The Jews of Cape Verde

(Editor’s note: The author is a country development officer with the Agency for International Development’s Office of Sahel and West African Affairs.)

The names Lopes, Mendes, Pereira, Cardozo and Levy sound like the ship’s manifest of the “St. Charles,” the ship that brought the first known Jews to New Amsterdam and began American Jewish history. But they are also the names of many people in the country of Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa.

Cape Verde consists of several islands. When discovered by the Portuguese in 1463 during the Age of Exploration, it was completely uninhabited. It was a Portuguese colony from 1463 to 1975 and was an important port of call, first during the slave trade and later for whaling vessels, especially those from New England.

Most of the people (370,000) are Afro-Portuguese, and many have definite Semitic features, probably inherited from Portuguese Jewish and/or Arab forebears as well as through contact with North Africa. Because of the poverty of the island, many people have emigrated and there are as many Cape Verdeans in the United States as in Cape Verde, mostly in southern New England.

…one Cape Verdean told me after I presented him with a copy of Stephen Birmingham’s book The Grandees, about America’s Sephardic elite, “My God, these are all our names!”

Most Cape Verdeans are Catholic. Although none seem to be practicing Jews, many are aware both of their own Jewish ancestry and the history of the Jewish presence in Cape Verde. Jews settled there very early, particularly on the island of Boa Vista. There were Jewish settlements on other islands, and a town on the island of Santo Antão is called Porto Sinagoga. Other Cape Verdeans trace their ancestry to Jews or Marranos who fled or were expelled from Portugal over the centuries. During the 19th and early 20th centuries additional Jews came to Cape Verde from Morocco.

Following Cape Verde’s independence from Portugal almost 20 years ago, more Cape Verdeans are taking an interest in their history and ancestry. Unfortunately, little has been written down, perhaps because of colonial Portuguese pressure. The only physical evidence of the Jewish presence seems to be the cemeteries with gravestones that often show the evolution of the community; inscriptions occur earliest in Hebrew, then in Portuguese, and finally with crosses. There is currently interest in restoring these cemeteries, both to help preserve an important part of the country’s history and perhaps to help encourage tourism.

While little has been written, fascinating oral accounts have been told to me by Cape Verdeans. One man said that he thought his father was Jewish. The evidence? “He and some other men would get together, cover their heads, and read a language that looked like Arabic. Also, he told me to be skeptical of what the priests told me.” Another remembers a family story of a great grandfather, a “New Christian” who was forced to become a priest. He mutilated his hand on a sewing machine so as to be unable to conduct the mass and escaped to Cape Verde. Finally, one man told me of relatives who were picked up by German submarines during World War II and deported.

These people and others want to know more about their background, have scholars come to Cape Verde to conduct their research and have exchanges with Israelis and American Jews.

These people are not looking to “return to their roots” or become Jewish. What they want, and what should be of interest to the world Jewish community, is to rediscover their past. This should be of special interest to American Jews. As one Cape Verdean told me after I presented him with a copy of Stephen Birmingham’s book The Grandees, about America’s Sephardic elite, “My God, these are all our names!”

(Editor’s note: Interested scholars should contact Jack Zeller, 301-681-5679.)