Jews in Cape Verde and on the Guinea Coast

- - Visto 1635 veces


In Iberia the Reconquista movement was growing in its mission to recover their lands from the Muslim Moors who had first arrived in the 8th century. Jews may have first arrived far earlier during the time of the Phonecians and Roman. Nevertheless, Maghrebi Jews were key allies of the Moors and centuries-long residents of Iberia. Probably as early as 1480 one may find the beginnings of the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of Jews. It was however in 1492 the the Spanish Inquisition emerged in its fullest expression of intolerance, anti-Semitism. This social pathology quickly spread to neighboring Portugal where Portuguese Kings Joao II and especially Manuel I in 1496, determined to exile thousands of Jews to Sao Tome, Principe, and Cape Verde. The numbers expelled at this time were so great that the term Portuguese” almost implied those of Jewish origin. Those who were not expelled were converted by force or were even executed.

Despite the important role of Portuguese Jews in commerce, navigational sciences, and in the cartography of Africa, they faced riots, pogroms, and profound oppression during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions when they became termed Narannos (Moorish Jews) or Judeus Segredos (Secret Jews). This led to forced conversions and to Jews becoming known as Novos Cristaos (New Christians). It was not until 1768 that Portugal officially abolished the distinction between “Old” and “New” (i.e. Jewish) Christians.

Meanwhile, in order to begin to develop the Cape Verde Islands which had been discovered between 1455 and 1462 the Portuguese king granted a Royal Charter in 1466 to have the right” to trade in slaves for Portuguese residing in Cape Verde. This lucrative offer was soon to be rescinded and in 1472 slave trading rights were restricted to an exclusive royal monopoly. Thus from the very beginning of its history Cape Verde, and its diverse multi-cultural peoples were situated within the context of a slave society and the slave trade.


Despite their despised, exile, or degredado (convict) status, the small number of Europeans and Jews residing in Cape Verde were allowed to engage in trade, as long as they did not compete severely with the Portuguese trading monopolies. On the other hand if trading polices of the king were not sufficiently liberal then there was little incentive or reward to trade at all. Such was the eternal tension in Cape Verde between free Judeo-European traders in the islands and on the coast and the monopolistic tendancies of the Crown. To a certain extent, this structural rivalry remains right to the present. Some Cape Verdean commercial interests are focused on economic and political links to Portugal while others have made their ties to the politics and economies of coastal West Africa. Those who formally served the Portuguese ruling class came to be known as capitaos who were almost never Jews, and those free-lance traders were usually termed lan, cados who were often but not completely, of part Jewish origin.

At least by the early or mid 1600’s Cape Verdean lanados had trading centers all along the Senegambian coast as especially at such places as Goree (famed for the Crioula female slave traders or Senhoras) Joal, Portuguese Town in Gambia, and Ziguinchor in the Casamance as well as in Cacheu, Bissau, Bolama and further down the Upper Guinea coast including the Portuguese role in the construction of Al-Mina castle in modern Ghana, which also included a visit by the famed navigator Christopher Columbus.

The excellent research of Jean Boulegue has brought to light many fascinating details of the Portuguese Jewish presence in Senegambia and Guinea. For example, in 1517 Portuguese King Manuel I made reference to a group of lan, cados on the Senegambian coast; most of these were Portuguese Jews who had been deported. The term lancados, derived from the Portuguese verb “to throw out,” is related to their outcaste or fugitive role in Luso-African coastal commerce. Figuratively the term lancados means “outcastes.” They were usually fugitive Portuguese settlers including those exiled degredados following their conviction for some political “crime” as was the case for Jews following the full-scale Portuguese Inquisition in 1536, but Christian lanados were also known.

Jews from Cape Verde and Portugal were already known in Joal as early as 1591 and a synagogue was noted there in 1641. In 1606, in Portugal, also on the Senegalese coast there were 100 Portuguese following the “Laws of Moses.” Boulegue notes that in 1614 the Governor of Cape Verde recorded that the greatest number of lanados were Jews. In 1622 the Cape Verdean Governor, Dom Francisco de Mourra, reported to the Portuguese King that the Guinea coastal rivers were “full of Jews who were masters of the local regions and were quite independent of the Crown.” No doubt such information relating to “the Jewish danger” gave “justification” to the Portuguese to punish two wealthy members of the Jewish community around the synagogue in Rufisque, Senegal, for economic excesses in 1629. When a branch of the Portuguese Inquisition was established in Cape Verde in 1672, one result was the seizure of Jewish-owned merchandise. As the 17th century evolved, the Portuguese were steadily displaced from Senegambia, but they retained their bases in the Cape Verde islands and in Guinea at Cacheu, Bolama, Bissau, Buba, Geba, Mansoa. In the 16th and 17th centuries the term ganagoga was also used in the Upper Guinea/Cape Verde region to imply Jewish lanados, but in practice ganagoga also meant people who were able to speak many local African languages. Allied with them were the tangomaos who represented a still deeper connection to the African interior for the lanados. It seems most likely that the term tangomao is a corrupted form of targuman, which means “translator” in Arabic.

Muslims and Arabic-speakers were and are widespread in this area, especially the northern and interior regions where the tangomaos or lanados traded. Lanados were reputed for being resourceful and courageous, and having initiative. The term also connotes the mixed-race traders living in the trading communities in the islands or on the coast where they conducted trade. They often had African wives from the local groups and, as such, their children can be said to be the nucleus of the future Crioulo population. They were economic intermediaries or middlemen for the Portuguese regional trade.

Other references to Portuguese or Iberian Jews sometimes use the term Ladino to note this social group which constituted a portion of early migrants to the Cape Verde Islands. Some references use this term for the people and language of 16th and 17th century Sephardic Jews. from the Iberian peninsula. The term ladinos could also refer to baptized African slaves. In either case, the reference was often racist, and derogatory, and implied a lying, wandering, sneaky, and thieving group which was particularly untrustworthy. In certain social contexts it could be used affectionately to mean a scamp.

While seeking to convert or expel Jews from Portugal, the Crown in the 16th and 17th century allowed, or even encouraged, the lanados to settle along the Senegambian and Upper Guinea coast to trade for ivory, hides, slaves, gold, gum, wax, and amber while based in Cape Verde. Within the islands Jews would receive these same items for later resale to those traders who wanted to avoid the risks of coastal trade even if it meant higher costs in the islands. Jews in Cape Verde were also active in the trade of hides, urzella, and coffee.

Restrictions for the lanados prohibited them from selling iron bars, firearms, and navigational instruments, yet the lanados were clearly critical in the economic network which linked the Crown trade monopolies to the coast. Spanish and English smugglers using ties to the lan,cados were frequent violaters of these rather schizophrenic Portuguese prohibitions. Evidentally such trading enterprises were “too effective” so in 1687 the King of Portugal ruled that Cape Verdean Jews and lan,cados were officially forbidden to sell cloth currency or panos to foreigners. By producing panos with slave labor in farming and weaving, the Cape Verdean merchants undermined the royal economy. Yet this rivalry continued for centuries. Another short chapter of the history of Cape Verdean Jews appears in the 1820s when some of the very few Jews of Portugal were involved in the ULiberal Wars” in Portugal. These Jewish UMiguelistas” fled Santo Antao for refuge and exile. A final chapter of Jewish history in Cape Verde takes place in the 1850’s when Moroccan Jews arrived, especially in Boa Vista and Maio for the hide trade. In short, Jewish history plays a role in Cape Verde and Guinea that is far greater than expected or recognized.

Thus, as early as the later 15th century and through the 16th and even 17th centuries, a Jewish coastal presence was deeply established. This brought on an important synthesis which was responsible for playing a central role in the creation of Crioulo culture.

These Jews, both in the Cape Verde Islands and on the coast, were at the heart of the Afro-Portuguese merging which became Crioulo culture. The anti-Semitism of Spain and Portugal and the financial goals of the Portuguese Crown were constantly trying to restrict their success. The more successful, the more restrictions, but also the more deeply struck were the commerical and cultural roots of these people.

The lanados were themselves undergoing a transformation because of their intermediary and collaborative relation with African cultures. This contradictory nature at once set them apart, while embedding them in a multi-racial and multi-cultural identity that was being concurrently synthesized. In Cape Verde this was to become the essence of Crioulo culture. This process has its close parallels in East Africa with the commercial presence of Omani and Shirazi Muslims who were trading for ivory and slaves from the African interior. A trade language and an entire cultural group, now known as KiSwahili evolved in this other regional context. In the Senegambian case, French and British expansion finally reduced the presence of the lan,cados and their military body guard associates, the grumettas, to only Portuguese Guinea and to urban and coastal entrepots. Until the war of national liberation (1963-1974) in Guinea-Bissau, Crioulo people, culture, and language were still mainly in urban areas. During the war the use of Crioulo spread throughout the countryside and the former commercial lingua franca has become the national folk language for both Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau.

Clearly the Jewish and African slaver trader alliance was already of very great historical depth. This relationship was based upon several factors. On the one hand, the Portuguese Crown and its feitors and capitaos gained tremendous wealth from the slave trade and they did little to oppose it, however, they were pleased to have a social pariah group, like the lan,cados, be responsible for the front line operation of the trade. Meanwhile, the commercial skills, and higher level of literacy put the Jews in a strong position to have a critical role in an economy and society which otherwise shunned them. It should be made very clear that, by no means, were all Portuguese slavers Jewish, nor were all Portuguese involved in the slave trade; likewise the slave trade in the interior necessitated strategic African collaboration

A reference to a lanado expedition to the goldfields of Bambuk in 1785-88 referred to a Jewish ganagoga who married a daughter of the Muslim Imam of Futa Toro. In their heyday, the lanados owned and operated their own ships, river craft and canoes, as well as carrying firearms, daggers, and swords. Above all they were traders in wax, gold, hides, cloths, ivory, and cotton. However, by the late 18th century, a clearly defined lanado community in Senegambia was gone, but not really departed. Virtually all lanados had African wives and consorts and their subsequent generations continued to play a central and substantial role in the culturo-linguistic melange which constitutes Cape Verdean Crioulo culture. This was formed in the context of the merging and blending of Iberian, Moorish, Jewish, and African peoples.

Although there is no formal Jewish synagogue in Cape Verde today and there is no official rabbi, an elder named David Cohen was reported to lead other Jews in prayer in the 20th century. Historically there was a very definite Jewish presence amongst early Cape Verdeans. Jews first came to the island of Sao Tiago as refugees from religious persecution during the Inquisition. They were shunned by the wider society of the islands at that time and they were confined to a separate ghetto-like community in Praia. During the early nineteenth century, Jews also came to settle in Santo Antao where there are still traces of their influx in the name of the village of Sinagoga, located on the north coast between Riberia Grande and Janela, and in the Jewish cemetary at the town of Ponta da Sol. The family names of Cohn (priest) and Wahnon are prominent in Santo Antao. Other Jewish settlers such as the Ben Oliel family migrated to Boa Vista (q.v.), trading in salt, hides, and slaves. Jewish-derived surnames can be found amongst the inhabitants of the islands. Such names can include Auday, Benros, Ben David, Cohn, DaGama, and Seruya.

The family of Salomao Ben Oliel is still active today in trading activities of the Sociedade Luso-Africana, Ltd. This hyphenated company name suggests the long historical roots between two cultural regions. Jewish cemetaries or graves are in Brava (at Cova da Judeu), Boa Vista, Sao Tiago (in Praia and Cidade Velha), Santo Antao (especially at Sinagoga), Sao Nicolau (at Mindelo), Fogo, and probably in other islands as well. In the l9th and 20th century Praia cemetary, for example, there are about eight grave markers still extant with Hebrew inscriptions. These were originally outside of the cemetary walls, but as it expanded, the walls were relocated and thereby integrated these deceased Jews with their Crioulo cousins.

The Atlantic slave trade has also been known as the Triangle trade as it described a vast triangular shape linking West Africa with the Caribbean and then to New England and Europe and thence back to Africa. As a result, in the Caribbean, in Curacao, Surinam, and Jamaica, there were Jewish populations similar to, and linked with, those in West Africa. The case of Jamaica parallels that of the lanados since it was in its period of growth from the 1630s to 1670s. Eighteenth century Portuguese Jews in Jamaica include names such as Alvarez, Cardoso, Coreia, DaCosta, Gomes, Gonsalis, Gutteres, Lamego, Quisano, and Torres. In Newport, Rhode Island leading Yankee families gained great wealth from the slave trade including key members of the ruling class, however for the Rhode Island Jews who were also involved they were exclusively of Portuguese origins.


In conclusion it is apparent the the Jewish history of Cape Verde is both long and complex. Cape Verdean Jews have ceased their community of religious believers, but the dimension of Jewish cultural identity unquestionably survives. With several Jewish cemetaries still extant with Hebrew inscriptions it seems that this might be an ideal project of historic preservation for those concerned with Cape Verdean or Jewish history. The role of Jews in the slave trade is confirmed in Cape Verde, but it is essential to realize that they were only brokers within a system fully endorsed by the Portuguese kings who made the greatest fortunes of all. Moreover for those who engaged in finger-pointing in their analysis of the slave trade we must not forget that the was also active African participation and coordination as they sought to control this economy in Africa’s interior. The celebrated ancient African empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai were all built upon the slave export business as much as the plantation south in the USA is intimately linked to slave imports and as much as Samuel Slater’s famous industrial textile mill wove cheap cotton which had been cultivated, picked, and transported by slaves. This business has few heroes. For those who single out Jews in this sorry traffice in humans, it must also be recalled thatAfrican Muslims were earlier into the trade across the Sahara, down the Nile and in the Indian ocean; it is in those regions of Muslim Africa that this cruel trade still contines to the very present.

As is said, when you point your finger of blame you may have three other fingers aimed in your own direction. So, we’ve just seen, the racial, ethnic, and religious diversity found deep within Cape Verdean Crioulo culture has been so tightly interwoven at this point that the time for recriminations is long gone. This must be replaced with a celebration of these complex roots and relationships, but all in the context of building a new sense of national unity and collective pride.

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