Located roughly 600 kilometers from the westernmost portion of the African continent, Cape Verde was one of the first Atlantic slave societies. Beginning in the mid-15 th century, Cape Verde was an entrepôt for captives hailing from the stretch of West African coastline known to Iberians as “Guinea of Cape Verde” or “the Rivers of Guinea” (an area that included the Upper Guinea Coast, Senegambia, and Sierra Leone).
The Atlantic slave trade from West Africa built upon previous trans-Saharan commercial networks that linked Upper Guinea to Mali and North Africa. Portuguese mariners navigating the West African coast took the first documented African slaves from Upper Guinea in 1441. By the early 1450s, as many as 1,000 captives annually were taken from Senegambia and Upper Guinea to Portugal, Madeira, and the Canary Islands. Europeans first sighted the easternmost islands of the Cape Verde archipelago in the mid-1450s. Portuguese colonization of Cape Verde began in 1462 with the foundation of Ribeira Grande (present-day Cidade Velha) on Santiago Island.
The previously-uninhabited islands were swiftly incorporated into long-standing African trade networks and newer Atlantic ones. Cape Verde offered a reliable stopping point for navigators pursuing Atlantic and Indian Ocean routes. Slaves from many West African societies were brought to Cape Verde to work on sugar and cotton plantations; to produce goods for African trade (including textiles); and in subsistence agriculture and animal husbandry. From Cape Verde, captives were also transported to Europe, the Atlantic islands, and the Americas.
Cape Verde's strategic location at the crossroads of European, African, and American trade made it vulnerable to attacks. The islands were raided by English, Dutch, and French privateers several times throughout the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, including by Sir Francis Drake in 1585 en route to the Spanish Indies.
Though the islands’ prominence in the slave trade was eclipsed by West Central Africa, American slavers continued to call at Cape Verde and the West African coast well beyond the supposed abolition of the American slave trade. During the nineteenth century, the United States and Great Britain established consulates in Cape Verde to interdict the ongoing illicit slave trade. The consulates recorded valuable information about the Africans that they liberated during this period. In 1975, Cape Verde became an independent nation.
The current Cape Verde collection includes photographs of tombstones of Cape Verde's slaveholding elite, embedded in the floor of the oldest churches, as well as artifacts used by enslaved individuals in the Praia Archaeology Museum, and digitized volumes of older books found in the National Archives, including a register of manumitted slaves. These items will be made available on the SSDA pending the appropriate permissions.
The Slave Societies Digital Archive team traveled to Cape Verde in August 2016 to explore the National Archives of Cape Verde, the Praia Archaeology Museum, and other historical and archaeological sites to determine possibilities for future collaborations. We would like to thank Ana Mafalda Gomes Furtado Moreira, Jaylson Monteiro, Cardinal Arlindo Gomes Furtado, Ambassador Donald L. Heflin, and James Hagengruber for their assistance in Cape Verde.