I still remember the first time that I heard the words “Cape Verdean.” It was 1994 and my sister was a sophomore at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I was traveling to Boston to visit her and to tour a few colleges in the area. She wanted to introduce me to her boyfriend at the time (now husband). She told me that he is from New Bedford, Massachusetts and his family is “Cape Verdean.” But what does that mean?
Cape Verde is a chain of ten islands (archipelago) on the West Coast of Africa. It is located 300 miles off of the coast of Senegal and in 1462, Portuguese settlers arrived at Santiago, the largest island. The island was completely green so they named it Cape Verdé, which means “the green cape” (which is ironic because at times the islands can suffer from extreme drought). They founded the first settlement there called Ribeira Grande. However, after a French attack in 1712, the town declined in importance relative to nearby Praia, which became the capital in 1770.
Up until the 19th century, the archipelago prospered from the Atlantic slave trade, but the impending decline and eventual abolishment of slavery resulted in an economic crisis. Cape Verde’s early prosperity slowly vanished, but the islands’ position amidst mid-Atlantic shipping lanes made Cape Verde an ideal location for re-supplying ships. With few natural resources on the islands and inadequate sustainable investment from the Portuguese, the citizens grew increasingly discontented with the colonial masters, who refused to provide assistance.
Until about 1800, New Bedford, Massachusetts and its surrounding communities were largely populated by Protestants of English, Scottish, and Welsh origin. Later in that century, immigrants from Cape Verde began arriving in New Bedford and the surrounding area, attracted by jobs in the whaling industry. New Bedford dominated the whaling industry and from 1846 to 1851, the trade averaged some 638 vessels, with the majority coming from New Bedford. As a result of its control over whaling products that were used widely throughout the world (most importantly whale oil), New Bedford became one of the richest per capita cities in the world. As the Portuguese community began to increase, they established the first Portuguese parish in the city, St. John the Baptist (1871).
I spoke with Ann Marie Lopes, former director of Tourism and Marketing for New Bedford. She is of Cape Verdean descent and said: “We have a very close-knit community here and we know each other without knowing each other.” She told me a story of a time that she was in Washington, D.C and someone walked up to her and asked if she was from Cape Verde and then proceeded to go into detail about what family she came from and what Island her family was from. “The first question is usually ‘Who are you & what is your last name?’ ” she explained. Generations have passed on the language – Creole, their traditions and culture through organizations that date back well before the 1930’s and World War II. Many Cape Verdeans from New Bedford and neighboring Pawtucket & East Providence, Rhode Island served in the nation’s armed services.
“It is worth noting that during wartime, just like in the time of whaling it was the Cape Verdean women that made sure the men had homes to come back to when they were away,” Mrs. Lopes stated. “The women were very important in the establishment and development of the community.” They even established their own C.V. Women’s Social Club in 1937. At the time, there were men that doubted that they could organize their own club and called them “coo-coo.” To this day the name has stuck and the Coo-Coo Club is celebrating 80 years in existence.
While many Cape Verdeans voluntarily migrated to the United States, due to the conditions of the islands not improving and a war for independence from Portugal was brewing, in 1956, Amílcar Cabral and a group of fellow Cape Verdeans and Guineans organized (in Portuguese Guinea) the clandestine African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). By 1972, the PAIGC controlled much of Portuguese Guinea despite the presence of the Portuguese troops, but the organization did not attempt to disrupt Portuguese control in Cape Verde. Portuguese Guinea declared independence in 1973 and was granted independence in 1974. The independence movement — originally led by Amílcar Cabral, who was assassinated in 1973, culminated in independence for the Cape Verde archipelago on July 5th,1975. Cape Verde was the last African nation to gain independence.
The Cape Verdean link to Massachusetts is strong and Cape Verdeans have a lot of pride in their heritage. Since 1972, the Cape Verdean Recognition committee has their annual parade the first week of July and people from all over the world come back to attend. This year will mark the 45th anniversary. Although many American-born Cape Verdeans have never been to their native islands they still feel a deep connection to their community. Because of this, New Bedford, Massachusetts is often referred to as the “11th Island.”
In 1995, I was accepted and chose to attend Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. There I would learn a lot more about Cape Verdean culture and people as many of my classmates were Cape Verdean and some were from New Bedford as well. I joined the Cape Verdean Students association and in 1998 we went on a missionary trip to Cape Verde and I got to see the islands first hand. We worked with the Red Cross to rebuild and paint a recreation center at an orphanage in Praia. We donated clothes and shoes to the children there. We also got to tour the island and hang out on Tarrafal beach in Santiago. We sifted through the black sand beaches and finally toured Fortaleza Real de San Felipe & the old city of Cidade Velha, the historic center of Ribeira Grande, the first Portuguese settlement. My time in both Massachusetts and on the islands have rounded out my Cape Verdean education and I can attest that whether you go for culture or travel for the history, your time amongst the people will always be cherished.