Cape Verde

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Discovery and Colonization

Had nature taken its own course, the islands that comprise what we know today as the vital and dynamic Republic of Cape Verde might still be the uninhabited volcanic outcropping that Portuguese navigators claimed to discover in around 1456.

But had no humans come upon the archipelago, some 375 miles off continental Africa's northwestern bulge, earlier than Diogo Gomes and his crew? At least one, a Venetian captain named Alvise Ca'da Mosto, boasted of a prior visit. And vague references in Arabic chronicles may hint at landfalls by sailors from North Africa and the Kingdom of Mali dating back to the 13th century.

It seems that no one, however, chose to settle and stay on any of the 10 islands and eight islets, as inhospitable as they may have appeared to those early visitors in the days before the Age of Discovery.

It was during that era of technological advances in ship building and navigation, at around the turn of the 14th century, when barchas from Portugal began to set sail on their perilous voyages down the coast of West Africa, past Madeira and the Canaries, eventually to and around the Cape of Good Hope to Asia, and beyond the Azores to the new worlds of Brazil and the Caribbean.

And in their expansionist zeal to colonize and proselytize, the Portuguese saw a promise in the islands they called Cabo Verde that previous visitors did not; as a way station en route to a growing empire. On the island of Santiago, in about 1462, Portugal established its initial Cape Verdean settlement at Ribeira Grande, now called Cidade Velha, or Old City.

In a great milestone of history, Ribeira Grande, about 10 miles from today's capital of Praia, became the first European city in the tropics.

The Cape Verde Islands were a unique find for the Portuguese. Unlike other colonies, there only was land to conquer and no indigenous population to subjugate. And the geography, then as now, was challenging.

Despite the name, which derives from a point on the coast of what now is Senegal roughly parallel to the islands, Cape Verde is neither a promontory nor particularly green. The islands of the Barlavento, or windward, group, which includes Sal, Boa Vista, Santo Ant“o, S“o Vicente, Santa Luzia and S“o Nicolau, are scoured by erosive Saharan sand swept across from mainland Africa. The Sotovento, or leeward, islands of Maio, Fogo, Brava and Santiago are also subject to erosion, but some vegetation manages to survive in protected valleys.

Forbidding sea cliffs surround the mountainous islands of Santiago, Santo Ant“o and S“o Nicolau. Fogo's volcano is still active, last erupting in 1951. Sal, Boa Vista and Maio are arid and flat.

But Santiago and S“o Vicente are endowed, at least, with natural harbors, and it was from those strategic locations that the Portuguese consolidated their hold on the islands. That occupation -- sometimes benign and neglectful, often ruthless and oppressive -- would last more than 500 years, the final decades of which were marked by a protracted struggle for independence.

The Portuguese, in those early years of colonization, began to develop on Cape Verde what in many ways was a terrestrial precursor of the space stations envisioned and planned by today's astronautical pioneers. For unlike the lush and fertile isles of the Indies and the Antilles, so coveted and fought over by the expanding colonial powers, Cape Verde could support only subsistence plantations. Floating in a fixed orbit in a void of water, these virtually sterile islands needed supplies launched from base. And precious little of that provision stayed very long. Rather, most of it served to fuel and sustain forays to other, more distant satellites.

This strange exploitation began the cycle of nearly total dependence, marked by times of prosperity and long periods of deprivation and famine, from which Cape Verde is now struggling to emerge. Even within the last decade, the nation has imported up to 90 percent of its needed foodstuffs. External assistance and the remittances of workers abroad total as much as 35 percent of the gross national product.

Perhaps the most vital of those early imported commodities was the human chattel needed to work the small plantations and serve the few settlers. To fill that need for slave labor, the Portuguese turned to the Guinea coast, peopling the previously uninhabited islands with a mix of unwilling immigrants and their captors.

And because of their convenient location along trade routes between Europe, Africa and the Americas, the islands developed into a major market place for slavers. By the mid-1500s, under a monopoly granted by the Portuguese crown, the human trade between Africa and the New World was a raison d'etre for the Cape Verde Islands. Over the ensuing three centuries, tens of thousands of enslaved Africans passed through on their miserable voyages to the plantations of Brazil, New Spain and the Caribbean.

In later years, coal-powered ships would stop at Praia and Mindelo for fuel and provisions, all of which had to be imported for re-sale. In between periods of usefulness, Cape Verde was virtually abandoned and ignored by the Portuguese overlords -- left to its own meager resources.