Census Ribeira Grande, 2016
Blog Post

Santo Antao and Boa Vista Yield Promising Data on Cape Verde Jews

Census Ribeira Grande, 2016

World Monuments Fund is supporting the documentation of the history of Sephardic families and their descendants in Cape Verde, through support from the David Berg Foundation, and in partnership with the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project. This is the second blog post about the research being conducted by project historian Angela Sofia Benoliel Coutinho, herself a Cape Verdean Jewish descendant, in the UK, Gibraltar, and Cape Verde, where she is reviewing archival collections and interviewing descendants and other knowledgeable people about the Jews of Cape Verde.


On my return trip to the National Archives of Cape Verde (ANCV) in the capital city of Praia in July and August of 2016, I consulted the rich, original documentation pertaining to the nineteenth-century presence of Jewish merchants from Morocco and Gibraltar who had settled in Santo Antao and Boa Vista, the islands with the largest number of Jews in Cape Verde, then a Portuguese colony.

Founded in 1988, the National Archives of Cape Verde is the repository of documentation from all of the towns and islands in the archipelago of Cape Verde. Given staff and financial constraints, the ANCV had until recently been unable to organize and classify the documents pertaining to these two islands.

Thanks to emergency financial assistance provided by the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project Inc., however, a dedicated team at the ANCV had accelerated the classification and organization of the documents for Santo Antao and Boa Vista over the past year, which allowed me to gain access at last to the material.  

Legal proceedings in the Court of Ribeira Grande in Santo Antao seemed to yield the most valuable information. I identified 154 cases which illustrated that the Jewish community comprised approximately 50 individuals in the second half of the nineteenth century. An analysis of this original documentation is likely to shed light on the extent and nature of the Jewish community’s commercial activities and the impact they had on the economy of the entire archipelago. It will also indicate the commercial relationships they forged among each other and with Cape Verdeans, a variety of Portuguese Catholics of different social classes, and with the colonial authorities.

The documentation may also illustrate aspects of familial, social, and cultural life of the members of this community and their linkages with Moroccan and Gibraltarian Jewish merchants in other Portuguese territories such as Lisbon, the Algarve, the Azores, Angola, Mozambique, Sao Tome e Principe, and Brazil. This new data will enrich and complement research I previously conducted in Portugal, Gibraltar, and London.

It’s not surprising that this community of Jewish merchants, residing in predominantly agricultural islands—which were sparsely populated and whose inhabitants had limited purchasing power—was drawn to monoculture for export. For example, in the island of Santo Antao, the most profitable export product was coffee, whose price rose in the international market during the second half of the nineteenth century. We can also deduce that they did business with fellow Jewish coffee exporters in other agricultural islands such as Santiago, Fogo, Sao Nicolau, and with those who lived in islands that had international ports such as Sao Vicente, Santiago, and Brava, to facilitate coffee exports. Since many of these Cape Verdean-based traders traveled to Lisbon approximately once a year, it is likely they had relationships with a larger network of Moroccan and Gibraltarian Jews in other Portuguese speaking African and trans-Atlantic territories which we will examine.



Also by this author: Morocco and Gibraltar: Keys to Understanding Cape Verde's Jewish Heritage