The Republic of Cape Verde is an archipelago of ten islands in the Atlantic Ocean about 300 miles off the coast of Senegal. Cape Verdeans are predominantly Catholic because of over 500 years of Portuguese colonial rule. After Portugal abolished the Inquisition in 1821, and after Portugal and Great Britain signed a trade and navigation treaty in 1842, Sephardic Jews in Morocco chose to immigrate to Cape Verde to escape deteriorating economic conditions and pursue opportunities. The majority of these Jews were men, some of whom ended up playing important roles in Cape Verde’s economy and administration, and ended up marrying local Catholic women and assimilating into Cape Verdean culture. Hebrew and Portuguese inscriptions on the tombstones in the small Jewish cemeteries throughout the islands indicate that the majority came from the Moroccan cities of Tangier, Tetouan, Rabat, and Mogador (now Essaouira).
Uncovering the untold history of Cape Verde’s Jewish community
To honor the memory and to document the legacy of the many Sephardic families and their descendants in Cape Verde, from 2015 to 2017 WMF partenered with the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project to survey archives in Cape Verde, Portugal, Morocco, and Gibraltar, as well as to conduct interviews with descendants. Research on the history of Jews in Cape Verde and their impact on local culture is scattered and incomplete. This project,made possible with support from the David Berg Foundation, helped fill in the research gaps and create a clear picture of Jewish heritage in Cape Verde.
While over time the Sephardic Jews who came to Cape Verde assimilated with the larger Catholic population, this small but significant Sephardic community left an important cultural, economic, and political legacy in Cape Verde that has yet to be properly documented by scholars. In June 2017, the Cape Verdean government declared the Jewish cemeteries and other places of Jewish memory as “National Historical Patrimony”, a designation that will protect these historic sites—the only remains of a once-flourishing Jewish community—for years to come. The research completed as part of this project aims to preserve the memory of this important, relatively unknown piece of Jewish history and will serve as the basis for creating interpretive signage, tours about Jewish culture in Cape Verde, and a museum exhibition about this unique history.