Slavery, Drought & Neglect

When Portuguese mariners discovered the archipelago in 1456, the islands to become known as Cabo Verde 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 of Santiago. 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 productive. However, the islands' remote yet strategic position made them a perfect clearinghouse and victualling station for the transatlantic slave trade.

Cabo Verde's first recorded drought occurred in 1747; from that date droughts became ever more common and, in the century from 1773, three droughts killed some 100,000 people. This cycle 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 Cabo Verde. To escape hunger, many men left the islands, principally to work as hired hands on American whaling ships. Even today, Cabo Verdean communities along the New England coast in the US rival the population of Cabo Verde itself.

The archipelago's fortunes revived with the advent of the ocean liner and the archipelago became an important stopover for coal, water and livestock. When the airplane replaced the ocean liner, Cabo Verde opened an international airport on Sal in 1948 that was designed to service transatlantic flights.

Independence from Portugal

Cabo Verde's mostly mixed-race population tended to fare better than fellow Africans in other Portuguese colonies. Beginning in the mid-19th century, a privileged few received an education, many going on to help administer mainland colonies. By independence, 25% of the population could read (compared with 5% in Guinea-Bissau).

However, literate Cabo 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, Cabo 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 Oliveira 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 rather than Cabo Verde, and indeed many middle-class Cabo Verdeans remained lukewarm about independence.

Eventually, Portugal's war became an international scandal and led to a nonviolent end to its dictatorship in 1974, with Cabo Verde gaining full independence a year later. Cabo Verde and Guinea-Bissau seriously considered uniting the two countries, but a 1980 coup in Guinea-Bissau ended talks.

Cabo Verde Since Independence

On gaining power, the PAICV created a one-party state but also instituted a remarkably successful health and education program. But independence did not solve the problem of drought, and in 1985 disaster struck again. 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 Veiga 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 and Pedro Pires became president.