Cidade Velha, oldest European town in the tropics and epicentre of the slave trade

Flying to Cape Verde’s capital city, Praia, you can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to stumble across the Cape Verde islands as a Portuguese sailor in the 15th Century. Seen from the air – rocky, barren outcrops surrounded by the foaming Atlantic Ocean – they personify isolation. The nearest landmass, the coast of modern-day Senegal in West Africa, lies 570km away, and the waters in-between can be ferocious and perilous.

If that wasn’t inauspicious enough, the islands have few resources and are prone to drought, making agriculture unpredictable and hazardous. Yet they could support sufficient agriculture to sustain the first Portuguese settlers, who arrived in 1462 and founded Cidade Velha, the first permanent European city in the tropics. Situated at a point where a river tumbled down the mountains into the ocean, the town boasts the oldest colonial church in the world, Nossa Senhora do Rosário, completed in 1495.

View of Cidade Velha with Fort Real de São Filipe (top right), Cape Verde, Africa

View of Cidade Velha with Fort Real de São Filipe (top right), Cape Verde, Africa

Nossa Senhora do Rosário, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Nossa Senhora do Rosário, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

The founding of Cidade Velha was a fateful event for the future course of the islands’ history: the only way the settlers could make a profit was to import free labour in the form of slaves from the African mainland. Within a hundred years of the first settlement, over 14,000 slaves were living on Cape Verde’s islands, many thousands more had been shipped there over the preceding 100 years.

The terrible economic model which made settlement in Cape Verde profitable, was being replicated across the Americas and Caribbean. European nations, in a scramble for overseas possessions, were crossing the Atlantic in ever larger numbers and competing to establish colonies in the New World. The colonies needed settlers and settlers needed slave labour to grow sugar cane, cotton and provide replacement labour for all the indigenous peoples of the Americas who died from war and European diseases.

Boats on the beach in Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Boats on the beach in Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View of Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View of Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

African slaves even found their way into the diabolical conditions of the silver mines in Potosi, Bolivia, as replacements for dwindling indigenous slave labour from across the Andes. Here, in the frozen highlands of Spanish Bolivia, at altitudes of over 4000m, they died in their tens of thousands. We think of ourselves living in a connected world, yet for over 300 years the tentacles of the slave trade snaked their way around the globe, the human lubricant which greased the wheels of global trade.

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Cannon detail, Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Cannon detail, Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Suddenly, Cape Verde’s location on the shipping lanes between Africa and the Americas gave it global importance: water, salt, meat and other foods were loaded onto ships, already crowded with their human cargo, before sailing to the Americas. The islands isolated location became a centre of global trade, albeit a terrible trade in human suffering.

Cidade Velha became the fulcrum of the Portuguese slave trade, and became central to Portuguese explorations around the world. Vasco de Gama restocked his supplies here en route to India in 1497; Christopher Columbus visited in 1498 on his third voyage to the Americas. Over the next 300 years, hundreds of thousands of Africans were shipped as slaves to Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, the United States and the Caribbean.

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade, Cape Verde, Africa

View from Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View from Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

The city grew rich, so rich that it became an attractive target for pirates from other European countries. One famous attack came in 1585, when Sir Francis Drake attacked the islands and sacked Cidade Velha. In 1590, the Portuguese responded by building the imposing Fort Real de São Filipe on a hillside above the town. The fort makes for a fascinating visit today and offers spectacular views over the town and ocean.

(English interest in the islands persisted for another 350 years. The main town on the nearby island of Maio is known as Porto Inglês, English Port, thanks to English ships regularly stopping to collect salt.)

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View from Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View from Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View from Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

View from Fort Real de São Filipe, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Before long English (French, Spanish and Dutch) competition usurped Portugal’s slave trade monopoly, and with this came a change in the way the slave trade operated. Instead of ships going to the African coast for slaves – a coast where disease was rampant and hostile tribes not uncommon – they turned Cape Verde into a massive clearing house for slaves. Ships would bring slaves to Cidade Velha, and those who survived were sold onwards and shipped to overseas colonies. It was a singularly efficient business.

Pillory Post, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

Pillory Post, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

People swim in the ocean, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

People swim in the ocean, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

The history of Cidade Velha is the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and the modern nation of Cape Verde the result of European settlement and slave owning and trading. It is an incredibly important place, and rightly an UNESCO World Heritage Site. As well as the fort and churches, the narrow streets of the original town still exist. As does the disturbing Pillory of Justice, a stone pillar topped with a Christian cross where escaped slaves would be whipped if they were caught. This is located in the old town square, where much of the trade in slaves was conducted.

What is perhaps surprising, but very cheering, on the Sunday I was in Cidade Velha lots of families and couples from Praia were visiting the town to swim, eat at beach-side restaurants and have a lovely day out. That seems like a good way to overcome the terrible history of this place.