Most Americans have never heard of Cape Verde. The archipelago of volcanic islands 350 miles off the coast of West Africa seldom breaks news in the United States unless one is addicted to the weather channel—hurricanes that strike the East or Gulf Coasts or the Caribbean often start as tropical depressions around the island nation.
Richard Lobban Jr., who alongside the Atlantic Council’s J. Peter Pham is the foremost Africanist in the United States, has called my attention to efforts within Cape Verde to restore and preserve its Jewish heritage. Jews may have arrived in Cape Verde as early as the 16th century as they fled religious persecution on the Iberian Peninsula. But these Jews—often masquerading as Christians or actual converts—assimilated into Verdean society. In the 19th century, however, Cape Verde absorbed a wave of Moroccan Jewish emigrants who migrated against the backdrop of Moroccan economic stagnation and opportunities on Cape Verde, which was an important trans-Atlantic trading hub. While many were Moroccan, a number also traveled to the islands on British passports, having acquired them because of their substantial trade with Gibraltar. Carlos Alberto Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga, who became the island nation’s first democratically elected prime minister in 1991, is of Jewish descent.
Wherever I travel, I try to meet the Jewish community. I’ve never been to Cape Verde, although I’ve sailed to within a few dozen miles of its coast. My first published pieces were nearly twenty years ago in the Forward’s former “Letter from” series, exploring the Jewish communities I met in both Iran and Tajikistan. Over the years, I’ve also found myself among Jews in Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, and Uzbekistan, and explored the remnants of Jewish quarters in Baghdad, Erbil, and Sulaymani. One day, I hope to add Cape Verde to the list.
So, what happened to the Cape Verdean Jews? Many of the nineteenth Jewish migrants were male, and married local women who were Catholic. As a result, the community again assimilated away. Here, of course, there is a lesson about the costs that intermarriage can exert on the viability of Jewish communities. Today, no practicing Jews permanently reside on Cape Verde.
Kudos to Cape Verde—and, specifically, the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project (from which I learned much of the history I repeat here)–which has worked to restore the country’s Jewish cemeteries (many with Portuguese and Hebrew tombstone inscriptions), encourage Jewish-interest tourism to Cape Verde, and educate Cape Verdeans about Jewish contributions to the island nation. It is bittersweet, however, that in yet one more country, memories of the community are relegated to museums and heritage sites, and history is no longer being made on a daily basis.