Jews in Cape Verde

Louise Werlin

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 Cape Verde Islands, off the west coast of Africa.

When the islands were "discovered" by the Portuguese in 1463 during the Age of Exploration they were uninhabited. Cape Verde 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 (400,000) are Afro-Portuguese, and many have definite Semitic features, probably inherited from Portuguese Jewish and/or Arab forbearers as well as through contact with North Africa. Although it is well accepted that many of the original settlers were Jews or "New Christians" and that people of Jewish origin played an important role in Cape Verde's Development, the proportion of Jews in the population is not known. There did not seem to be a special category for Jews (who were often "New Christians"). They were either categorized as part of the "white" population ("blancos") or sometimes classed with other "oriental" people. At one point, the term "Moreno" was used to describe Moors and Jews. Cape Verdeans of Jewish origin, though often aware of their roots, are part of the overall "Kriolu" culture. (1) Cape Verde's official language is Portuguese, but most people speak a criole which is close to the "Papiamento" of Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles. The culture is creole (in many ways as similar to that of the Caribbean as it is to Africa), with the main elements Portuguese and West African. Because of the poverty of the islands, which suffer from chronic drought, many people have emigrated. Today, there are as many Cape Verdeans in the United States as in Cape Verde, mostly in southern New England.

Most of the people in Cape Verde are Catholic. Although there is no organized Jewish community and probably no practicing Jews, there is no question that there was an important Jewish presence in Cape Verde. Jews settled in Cape Verde very early. There were Jewish settlements on several islands, and a town on the island of Santo Antao is called Porto Sinagoga. The Portuguese followed a policy of sending convicts and exiles (degregados) to Cape Verde. Some of these degregados eventually dominated Portugal's West Africa coastal trade. Many were of Jewish origin, and a number were settled on the island of Santo Antao after 1548 (1). Other Cape Verdeans trace their ancestry to Jews or Maranos who fled or were expelled from Portugal over the centuries. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century additional Jews came to Cape Verde from Morocco.

Considerably more is known about the Cape Verdeans of Moroccan Jewish ancestry than those of Portuguese origin. Most came from the Moroccan cities of Tangier, Rabat and Mogador (now Essaouira) to trade in hides and pelts or engage in other commercial activity. The majority of these immigrants from Morocco and Gibraltar were single men, and intermarriage with the local Catholic, mulatto, population was widespread. A number of Cape Verdeans remember their grandparents and their practice of Jewish customs. The most prominent Cape Verdean with this ancestry is the Prime Minister, Carlos Alberto Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga, who is the greatgrandson of Jews who emigrated from Gibraltar in the mid-19th century. Recently his brother, Jose Tomas Veiga, the Foreign Minister, visited Israel, with whom Cape Verde has opened relations. One of the officials in his party was the Director of the Research Institute, Joao Levy, also of Moroccan ancestry. (2)

Following Cape Verde's independence from Portugal almost twenty years ago, more Cape Verdeans are taking an interest in their history and ancestry. Documentation concerning the development of Cape Verdean cultural identity was not an interest of colonial aurthorities. The only physical evidence of the Jewish presence seem to be the cemeteries with gravestones (mainly of the Moroccan born Jews) that often show the evolution of the community-inscriptions first in Hebrew, then in Portuguese, 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, there are fascinating oral accounts. Several Cape Verdeans of Moroccan ancestry told writer Carol Castiel of their remembrances of their grandparents, including their Jewish burial services. Several Cape Verdeans (of Portuguese background) recounted family stories to me. One 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 research nd 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".

(1) Richard Lobban Jr. "Cape Verde-Crioulo Colony to Independent Nation", Westview Press, 1995, pp 55-73.

(2) Carol Castiel "Cape Verde Hosted Jews", "Washington Jewish Week", January, 1995.

Note: For further information, you may contact Louise Werlin or Carol Castiel of Washington D.C. by leaving a message at

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