When Portuguese mariners discovered Cape Verde in 1456, the islands were uninhabited but fertile enough to attract the first group of settlers six years later. They founded Ribeira Grande (now Cidade Velha), the first European town in the tropics, on the island São Vicente. To work the land, settlers almost immediately began to import slaves from the West African coast. Plans by Genoese investors to create large sugar plantations never paid off, especially after the Caribbean proved so productive. However, the islands’ remote yet strategic position made them a perfect clearinghouse and victualling station for the transatlantic slave trade. Within a century, the islands had grown wealthy enough to attract pirates, including a 1585 raid by England’s Sir Francis Drake.
In 1747, changing weather patterns, aggravated by deforestation and overgrazing, resulted in Cape Verde’s first recorded drought. In the 100 years from 1773, three droughts killed some 100, 000 people – more than 40% of the population each time. It was only the beginning of a cycle that lasted well into the 20th century. At the same time, the island’s economic clout fell as Britain, France and the Netherlands challenged Portugal’s control over the slave trade. As a result, Lisbon invested little in Cape Verde during the good times and offered almost no help during bad times. To escape hunger, many men left the islands, principally to work as hired hands on American whaling ships. Even today, Cape Verdean communities along the New England coast rival the population of Cape Verde itself, and foreign remittances account for as much as 20% of GNP.
Cape Verde’s fortunes revived with the advent of the ocean liner at the end of the 19th century. It became an important stopover for coal, water and livestock, and Mindelo, with its deep, protected harbour, became the island’s new commercial and cultural centre. When the airplane replaced the ocean liner, Cape Verde responded in kind, opening an international airport on Sal in 1948. Designed to service long, transatlantic flights, it remains a mainstay of the country’s economy.
Because much of Cape Verde’s population was mixed race, they tended to fare better than fellow Africans in other Portuguese colonies. Beginning in the mid-19th century, a privileged few even received an education, many going on to help administrate mainland colonies. By independence, 25% of the population could read (compared with 5% in Guinea-Bissau).
However, to the chagrin of the Portuguese, literate Cape Verdeans were gradually becoming aware of the nationalism simmering on the mainland. Soon, together with leaders of Guinea-Bissau, they had established a joint independence movement. In 1956 Cape Verdean intellectual Amilcar Cabral (born in Guinea-Bissau) founded the Marxist-inspired Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC), later renamed the Partido Africano da Independência de Cabo Verde (PAICV).
As other European powers were relinquishing their colonies, Portugal’s right-wing dictator, António de Salazar, propped up his regime with dreams of colonial greatness. From the early 1960s, one of Africa’s longest wars of independence ensued. However, most of the fighting took place in Guinea-Bissau, and indeed many middle-class Cape Verdeans remained lukewarm toward independence.
Eventually, Portugal’s war became an international scandal and lead to the nonviolent demise of its dictatorship in 1974, with Cape Verde finally gaining full independence a year later. Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau seriously considered uniting the two countries, but a 1980 coup in Guinea-Bissau ended talks.
Although the PAICV nationalised most industries and instituted a one-party state, it managed to limit corruption, instituting remarkably successful health and education programs. Unfortunately, independence did not solve the problem of drought, and in 1985 disaster struck again. However, this time the USA and Portugal contributed 85% of the food deficit; their aid continues in a country that produces only about 20% of its food supply.
By the late 1980s there were increasing calls for a multiparty democracy, and in 1990 the PAICV acquiesced, allowing lawyer Carlos Veigo to found the Movimento para a Democracia (MPD). With a centre-right policy of political and economic liberalisation, the MPD swept to power in the 1991 elections. Privatisation and foreign investment – especially in tourism – brought only slow results however, and in 2001, the PAICV reclaimed power. This time it promised to adhere to more a centrist policy of prudent fiscal and economic management – largely the result of International Monetary Fund (IMF) mandates.
With elections set for early 2006, the choice is very much between shades of grey, especially under the IMF’s watchful eye. Tourism is the nation’s main growth industry, and the country remains prosperous by West African standards. Famine is certainly no longer an imminent threat, yet improvements in the lives of the average Cape Verdean remain incremental, and for those without family abroad, conditions remain difficult.