The Cape Verde Islands

Christopher Fyfe looks at how, in 1975 the Cape Verde Island gained their independence from the Portuguese after five hundred years of colonial administration that left them one of the poorest states in the world.

Three hundred and fifty miles out from the coast of Senegal, the Cape Verde islands rise suddenly from the sea like a range of scattered mountains. They lie within the west African climatic zone, but are swept by dry winds blowing steadily from the Sahara. So rainfall is irregular and there are long periods of drought. When no rain falls the vegetation on the steep mountain valleys is fed by underground water supplies. Meanwhile the harsh winds dry out the exposed topsoil, so that when rain does fall again much of it is washed into the sea.

Legend has it that Africans may have found their way across from the mainland to live on the islands. If so, they had died out by 1460 when Portuguese voyagers arrived and found them inhabited only by birds. They named them after Cape Verde, the extreme western tip of Senegal, and gave a name to each island, grouping them as Windward ('Barlavento') and Leeward ('Sotavento') – the former, Boa Vista, Sal, Sao Nicolau, Sao Vicente and Santo Antao, the latter Maio, Santiago, Fogo and Brava. From then on they were treated as possessions of the Portuguese Crown. Settlers went to the more fertile islands. Goats were left on the others to maintain a meat supply, feeding off; and ultimately reducing, the scanty vegetation.

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