The question of slavery in Cape Verde

During my presentation at the Cape Verdean Progressive Center in East Providence two weeks ago, someone asked the question regarding slavery and the status of children born to people who were enslaved. At the time, I responded that from what I could tell from the records I’ve researched, only the mother was identified as a slave. For example, a child “Jose” was born to “Libania”, the slave of Joao das Armas. The child was only identified as being the “natural” or illegitimate child of the enslaved woman who was usually only identified by her first name.

With this question in mind, I went over some of these records again and found a few very interesting things. The baptism of an enslaved person, whether adult or child, always identified the person as a slave or “escravo”. The parents were usually unknown and some noted the place of birth as “Guinea” while others identified them as being naturals of the island.

There are also “justification” records, or records justifying the baptism of someone that was done at a prior time for which a record may not exist or may have been destroyed. Onerecord, in particular, from 1829, identified the person baptised by both her first and last name who was baptised about 34 years prior. She was the “natural” child of an enslaved woman and the record also included the name of her mother’s owner. This woman’s last name wasn’t her enslaved mother’s owner’s name. It is unclear if her last name came from her mother, as she was only listed by first name, or possibly by an unidentified father. What the record doesn’t do is identify her as a slave. Slavery existed well into the 1870’s. So if this woman was a slave she would have surely been identified as such.

One very interesting record exists, also in 1829, for a child born legitimately to a man and his wife, who was enslaved, herself. This record even lists her “owner”. Here is a legitimate child born to a man and an enslaved woman and the child is not identified as a slave. I should add that there are records of enslaved people marrying within the catholic church to non-enslaved people. This may not have been uncommon.

So – did children inherit their status from enslaved parents or were they free at birth?

I haven’t found any actual rules or laws pertaining this very question but we do know that children born to enslaved women and white, Portuguese men were recognized by their fathers and could even inherit from them. They may have also carried their father’s names, as well. We know that in some situations, enslaved people were usually freed upon the deatho f their “owners” which would mean that there were free Africans from very early on in Cape Verde’s history.

Another very interesting fact is that in the late 1700’s, Portugal enacted a law which stated that any African slave brought within Portugal’s borders were to freed after six months. I haven’t found anything that showed this law was rescinded. Did this law also apply to Cape Verde? I would think that it would since it was still a Portuguese colony and its people were considered its subjects.

Another point worth researching is on the exact nature of slavery within Cape Verde. It’s no secret that Cape Verde was once the hub of the slave trade. Slave traders from the America’s would travel to the islands and purchase slaves who were “seasoned’ or baptised and given christian names. Cape Verdeans participated in the trading and transportation of slaves, as well, mostly to the Caribbean, Central and South America, although there are records of some who transported them to North America.

Lancados, children of Portuguese slave traders were used as middle men on the mainland of Africa and facilitated the capture and trade to Cape Verde. These Africans would have been brought to Santiago or Fogo where they were, presumably, then sold and/or transported to the Americas. Some were, however, kept on the islands for their various skills. Females seemed to kept as slaves within the homes of well-to-do families. Slaves were also initially used on what the Portuguese tried to establish as plantations for growing coffee beans, sugar cane, etc, but didn’t prosper due to the unstable and arid conditions on the islands.

On the island of Maio, salt was being mined and sold on the open market. Passport records exist of men traveling to the island with numbers of slaves who were actualy identified by name. Slaves were used in the mining of salt there,primarily, until Manuel Antonio Martins established his salt mines on the island of Sal which included the first rail system in Africa by the early 1800’s. This rail system system was also built by enslaved African men owned by him.

It is very clear though that most of the Africans brought to Cape Verde were sold and transported to the Americas while a few were kept on the islands primarily to serve as house slaves with some instances of slave labor on islands that had some kind of industry like salt mining.

Were these slaves kept on the islands or were they later sold elsewhere? If they stayed, were their children born enslaved or free? Were the offspring of African women and European men sold into slavery? Or perhaps, sold into slavery on the different islands of Cape Verde? Its evident in passport records that enslaved Cape Verdeans were transported between the islands and even to Portugal.

By the beginning of the 19th century the transportation of slaves across the Atlantic became illegal and English and American squadrons were put in place to prevent ships from crossing. In 1843, a group of Cape Verdean and British officials established a commssion on the island of Boa Vista aimed to abolish the slave trade in Cape Verde but not necessarily slavery as an institution. Slavery, itself, wasn’t abolished until the late 1870’s.

The questions are numerous. Were the offspring of enlaved African women and European men born into slavery based on their mother’s status like it was here in the US? Were these children – the mixed ancestors of the majority of Cape Verdeans today – granted freedom by their owner/fathers? If so, what was their status in society? Did they own property? Could they vote? Were they seen as equals? Did they live their lives in the same way as the ‘European” offspring of their father’s? If these children inherited from their fathers, did it also include any slaves their fathers owned? Did they own slaves, themselves?

As more research is done, we may begin to understand Cape Verde’s history of slavery and gain better insight into its society of today. I don’t believe we should look at Cape Verdean history and culture only in terms of its slave history but as an important part of its past. And by gaining insight into our pasts we can ensure we don’t make the same mistakes in our future.