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.


Author: The Creola Genealogist

My name is Anna Lima. I am the daughter of immigrants, born and raised in Massachusetts. I am the mother of two and a Speech Pathologist. My love of family history began as a child listening to my elders speak of “the old country”. Through their stories grew a love for the culture and traditions of my ancestors and I wanted to know more about who they were. My great-grandmother, our family Griot, was my greatest inspiration as she passed down stories and traditions that have helped me become the person I am today. I believe that remembering our ancestors strengthens who we are. I hope to continue my great-grandmother’s legacy, to continue to pass down the stories of not only my own family history but also the stories of the ancestors of anyone who wishes to remember. My blog is dedicated to the ancestors, those remembered and those yet to be found.

18 thoughts on “The question of slavery in Cape Verde”

  1. In my opinion, the discovery of America by European was the main factor for the settlement of Cape Verde for the slave trade. As a matter of fact, according to a PBS documentary on Slavery, the first African slaves to arrive on these shores were named 'Portuguese Slaves'. Then well after slavery was outlawed, the people of the islands were transported to the islands of Sao Tome and Principe to work as slave laborers under promises of fraudulent contracts in the last century. To me, one cannot whitewash the tremendous legacy of Slavery on the Cape Verde Islands and its people no matter how painful it is to admit.Mohammed Lima

  2. Hi Mohammed – Thank you for your comment. Slavery was a very large part of Cape Verde's history and I think it is one that should be further studied and most definitely, talked about. The WHOLE truth should be told about our history. The GOOD and the BAD, no matter how hurtful, should be told. The truth has to be our main objective – Always.I agree with you on not whitewashing Cape Verde's history. But I do have disagree on a couple of your points. Cape Verde was "discovered" by 1460 and settlement started by 1462 – at least 30 years before Columbus' voyage and almost 200 years before the first, real American settlements. I would say Cape Verde's settlement was actually precipitated by the Portuguese/Spanish/Italian desire to get to India by a different route as the Ottoman Empire hindered them by land. We also need to remember that slavery had been in existence for thousands of years before Cape Verde settlement and in various forms. Cape Verdeans took contract jobs to Sao Tome and Principe because there were plantations there and severe droughts and famines in Cape Verde during those times. The pay and conditions were deplorable but these people went there with the same beliefs as those who came to America, New Zealand, Australia, etc- that by working abroad they may be able to help feed their families at home. Unfortunately, the situation was in many ways worse than it was in CV.Thanks, again for your comments

  3. I am a second generation Capeverdean in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. And I was asking my father about my ancestors and that it could be “theoretically” possible that his (great) grandfather was a slave since slavery was abolished in the 1870’s. And we got in a discussion about slavery in Cape Verde and I started asking him a lot of questions (like yours) that he couldn’t answer. And when you google this theme there isn’t much information with a good source. So I was gladly surprised when I saw this article.

    We also talked about Sao Tome and my dad know people who went there to work. And in his eyes that was the most brutal form of modern slavery.

    1. It is very true that his great grandfather could have been a slave. However, what is interesting is that many descendants of Cape Verdeans who trace their ancestry will have to go quite a ways back to possibly find an ancestor who was designated a slave. What I mean is that most of the slaves transported to the Americas were probably coming from mainland Afica, although there are records of American slaves who were from Cape Verde. Of the slaves on the islands, you will find that records from the 1820’s do describe specific people as slaves but by the mid to late 1800’s there are less who are identified as such. Is this because there were less slaves? Probably not, in my opinion. On the smaller islands, you may have many offspring of slaves are also the offspring of the slave owner. I haven’t seen a marriage or death record of one of these offspring identifying them as the child of a slave. These people did inherit from their fathers and often carried their last names. So I don’t think they would have been labeled slaves although they may have been considered of a lower class. There are some records that have a last name like, Pires, where one line is called Pires Branco (white) and another line as Pires Pintado (colored).
      Slavery continued, officially, into the 1870’s and unofficially, into the 20th century in the form of “criadas”. There are still some people who say that slavery did not exist on the islands. The “Crioulo” population came into existence because of slavery.
      As we look into our family trees we will inevitably find slaves, as well as, slave owners, alike.
      Once slavery was abolished, the state of the people on the islands didn’t necessarily improve because of the continuous droughts and famines that plagued the islands. With promises of a means to sustain their families at home, many people “contracted” themselves to São Tomé and Principe. Many of their descendants are trying to return to their homeland but first have to prove their Cape Verdean ancestry. Effort to preserve and digitize vital records at the National archives in Cape Verde can hopefully help these people get home.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting on my blog. Thank you and your father also for bringing up the history of Cape Verdeans of São Tomé and Principe. It’s an important part of our history that should not be forgotten.

      1. Portugal não descobriu Cabo Verde porque já viviam africanos antes de os portugueses chegarem lá…acabem com esse falso rotulo que Portugal descobriu Angola,Cabo Verde…porque isso é mentira!

      2. E verdade k Cabo verde ka podia ser discubrido si ja tinha gentis morado la. Djam skribia de documentos Portuguese k ta mostra gentis Jalofo staba morado na interior do Santiago

  4. Although touchy, this is a subject that must be brought to an extreme light. In my studies of world history as a whole, I find that you must start with the inquisition, wich was simultaneously going on in the begining of Cape Verdes discovery. In my opinion, the powers that be would love for most of the facts about this history to be swept under the rug. The reason being, it involved two atrocities wich involved the church and the begining of a colonial experiment that ultimately the new world.

  5. My great-grandparents were slaves when they came to the United States. I am from Massachusetts were there is a large Cape Verdean population. I am proud to be Cape Verdean mix. ———–African

  6. Kia ora from New Zealand. I am a descendant of Manoel Lima who came from ‘Valverde” in the Cape Verde Islands. (He is my great grandfather) and he died in 1902 aged 60s? He came as crew on a whaling ship to New Zealand. His father was supposedly a “wine merchant”. Manoel fell in love with a local girl, a grape-picker. His father did not approve and sent him to sea to “get her out of his system”. His parents had also arranged a marriage for him to a neighbouring wine merchants daughter, when they were infants.

    We then pick Manoel’s story up in Tahim, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, in a village called Tahim.
    Back here in New Zealand Manoel marries a part Spanish and part Maori woman, our great grandmother. Manoel’s mother’s family lives in the Tahim area. (I don’t know where his father’s family hails from) and how they come to be in or around Tahim?

    We are trying to find our Portuguese roots. We are part Spanish, part Maori AND Brazilian Portuguese (so far). Next year (2016) we are to celebrate “Being Lima’s”.

    Is there such a place called “Valverde” in Cape Verde Islands?

  7. Fascinating discussion! While researching the slave trade in the Cape Verde Islands for The Jack Trilogy, I came across this website – glad I did. Does anyone know how long on average slave ships from the continent would stay in Cape Verde during the journey to the Americas? Would the slaves usually remain aboard while the ship was docked/anchored in Cape Verde Islands? Were slaves from these ships hired out to industries such as the salt mines during layovers in Cape Verde? Can you recommend web sites that deal with these issues? Can you point to any historical literature involving real slaves and their experiences in these islands? Thanks.

    1. Hi Gary! While there hasn’t been much written specifically addressing the questions you have, I have come across some documents and books that have given me some pretty interesting views on what was going on at the time. I have also come upon several books written in the early 1700’s that include interactions and conversations with enslaved Africans. Also, while researching for another one of my posts about an escaped slave named “Marcelino” gave a lot of insight into life on the islands.
      There were “companies” set up along the coast of West Africa on places like Cacheu, where Africans were traded, bought, etc. They were then transported to Cabo Verde where traders would then purchase and transport them to the Americas and Caribbean. I have come across passports or “permissions” given to traders and ship captains to sail from Cabo Verde with their slave cargo. Essentially, the Atlantic crossing would begin in Cabo Verde rather than it being a stop on the voyage. While in Cabo Verde, some slaves were kept there to work as house servants or in the sat mines and plantations while others were sold off to buyers in the Americas. Hope this answers some of your questions. I would love to speak with you more so please feel free to contact me at

    1. Hi. The question of when the first Africans arrived in Cape Verde is two-fold. While we don’t have exact dates, the first Enslaved Africans arrived shortly after the Portuguese settled there in the 1460’s. As for when the first Africans stepped foot on the islands, I would say it was much earlier. There are oral traditions that speak of Jalofa’s being present on the island of Santiago at the time the Portuguese arrived.

      1. research will inform us that jalofa’s or wolof’s were in cv before europeans. serer were also there. there were probably many more. we need to research our own ancient records, in various languages, and not wait for europeans and others to do so.

      2. Thank you for your comment. Yes, I firmly believe that they were there prior to Europeans arriving. There are oral traditions within certain parts of Cape Verde, like the inland of Santiago, that speak of them.

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