 1510, there were already 14,000 slaves to 2,000 free people in 1580. From the start of the settlement until 1974, offenders, vagrants and prostitutes were deported to Santiago. Consequently, a concentration camp was built in Tarrafal in 1949. Once Portugal secured the exclusive right to the slave trade on the coast from Senegambia to Guinea in 1466, Ribeira Grande – later called Cidade Velha – became the most important slave trade harbour for a century. In addition, cane sugar and rum was produced and exported, cotton cultivated and processed and meat was sold from the livestock in Maio as supplies for the ships.
A new territorial dispute broke out after the discovery of America in 1492. With the mediation of the pope in 1494, the competitors of Spain and Portugal agreed on a new boundary line in the treaty of Tordesilhas: 370 sea miles west of Cape Verde from the North Pole to the South Pole. The territory to the east of the line was granted to Portugal and the region to the west of the line to Spain.
Portugal was already occupied by the Spaniards in 1580, and Cape Verde was afflicted by Dutch, French and British buccaneers. The economic situation of the islands became increasingly worse, partly because the wars in Europe were accompanied by a decrease in trade. Due to the growing number of pirate attacks and the strategically bad location of Ribeira Grande, the colonial government moved to Praia in 1614.
However, the economic decline also continued in the 18th century to the point that almost half of the island’s population died in 1773 due to a drought period that lasted several years. This was not to be the last one.
End of the colonial period
The islands began to slowly recover in 1790. In 1815, during the Napoleonic wars, the slave trade was prohibited in the northern hemisphere and England secured the right of trading with Portugal and Brazil. Coffee from Brazil was cultivated on São Nicolao for the first time, the settlers came to São Vicente, streets and city squares were built in Praia and salt was now produced on the island of Sal. After an uprising of the slaves in 1853, which was suppressed with much bloodshed, slavery was finally abolished on Cape Verde in 1878. From that time on, cultivation of the land was operated in the sharecropping system, which still is typical for the agricultural of Cape Verde. However, the exporting of salt, bananas, coffee, fish and purging nuts did not bring the desired profits. Portugal had not invested in the land during its rule, the export costs were too high due to the remote location of the islands, the already scarce natural resources declined and a shortage of water supplies ensued. When the world market prices for coffee drastically fell in 1900, its production on Cape Verde collapsed. Prime Minister Salazar installed his dictatorial regime in Lisbon in 1932 and declared Cape Verde to be an overseas province in 1951 due to the growing national pressure. But the colonial status was only ended in the official sense. As a result of massive protests against the continuing colonial attitude of Portugal, the Cape Verdeans finally obtained all of the Portuguese civil rights and better access to education in 1961. A new drought catastrophe started again in 1958. In the meantime, Caetano had become Salazar‘s successor in Lisbon and supported the islands with development programmes that mitigated the consequences of the drought. This was primarily due to the pressure exerted by Amílcar Cabral, who founded the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and the Cape Verdes) in Guinea-Bissau in 1956. Guinea-Bissau had already been administered from Cape Verde between 1650 and 1878 with the Creole culture and language also connecting the two countries. After repeated attempts by Portugal to infiltrate the PAICV through the PIDE, a type of secret police, and to prevent the alliance of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, Amílcar Cabral was murdered in 1973. It is still unclear who was responsible for the murder. The dictatorship in Portugal was ended in 1974 by the Carnation Revolution. However, the local troops on Cape Verde maintained their rule. In December of that same year, a transitional PAIGC government was agreed upon under the direction of Pedro Pires and Aristides Pereira. In June 1975, the first election for national representatives of the people took place: 92% of the votes confirmed the PAIGC as a unity party and therefore the owner of all mandates in the people’s assembly.
The República Cabo Verde declared its independence on 5 July 1975. Aristides Pereira became the first president as the secretary-general of the PAIGC. Pedro Pires was appointed as the prime minister. The first constitution was adopted on 5 September 1980. On 20 January 1981, the PAIGC was founded as the new governing party of PAICV (African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde).
The newly achieved independence presented the government with difficult tasks: The state coffers were empty, a terrible drought once again plagued the country and the number of unemployed people had risen to 60% because the jobs in the colonial administration were lost. But with the support of development aid organisations, it was possible to gradually rebuild the country.
The current political climate on Cape Verde is characterised by social peace and stability.