Except for a few vague and questionable accounts of unknown Islands by passing Phoenician or Arab sailors, the Cape Verde Islands were as yet undiscovered and uninhabited when the Portuguese arrived in the 1460s.
Prince Henry the Navigator’s desire to explore the African Coast, coupled with innovations in sailing (the invention of the rig) provided the conditions for the discovery of the Islands by Portuguese-sponsored explorers. Exactly which Sea Captain first sighted the Islands is disputed due to inaccurate accounts from the time – many of which were not written until years after the voyages. It may have been the Venetian, Alvise Cadamosto, or the Genoese, António de Noli or Diogo Gomes (all of whom were in the service of the Portuguese). There is also some question over exactly when the Islands were discovered, however both Diogo Gomes and António de Noli are attributed with the discovery, with the official date being May 1st 1460. Diogo Afonso is credited with the discovery of Santo Antao, Sao Vicente and Sao Nicolau.
The colonisation of the Islands began in 1462 on Santiago when Ribeira Grande (now Cidade Velha) was founded. To encourage settlement and investment, the colonists were given exclusive trading rights along the Portuguese-controlled West African coast and its rivers in 1466. The Colonists took slaves from the African Mainland to develop the land and by 1582 there were 13,700 slaves working the land on Santiago and Fogo. However, the Island’s delicate environment proved too difficult for the establishment of prosperous agriculture (with the exception of cotton).
The real value of the Islands proved to be in their strategic location as a supply station for South America-bound Sailing Vessels taking advantage of the Trade Winds. Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama both stopped in the Cape Verde Islands during their voyages.
The Slave Trade
The Cape Verde Islands played a pivotal role in the transatlantic Slave Trade. European colonisation of the new world required a labour force to exploit the land and was a ready market for the cheapest labour of all, slaves. Along with goods, the Cape Verde Islands also had exclusive rights to the trade in slaves from the West African coast. Apart from this legal necessity for the slaves to pass through the Cape Verde slave markets, the Islands also offered slave traders several advantages over direct trade with the African coast. The hardship of imprisonment and the sea journey from the African mainland would have already killed many of the weaker slaves, meaning that a higher proportion would survive the cramped Atlantic crossing. Secondly, the slaves that were for sale in Ribeira Grande would have received basic training and learned some Portuguese. The traders also avoided having to trade directly on the African coast with the perils that would have entailed. Initially, the Slave Trade made Ribiera Grande rich and it became the first European City in the tropics.
In 1560, Cape Verde lost its exclusive concession to trading rights along the African coast and Ribiera Grande began a long decline in importance and prosperity. The Portuguese Crown granted trading rights to various monopolies while at the same time reducing the rights of Cape Verdeans to trade with outsiders. Eventually Cape Verde became bypassed in the Slave Trade and its inhabitants were even banned (upon pain of death) from trading cloth with foreigners.
War in Europe, at the beginning of the 18th century, temporarily paused the transatlantic slave trade and arrived in Cape Verde with the destruction of Ribeira Grande by the French in 1712. Portugal finally responded to the dire situation on the Islands and ended the crippling trade restrictions in 1721.
The first European Settlers on the Islands, who were mostly male, mixed with the African Slaves that they had brought to work the land on the Islands. A large number of these first settlers were Jews, who were being expelled from Spain and Portugal at the time of the Inquisition.
Many of this first generation of offspring of Settlers and Slaves, went to the African Coast, where they became the middlemen between the African Tribes and Portuguese in the Slave Trade. Later, in the 19th Century, Portugal would banish over 2500 European degredados (convicts) to the Islands. The descendants of these Settlers, Slaves and Convicts as well as visiting Pirates and Sailors account for the 70% of Cape Verde’s population that are of mixed race.
Tremendous damage was done to the Islands’ delicate environment during the colonisation. Poor land management combined with over-grazing has done irrevocable damage to this environment where periodic droughts are common. Famine and starvation have ravaged the Cape Verde Islands numerous times over the last five centuries.
A pattern of all-male emigration became established in the early 19th century, primarily aboard Whaling ships from New England. The continued hardship through drought and famine has only increased this tendency to emigrate and it is estimated that more Cape Verdeans live outside Cape Verde than on the Islands. Remittances from Emigrants account for some 20% of GDP and been the largest source of foreign currency in the country.
A Nationalist movement, founded by Amilcar Cabral and Aristides Pereira, sought independence for both the Cape Verde Islands and Portuguese Guinea. This movement had evolved into a Guerilla Army by the time fighting broke out in Guinea in 1963, which included the participation of many Cape Verdeans. This Guerilla campaign eventually gained independence for Guinea in 1973, although Cape Verde would remain under the control of Portugal.
By this time, Portugal, which was already economically backward by European standards, had been crippled further by its colonial wars and was on the brink of collapse. The returning veterans from the African conflicts overthrew Portugal’s Fascist dictatorship and many of Portugal’s other colonies quickly gained independence. Despite Portugal’s initial reluctance to concede control of the Cape Verde Islands, continued chaos during the transition to democracy in Portugal allowed Cape Verde to gain independence as part of Guinea-Bissau on July 5th 1975. The link between Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau was severed in 1980, following a coup in Guinea-Bissau.
The PAICV (Partido Africano de Independencia de Cabo Verde) remained the single-party government of Cape Verde until 1990, when multi-party elections were held for the first time.