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Cape Verde - History

Cape Verde History

The history of Cape Verde is dominated by three overriding facts: there were no people of any sort on the islands when the Portuguese first arrived; the environment has become increasingly fragile over the centuries, largely due to the impact of people and overgrazing; and it's farther from the African mainland and closer to the Americas than any other African country. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that Cape Verde developed along lines somewhat different from the rest of Africa.

When Portuguese mariners first landed in Cape Verde in 1456, the islands were barren of people but not of vegetation. Seeing the islands today, you find it hard to imagine that they were once sufficiently verde (green) to entice the Portuguese to return six years later to the island of São Tiago to found Ribeira Grande (now Cidade Velha). The Portuguese soon brought slaves from the West African coast to do the hard labour. The islands also became a convenient base for ships transporting slaves to Europe and the Americas.

The islands' prosperity brought them unwanted attention in the form of a sacking at the hands of England's Sir Francis Drake in 1586. Cape Verde remained in Portuguese hands and continued to prosper, but in 1747 the islands were hit with the first of the many droughts that have plagued them ever since. The situation was made worse by deforestation and overgrazing, which destroyed the ground vegetation that provided moisture. Three major droughts in the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in well over 100,000 people starving to death. The Portuguese government sent almost no relief during any of the droughts. The 19th-century decline of the lucrative slave trade was another blow to the country's economy. Cape Verde's colonial heyday was over.

It was then, in 1832, that Charles Darwin passed by, finding dry and barren islands. It was also around this time that Cape Verdeans started emigrating to New England. This was a popular destination because of the whales that abounded in the waters around Cape Verde, and as early as 1810 whaling ships from Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the US recruited crews from the islands of Brava and Fogo.

At the end of the 19th century, with the advent of the ocean liner, the islands' position astride Atlantic shipping lanes made Cape Verde an ideal locale for resupplying ships with fuel (imported coal), water and livestock. Still, the droughts continued and the Portuguese government did nothing. Many more thousands died of starvation during the first half of the 20th century.

Although the Cape Verdeans were treated badly by their colonial masters, they fared slightly better than Africans in other Portuguese colonies because of their lighter skin. A small minority received an education; Cape Verde was the first Portuguese colony to have a school for higher education. By the time of independence, a quarter of the population could read, compared to 5% in Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau).

This largesse ultimately backfired on the Portuguese, however, as literate Cape Verdeans became aware of the pressures for independence building on the mainland and started a joint movement for independence with the natives of Guinea-Bissau. But the Portuguese dictator Salazar wasn't about to give up his colonies as easily as the British and French had given up theirs. Consequently, from the early 1960s, the people of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau fought one of the longest African liberation wars.

In 1975, Cape Verde finally gained independence from Portugal. And still the droughts continued, one lasting nearly 20 years. Despite kinder weather and doubled crop yields in the mid to late 1980s, an extreme and lengthy drought in the 1990s necessitated emergency food aid from abroad. In 1991 the first-ever multiparty elections were held, and the newly formed party Movimento para a Democracia (MPD) won 70% of the vote and formed a new government under the leadership of Dr Carlos Veiga, prime minister, and António Monteiro, president. Both were returned in elections the following year, the first held under the country's new constitution.

There were major setbacks in the 1990s - the slow economic progress in the wake of the drought led to a splintering of the MPD, and one defector established a rival party. However, the MPD prevailed in parliamentary elections in 1995. Crippling drought wiped out over 80% of the islands' grain crops in 1997. The following year, Prime Minister Veiga survived a plane crash in which one of his bodyguards was killed.

Recent presidential and parliamentary elections have seen a new prime minister and president voted in, with the power base once again shifting back to the left. The former ruling African Independence Party, the PAICV, has resumed power.

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