A Comprehensive Guide to Cabo Verde
The team at CV Hustle realized the shortage information on the country and decided to put together a comprehensive guide to Cabo Verde, capturing its history, development, culture and geography, that we hope you find helpful.
Location & Background of Cabo Verde
Cabo Verde lies far to the south of these other islands, isolated from the other Macronesian islands. Its isolation doesn’t mean it’s exposure and influence has been limited. Many people in the country may be poor, but there is a cosmopolitan feel to Cabo Verde. It’s the most Westernized country in the region, popular with tourists, especially those from Europe. The people are friendly and good-natured, and make the most of what they have. They love their music, which is a kind of creolized Brazilian Samba, mixed in with Portuguese and African rhythms.
The climate is milder than on the African mainland, but with warmer seas. Cabo Verde is in the direct path of the northeasterly trade winds and harbors a semi-arid but tropical climate. The temperature over the course of a year varies averages between 73℉ and 89℉. Cabo Verde receives less rainfall than other West African countries because it is located in the Sahelian arid belt.
The archipelago’s 10 islands are shared between two island groups, a group of 6 in the north (the Barlavento islands) and a group of 4 in the south (the Sotavento Islands). The Barlavento consists of Santo Antao, Sal, Sao Nicolau, Boa Vista, Sao Vicente, and tiny Santa Luzia. While the Sotavento islands include Brava, Fogo, Santiago and Maio, all arranged in a row pointing east-north-east. No island is the same as another; they each have their own special character and history and are each worth exploring as a mini-adventure on their own.
Some people think Cabo Verde is shaped a bit like an arrow with Santo Antao, Sao Vicente, Santa Luzia and Sao Nicolau forming the shaft. The arrow points south-east and would graze the coast of Guinea if it was ever fired.
Discovery & History of Cabo Verde
No-one can be sure which island in Cabo Verde was visited first and by whom. European seafarers visited the uninhabited islands during the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1460 the Portuguese colonized the islands. Their rule would last over 500 years.
The Cap Vert peninsula in Senegal was already a popular slave trading point. The Portuguese believed that its proximity to Cabo Verde would allow them to prosper further in that dubious trade. The first settlement was founded at Ribeira Grande (modern-day Cidade Velha) on Santiago Island. The Portuguese brought in West African slaves to work on crops and build houses. Other islands were used to graze livestock, particularly goats, which provided much needed milk and cheese for the colonists.
With its prime Atlantic location, Ribeira Grande soon became known as a trading center for textiles, hides and salt, as well as African slaves. The island made a good provisioning stopover for European galleons on their way to the colonies. Cabo Verde lies in the path of favorable ocean currents and trade winds, between Europe and the Americas.
Unfortunately this ideal location also made it prey to the pirate ships which plowed the oceans in the middle 1500s. Santiago Island suffered raids both by English corsairs and Barbary pirates. Santiago was even captured in 1585 by Francis Drake as part of Anglo-Spanish hostilities. During the War of The Spanish Succession in the early 18th Century, the French sacked Santiago, plundering the island’s wealth.
By the 1770s, Cabo Verde had become trapped in a cycle of poverty. Decades of overgrazing and the Saharan winds had ruined the soil, making it impossible in most places to grow crops. The bittersweet irony is that Cabo Verde is named after the Portuguese word “verde”, meaning ‘green’. After a severe drought, a succession of famines followed, which resulted in thousands of deaths. These famines would return with tragic regularity even up to the early 20th Century.
Slavery in Cabo Verde ended in the latter part of the 19th Century. By then Cabo Verdeans were migrating abroad in thousands in search of work in America or other Portuguese-owned islands. Bucking this gloomy trend was one solitary flame of business success. During the mid to late 19th Century, the port of Mindelo on São Vicente prospered as a mid-Atlantic coaling station for steamships.
The recurring droughts ended in the 1930s, but relief was short-lived with the onset of World War 2. The Portuguese garrisoned 6,000 men during the war, and Churchill even had plans to invade the islands at one time. After peace came, the drought and famine cycle resumed. Independence was won from the Portuguese in 1975, but by this time the country was bereft of natural resources and relying on foreign aid and food imports.
Since then, Cabo Verde has dusted itself down and emerged into the 21st Century stronger both politically and economically. Tourism has helped, but too many of the half a million population still live in poverty. In 2008, Cabo Verde joined the World Trade Organization.
Cabo Verde Politics & Independence
Cabo Verde’s political landscape has largely been shaped by its struggle to free itself from colonial rule. The current population is descended mainly from Portuguese seafarers and West African slaves. The abolition of slavery in 1876 freed many into destitution. Further, Europe’s imperialist advances into the African continent created resentment among Cabo Verdeans and race divided the country. Those of a mixed color were often given higher positions of power than their darker brethren. Yet they still took their orders from the Portuguese whites. The racism so evident in relative class and prosperity fueled the drive for independence.
Ideas of freedom from repression were often articulated among the better educated. What proved difficult was entrenching these ideas into a larger, mostly illiterate population.
In any case, in 1926 the military took over the republic, and freedom of speech was banned by the new fascist dictatorship. This military regime was to continue for almost 50 years before Cabo Verde finally achieved independence in 1975.
The man widely regarded as the main driver of independence is Amilcar Cabral, a Cabo Verdean political activist. Prior to independence, the devastation wrought by the droughts made many Cabo Verdeans believe they would be better off without the Portuguese. This stoked the first fires of unrest. Cabral was deported in 1955 but his activism was unblunted. A couple of years later he formed the PAIGC party, which sought independence for Portuguese Guinea and Cabo Verde.
At first the PAIGC tried to achieve their goals by peaceful means, using graffiti and strikes. But after the government responded by killing strikers, they adopted more violent means. Though outnumbered, the PAIGC won independence in 1975 by waging a brilliant guerilla war in Portuguese Guinea. Cabral never got to see it, assassinated by traitors within his own party two years before. The Secretary-General of the PAIGC, Aristides Pereira, became Cabo Verde’s first president, and the party was renamed the PAICV.
The PAICV is the country’s oldest party and ruled Cabo Verde as a one-party state for many years. Briefly, during the 1990s, the MpD party came to power on a platform of democratic social reform. Despite losing power to the PAICV in the first decade of the 21st Century, the MpD regained power in 2016. The current president is Jorge Carlos Fonseca.
Economy of Cabo Verde
Independence may have freed Cabo Verde’s people from colonial rule, but the country they inherited was no economic marvel; no exports, no maize and bean harvest, and virtually no employment. Huge quantities of food were imported to make up the shortfall in the harvest and many Cabo Verdeans left the islands to look for work in the USA. Most of those who remained were dependent on foreign aid to survive.
Since the 1970s, the economy has much improved. International aid and money sent home by emigrants still accounts for 25% of the economy, while over 13% of the population live in extreme poverty. Yet there are a couple of bright spots.
Tourism accounts for 25% of the country’s economy and has created a boom in the construction of vacation resorts and apartments. Over half a million tourists visit Cabo Verde each year. Tourism has helped put Cabo Verdeans back to work. Unemployment in 2016 stood at 12%, with many of those unemployed working part-time in the farming and fishing industry.
China has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Cabo Verde’s industries. Shipping, construction, fishing and power, among others, have received huge cash injections. Cabo Verde has some of the most underused fishing waters in the world, close to 200,000 cubic miles. These are fished only parochially at present, accounting for a mere 1.1% GDP. China hopes to capitalize on the abundant tuna and lobster in the waters off Cabo Verde, and has the fishing vessels to do it.
Cabo Verde has only about 154 square miles of land available for cultivation, and less than a tenth of that is irrigated. The topsoil is thin, and gets blown away. Not only that, Cabo Verde’s topography of hills and valleys makes it difficult to farm. To keep water on steep slopes, check dams are built from concrete or stone. Stone walls, called arretos, reduce soil erosion around hillsides. But gradually, the agricultural industry is rebuilding itself, today contributing 12% of GDP. While maize and beans make up 90% of produce, Cabo Verde also grows bananas and sugarcane for export. The latter goes into the native rum, called grogue, derived from the English grog. It’s sobering to reflect that 90% of Cabo Verde’s food is still imported.
If it’s a little bereft of soil, Cabo Verde does have two things in abundance from which it can make a ton of money: sun and wind. Renewable energy offers Cabo Verde its best chance of becoming economically self-sufficient. Currently it imports all its petroleum products, having no oil and gas reserves. Solar energy stations on Sal and Santiago are a start, at least in reducing this dependence on others for energy. In the last decade Cabo Verde has begun installing wind turbines. Placed on the most populated islands, these turbines already generate 18% of the country’s total energy needs.
Today Cabo Verde is showing signs of lifting itself out of the economic mire, despite running a high trade deficit. In 2007, the UN gave the country middle-income status, and in the same year it became a special partner with the EU.
Cabo Verdean Society
Cabo Verde’s 2010 census showed that there are 491,000 souls living on the island. Of these 70% are mixed race, 29% are black and 1% are white.
The majority of emigrants are men, which disrupts the nation’s gender balance. Because of this, the stability which derives from marriage and family is rarely seen in Cabo Verde. Men can father children from several women, often sending money to feed their children from abroad. The government is trying to crack down on a 2.1% population growth by promoting birth control. Half the population lives on Santiago Island, with 130,000 of these in the capital, Praia. Mindelo, São Vicente, is the second largest city in Cabo Verde with 70,500 inhabitants, according to the 2010 data.
Language of Cabo Verde
Cabo Verde’s native language is Crioulo. It evolved during the 300 year slave trade when slaves were not allowed to speak their tribal language. To communicate with each other, slaves cobbled together a vernacular based on Portuguese with African words mixed in.
Crioulo became a conduit through which Cabo Verdean poets and writers could express themselves with a feeling of freedom. Its vernacular is more intimate and soulful, expressive of loss and love. Crioulo today is mostly a spoken language, a dialect of the national language, Portuguese.
Religion in Cabo Verde
80% of Cabo Verdeans belong to the Catholic Church. This is hardly surprising considering the country’s Portuguese colonial origins. There is also a small Muslim community, served by a couple of mosques in Praia.
Few Jews remain there, although many had fled to the islands during the 15th Century to avoid prosecution from the Catholic state. There is a small Protestant minority (10%), and the Mormons can claim 5,000 members living on the islands.
Education in Cabo Verde
Cabo Verde offers free and compulsory education for its children up to the age of 11. Secondary school tuition must be paid for unless the parents are poor. The islands boast two main universities, the University of Cabo Verde and the Jean Piaget University. In total there are 10 higher education institutions.
Cabo Verde Culture
Cabo Verde has a rich culture, which mixes influences from Europe, South America and West Africa.
The native poetry and folk stories are expressed through mornas, which speak of a sad longing, or sodade. The longing can reflect a love to end loneliness, or a grief for children who have died or have been exiled. It might also mean a longing for the sea, which may bring love and riches, but also death through shipwreck and disease.
Eugénio Tavares in 1890 was the first to use the morna to combine poetry, music and dance to express sodade. In doing so, he rebelled against the classical Portuguese style, which was favored by Cabo Verde’s literary elite right up until the 1930s.
With the introduction of a new literary review, Claridosos in 1936, Cabo Verdeans began to show more defiance in their writing. Themes of poverty, famine and colonialism seeped into their literature to the chagrin of the country’s rulers. After independence, writers became even more fearless at describing the human condition of those living in Cabo Verde.
Despite this, music and dance have always dominated the cultural arts of Cabo Verde. The islands reverberate to the rich melodies and rhythms of Cabo Verde’s music. It seems like every other person on the islands is a musician and strums a guitar or plays the bongos. Cabo Verde’s music, like its Crioulo language, has a history steeped in European seafaring history and West African culture. Fast forward to today and you will discover fabulous music festivals on Santiago and São Vicente.
Mornas is Cabo Verde’s most traditional style of music. It is sung with a feeling of abandoned longing and accompanied by guitars and a sax.
There are other traditional music styles, if less common. Coladeira is a refined ballroom type of dance and song. Batuka is traditionally sung and danced by women of African descent. And Funaná is a frenzied party style of music accompanied by vaudeville accordion and enjoyed with several shots of grogue.
There are also stories of folklore which have been passed down through generations of Cabo Verdeans by word of mouth. The most popular of these are tales of Sancho, a misbehaving monkey who during Portuguese colonial rule lived in the mountains. When the day of freedom arrives, Sancho drags his oppressors out of their homes ‘horribly grimacing’.
There are also some incisive Cabo Verdean proverbs, including, ‘A man without a wife is a vase without flowers.’
Geology of Cabo Verde
Cabo Verde spewed out of a hot spot in the Earth’s crust, after lengthy volcanic activity spanning the Oligocene and Holocene periods.
There may even have once been an eleventh island. On the João Valente Shoals between Boa Vista and Maio, the sea floor is quite flat and only 46’ below sea level. This suggests a guyot, or seamount, which could have been formed by the gradual grinding away of the top of the island.
The 10 islands of Cabo Verde which did outstretch sea levels are prone to constant erosion. Those coastlines facing the prevailing north-easterlies incur the most wind erosion. But the torrential rains, when they come, carve the most from the landscape.
Cabo Verde’s wet season is between August and October. While it rarely rains even at this time of year, when it does, it buckets it down. Past tropical storms over the ages have revealed themselves through the topology of deep canyons and narrow gorges. River banks often burst, leading to sediments settling on the flooded plains. When dry, these become a haunting and dusty landscape.
Flora and Fauna
Its islands may be made from barren rock, but Cabo Verde is home to many species of flora and fauna which don’t exist anywhere else in the world.
A couple of indigenous trees that still prevail on the islands are the dragon tree and the tamarisk palm. Both species today are under threat.
Some indigenous plants have adapted to the semi-arid, windy conditions by developing small leaves. Many species have disappeared though, through poor farming techniques and the import of new plants from across the world. Many other indigenous trees and shrubs have been cleared to create much needed arable land.
Since independence, there has been massive reforesting. New tree species include pine, eucalyptus, oak and sweet chestnut. This has altered the landscape, but the many millions more tree roots are helping trap the scarce topsoil and keep it from being blown away.
There are also endangered species of birds on Cabo Verde too. These include the white Egyptian vulture, magnificent frigatebird and redbilled tropicbird. Less endangered is the grey-headed kingfisher with its distinctive orange, black and blue plumage and red beak.
Other Cabo Verde fauna include many species of bat, as well as green monkeys and geckos.
At least 639 species of fish and 17 species of whales and dolphins have been catalogued by marine biologists. The humpback whale, which breeds mostly in the West Indies, does so too to a lesser extent in Cabo Verde.
Despite a history of hunting marine turtles, Cabo Verde is home to five different species of these beautiful creatures. Next to the Florida Keys and Masirah Island in Oman, Cabo Verde has the largest population of loggerhead turtles in the world, up to 3,000 each year. Turtles have been hunted over the centuries because their meat is believed to contain special qualities. Turtle blood has been added to wine as a fortifier; the meat was once believed to cure leprosy. And turtle penises are still extolled by many as the perfect aphrodisiac to be washed down with the local grogue.
For a comprehensive list of all endemic species of Cabo Verde, please visit.
Building The Cabo Verde Islands, by R.A.S. Ramalho, published by Springer, 2011
Cabo Verde – Bradt Guide, by Murray Stewart, Aisling Irwin & Colum Wilson, Edition 7