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.

Cape Verde, an improbable island nation in the middle of the Atlantic

I doubt there is a nation with a more peculiar history than Cape Verde or, to give it it’s official Portuguese name, Republica de Cabo Verde. Until the mid-15th Century, the archipelago of ten islands which form the modern African nation, were uninhabited volcanic lumps of rock. Unknown and undiscovered, some 570km (350 miles) off the coast of West Africa, they stood in grand isolation, bleached by a vicious sun and battered by the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean.

Although its possible that Arab traders visited the islands before Europeans, its only in 1456, when Portuguese sailors arrived off the islands, that we have written records of their discovery. Prone to drought and with few natural resources, the islands still had some advantages: there was fresh water and, on two of the islands, salt pans. Vital commodities for European sailors, who were starting to explore down the coast of Africa and across the Atlantic to the Americas.

The waterfront in Praia, capital of Cape Verde, Africa

The waterfront in Praia, capital of Cape Verde, Africa

In 1462, the Portuguese, recognising the importance of the islands, claimed them for themselves and founded the first permanent European city in the tropics, Cidade Velha. A massive fort was built on the southern coast of the island of Santiago, overlooking the town and port of Cidade Velha, to protect growing Portuguese trade. European settlement remained low-key, but in the early 16th Century everything changed dramatically thanks to one the most powerful economic drivers of the next three centuries: the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

The view from the Portuguese fort, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

The view from the Portuguese fort, Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, Africa

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

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

Between the 1520s and 1860s, approximately twelve and a half million African men, women and children were shipped across the Atlantic and sold into slavery. The history of slavery in Cape Verde is in two parts: initially, the Portuguese used slaves as free labour on the islands; but with the establishment of European colonies in the Americas, Cape Verde became an enormous marketplace and transit hub for the Trans-Altantic slave trade. Slave ships from every European nation used these islands to conduct the trade in slaves.

The duel role of the slave trade on the islands was reinforcing. Slaves were used to grow food and provide labour to provision slave ships for their journey across the Atlantic; but over time, slaves were brought to Cape Verde and European ships would buy them here rather than on the coast of Africa. By 1594 there were 14,000 slaves working on the island, and by the 1860s hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of slaves had passed through Cape Verde en route to South America, the Caribbean and the United States.

The beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The beach at Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The church in Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The church in Vila do Maio, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

After the slave trade ended, the islands became important refuelling ports for trans-Atlantic shipping, and thrived until the Second World War, when the industry went into a rapid decline. A series of droughts which hit the islands in the second half of the 20th Century had an equally devastating impact, including one in the 1990s – over 200,000 people died during the droughts. There was mass emigration from the islands, and today the number of Cape Verdeans living in New England is greater than the population of the country.

Despite the tragic human history of the islands, its mixed African and European population has given rise to one of the most stable and democratic countries in Africa. It has also spawned a rich culture, perhaps best reflected in the truly extraordinary music of the islands. This is the home of Cesária Évora, the ‘Barefoot Diva’, and morna, the island’s haunting folk music full of loss and longing. This musical heritage hit the world music scene in the 1980s and 90s, and is one of the main reasons I wanted to visit the islands.

Salt flats, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

Salt flats, Maio, Cape Verde, Africa

The islands are geographically spread out, and transport is rarely straight forward – there are irregular cargo boats between islands, the occasional scheduled ferry service and flights on small planes that book up quickly. While this sounds promising, all forms of transport are regularly cancelled due to bad weather, and, stuck in the middle of the Atlantic, bad weather is a regular occurrence. Give yourself a few days leeway when it comes to transport.

Volcanic landscape of the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Volcanic landscape of the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Volcanic landscape of the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Volcanic landscape of the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, Africa

Flying in from Portugal, I decided to spend my ten days exploring the islands of Santiago (home to the capital city, Praia), Maio and Fogo. These three islands, while relatively close together, couldn’t be more different, and made for a fascinating introduction to Cape Verde.