Cape Verde has become synonymous with white sandy beaches, turquoise blue sea and carefree holidays. But it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, the archipelago didn’t look anything like the paradise it is today when it erupted in a huge volcanic explosion out of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa more than 50 million years ago.

The first record of the Cape Verde islands can be found in the works of Iberian geographer Pomponius Mela, who lived at the time of Roman emperor Claudius. Mela, who died in 43AD, called the clutter of islands ‘Gorgades’ in reference to a trio of Greek mythical sisters known as the Gorgons who were killed by Perseus.

The next known citing of Cape Verde came slightly later in a thesis by Roman author Pliny the Elder, who died in 79AD. Pliny wrote that the Gorgades were situated two days from ‘Hesperu Ceras’, known today as Cap-Vert, a Senegalese peninsula and the western-most part of Africa.

There was no known activity on the islands until 1456, when some of the Cape Verdean islands were discovered by Portuguese explorers led by Aloisio Cadamosto on behalf of Prince Henry the Navigator. Cadamosto is thought to have been on his way to the Gambia River when he happened upon the land mass which was surprisingly fertile and green, or verde – hence the eventual name.

After Henry’s death in 1640, his successor Prince Ferdinand of Portugal pressed on with his imperial gains, sending Diego Afonso to rediscover the lush and verdant islands off Africa. Afonso named the islands after the saint of each date of discovery: São Nicolau on December 6th 1461; Santa Lucia on December 13th 1461; Santo António on January 17th 1462 and São Vicente on January 22nd 1462.

Later that year Ribeira Grande was founded on Santiago, the first European settlement city in the Tropics. The town, now called Cidade Velha and a UNESCO World Heritage site, quickly expanded to become the capital city of Cape Verde with its own bishop and an impressive collection of churches. Sometime later Maio – named after the month of May in which it was discovered – was colonialised, as was Fogo and Boa Vista, which became a colony for lepers.

In the 16th century, the archipelago prospered from the transatlantic slave trade, with slaves being brought from Africa to the isolation of Cape Verde to work in inhuman conditions in the cotton fields, and carry out other hard labour. Due to Portugal's large role in the slave trade and the strategic position of the islands, Cape Verde became an important stop off point for ships and mariners involved in transatlantic slave transportation.

By the middle of the 16th century the islands had grown prosperous – but at a price. Cape Verde’s new found wealth brought the islands unwanted attention from pirates who came to sack the towns. One such impostor was Sir Francis Drake, who attached Santiago with more than 1000 men in 1585 and ordered for Ribeira Grande to be burned down when no treasure was found. The city came under attack again in 1712 by an army of looters led by French pirate Jacques Cassart. The city subsequently went into decline, and was usurped by Praia, which became the capital in 1770.

The decline of the slave trade, which was finally abolished in 1876, coupled with increasingly hard weather conditions, brought chaos to the islands. The archipelago was hit by a severe drought in 1747, the likes of which it has unfortunately experienced many times since. The situation was made worse by deforestation and overgrazing, which had destroyed any kind of moisture that is normally provided through ground vegetation.

There were three major droughts between the 18th and 19th century, which resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 people – or 40 per cent of the population - through starvation. At no point did the Portuguese administration step in to help.

With its population dwindling through starvation and no help on the horizon, many Cape Verdeans started to emigrate. Throngs of men left the shores on whaling boats from Massachusetts and Rhode Island in America during the 19th century. And perhaps not surprisingly, the population in the Cape Verdean communities on the New England coast of America is larger today than the entire population on Cape Verde itself.

The advent of the ocean liner turned the fortunes of Cape Verde around again at the end of the 19th century when it became a valuable stopover for Atlantic crossings. Ships and liners transporting coal, water and livestock would stop at Mindelo’s harbour, on the island of Sao Vincente, to refuel. Mindelo had become an important commercial centre thanks to the British who had developed the town they cruelly called the ‘cinder heap’ as a storage depot for coal bound for America. However, when the British coal industry went into decline in the 1980s the Cape Verdean economy suffered yet another blow.

But all was not lost. Fortunately for the prosperity of Cape Verde, the islands had by then secured their own airport, courtesy of the Italians. Built in 1939 near the town of Espargos, on the island of Sal, the airport was primarily used as a fueling stop-over for flights from Rome to South America. It then became popular as a refueling stop for South African Airways during a time when the airline was declined landing rights from most African nations due to a boycott of apartheid.

The airport – which is called Amilcar Cabral International Airport – now offers services to and from a host of countries including direct flights to America, Portugal and England. It has its own national airline TAVC Cabo Verde Airlines.

In 1951 Portugal changed Cape Verde’s status from a colony to overseas province in an attempt to hold onto the archipelago and prevent it from falling into the arms of a growing nationalist movement. The move fell on deaf ears, and five years later, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissauans and Cape Verde (PAIGC) was formed. The party demanded improvement in economic, social and political conditions in Cape Verde and Portuguese Guinea and mounted an armed rebellion against Portugal in 1961.

The April 1974 revolution in Portugal saw the PAIGC becoming an active political movement in Cape Verde, and the following year, the PAIGC and Portugal signed an agreement providing for a transitional government comprising of Portuguese and Cape Verdeans. Several months later, on July 5 1975, Cape Verde finally gained independence, and Republica Cabo Verde was born.

The first president was Aristides Pereira, Secretary-General of the PAIGC, with Pedro Pires as his prime minister. The first constitution was passed on September 5th 1980, and less than six months later, on January 20th 1981, the PAIGC was changed to the African Party for the Independence of the Cape Verde Islands (PAICV).

The new government has been confronted with what might at times have felt like an insurmountable task: the public treasury was empty, continuous droughts had left the land barren and dry, and the number of unemployed people had risen to 60%. But with the support of development aid organizations, the country has turned its fortunes around once again.

In 2007 Cape Verde was classified as a developing country, with tourism being one of the most important sources of income for the islands. The archipelago was recently named as one of the travel guide Lonely Planet’s top ten destinations for 2011 and tourists visiting the islands are expected to reach 1,000,000 by 2015.
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