A Place of Arrivals: Forging a nation’s Identity at Cidade Velha

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(Photo: D Webb)
The church discovered at Cidade Velha.

The island of Santiago lies at a great crossroads on the Atlantic slave-trade route. After ten years of archaeological investigation, Christopher Evans and Marie Louise Stig Sørensen reveal the extraordinary story of this tiny island, whose fortunes rose and fell with the slave trade.

First-time visitors to Cidade Velha can be forgiven for not recognising this pleasantly sleepy town as a former world entrepôt, a great crossroads on the Atlantic slave-trade route. That said, they would probably have not yet appreciated the silhouettes of the ruined buildings – particularly churches – amid the valley’s sugar-cane fields and palm groves; nor the remains of the 16th-century cathedral and fort on the promontories above; nor, for that matter, the harbour-front sea wall and its batteries.

The Cape Verde Islands lie close to the midpoint between the West African coast and Brazil (colonised from c.1530), and when found by the Portuguese in about 1460 – some 30 years before Columbus discovered America – they had no indigenous population and only sparse flora and fauna. It is somewhere everyone, including most plants and animals, arrived. Located on the south-western coast of the island of Santiago, Cidade Velha (formerly Ribeira Grande) was the colony’s capital until the 18th century. It had some 18 churches/chapels, plus both the bishopric seat for West Africa and the area’s first hospital. In the 16th century, its population exceeded 1,500.
While surviving maps and views present a well-appointed and orderly picture, it is essential to recognise that all this was underpinned by slavery, and that for a period the islands held the monopoly on the West African trade. Cidade Velha’s decline in the 18th century is attributed to the capital being moved to Praia, and the ravages wrought by pirates: when Darwin arrived in the early 19th century, aboard the Beagle, he was singularly disparaging.

The University of Cambridge was invited to Santiago in 2005 by an architectural historian, Konstantin Richter (then of the island’s University Jean Piaget), to work with the Government’s Ministério da Cultura to find and develop Cidade Velha’s archaeology (see CWA 70). Over the decade since that first contact, our fieldwork has taken four distinct phases. Largely using Cape Verdean students, the first two years saw small-scale trial investigations. We tested the building of a slaving company headquarters, the town’s Jesuit seminary, and the Misericórdia hospital complex, plus the house-plot of one of the town’s leading elders (in addition to occasional watching-brief recording of ongoing building works). The main directive, however, was to locate and investigate the Capela Nossa Senhora da Conceição. Thought to be Cidade Velha’s original church, and as such a candidate to be one of the earliest Christian churches in the Tropics, its trial-trench exposure succeeded beyond all expectations.

Read the full story in CWA 75, and see the excavations as they unfolded by clicking the link here.

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