By Jheri St. James

Constellation of Harbor Ships - Slave Trade Days

You have crossed the seas
in pursuit of whales
on those trips to America
from where ships sometimes never return

You have calloused hands
from pulling in the sheets
on those tiny sloops on the high seas;

You have survived horrible hours of anxiety
fighting against the storms;
You are tired and weary of the sea
Under the infernal heat of the furnaces
you fed the boilers of the steamships with coal,
in peacetime
in wartime
And you have loved with the sensual impulse of
women in foreign lands*

*   *   *

The ten-island Republic of Cape Verde is located on an archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean, 310 miles off the western coast of Africa. Uninhabited when the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century, the country is named after Cap Vert (meaning Green Cape) in Senegal, the westernmost point of continental Africa. Due to this strategic location, Cape Verde became important as watering station, sugar cane plantation site, and later a major hub of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

In 1975 Cape Verde achieved independence from Portugal, with the help of the African Party for the Independence of Guindea-Bissau and Cape Verde, and the people’s revolutionary armed forces of Cuba. This armed struggle for independence by essentially outside entities was not popular amongst Cape Verdeans, particularly those living in the United States, who viewed the effort as other countries moving to occupy and control their homeland. As a result, many have vowed to never return to their home country. Today, more Cape Verdeans live abroad than in Cape Verde itself.

*   *   *

One foreign visitor to Cape Verde was Charles Darwin during his five-year voyage of the Beagle, which sailed out of Plymouth, England harbor on 27 December 1831. The ship arrived at Cape Verde Islands on 16 January, and Darwin gave a vivid description of the geology, climate, zoology and botany in the first chapter of his book, The Voyage of the Beagle. He noted that the isolation of the islands results in a large number of endemic species including Alexander’s Swift, Raso Lark, Cape Verde Warbler and Iago Sparrow; also reptiles including the Cape Verde Giant Gecko.

“I thank God I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I here a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings when I heard the most pitiable moans and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured . . . And these deeds are done and palliated by men who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that His Will be done on earth. It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty . . .”

*   *   *

Mr. Paul P. Pometto, II, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Praia, Cape Verde in early 2007, took time to delegate the sending of a classified diplomatic pouch of soil from Cape Verde to Luisa H. Veiga in Washington, D.C. Paul shipped samples from three different volunteers from the islands of 1) Santiago (home of the capital city, Praia), 2) Fogo and 3) Maio. Cidade Velha, a city on Santiago island, the largest of the three islands, was a vital center of commerce between Europe, Africa and America, especially in the slave trade, which, known then as Ribeira Grande was known as the second richest city in the Portuguese realm. Here is a picture of that site (1).

Fogo Island (2) looks like this:

And here is a shot of Maio (3):

(Remember what this picture looks like…)

These days, trade is still very active in this area, but trade of another kind. Says Paul: “One of our Embassy’s top priorities (along with strengthening democratic institutions and fighting poverty) is providing military assistance to Cape Verdeans in their attempt to better patrol their waters and discourage these narco-traffickers from using uninhabited coastlines of Cape Verde for their businesses.” There was a breakdown in communication as to who collected from which island, but Common Ground 191 wants to thank not only Paul, but also Toni, Nicolau and Indira, the actual collectors for soil and these great photos. Paul has since gone on to become a student in the naval war college in the U.S.

The L.A. Times wrote an article on this topic in March of 2007. “Madrid; A landmark shift in trafficking routes has transformed West Africa into a hub for cocaine smuggled from South America to a booming European market, anti-drug officials on three continents say,” was the headline.

Ship Constellation - Porto Grande, Mindelo, Sao Vicente Island

*   *   *

Another island, Boa Vista, is home to one of the few turtle beaches left in the archipelago, now threatened by the building of a new international airport and subsequent tourism. Ironically, the biggest threat comes from the unspoiled coastline itself. With miles of beautiful, uninhabited beaches, the island will become a magnet for tourists. And because of poor soils and regular droughts, only 10 percent of Cape Verde’s land is suitable for agriculture, making the travel industry a viable source of revenue. The number of tourists went from 67,000 in 2000 to 178,000 in 2004.

Hunting turtles in Cape Verde dates back as far as the 15th century when European explorers reported that leprosy was being treated locally by a diet of turtle meat and by rubbing the affected areas with turtle blood. Even today, villagers occasionally hunt turtles to feed their families. But, as marine turtles are among the most endangered species on the planet, environmental groups are doing their best to protect the nesting beach from further poaching.

Cape Verde currently has three wetland sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. This is an intergovernmental treaty, which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. University of Exeter scientists are studying the migratory patterns of the loggerhead turtles, conducting research on how to best save this endangered species. From fishermen, tourism and other threats. Given the range that these reptiles can cover, an international cooperative effort in seven African states is needed to create a strategy that would protect them,” said Dr. Michael Coyne, of Duke University.

Loggerhead turtle with satellite tracker attached leaving Ervatao beach, Cape Verde, West Africa.
Being tracked from the stars…

*   *   *

On those poor islands of ours
you the toiler of the soil
digging furrows for the water of fertile streams;
scraping at the dry earth
in those barren regions
where the rain seldom falls,
where the drought is a terrible curse
and a tragic scene of famine!*

*   *   *

Paul sent an interesting variety of pictures and papers with the soil of Cape Verde, with topics as far-ranging as the islands themselves: A couple of turtle issue papers; a travel journal by Jeremy Jowell from, and an article about the Mars rover crew naming a promontory near Lake Victoria on Mars ‘Cape Verde’.

Lake Victoria on Mars is the equivalent of eight football fields placed end to end. “We’re currently about 164 feet from the rim of Victoria crater,” said Streve Squyres, lead Mars Exploration Rover scientist from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The primary purpose of the Mars rover’s sensing is to select the location for a big panoramic camera picture-taking session, Squyres explained. “I expect that the site we select will be the tip of Cape Verde . . . but we’ll see.”

“The real promise that craters give us is that they allow us to view into the third dimension,” said David Des Marais, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. “So much of the landscape we have seen has been a flat expanse that we have driven across.”

Cape Verde on Mars (…remember the other picture of Cape Verde on earth?)

You bring to your dances
your melancholy
deep inside of your gaiety
when you play the mornas
with the sad tones of your guitar
or when you embrace the loving women in your arms
to the sound of the creole music...

The morna...
seems like the echo in your soul
of the voice of the sea
and of the nostalgia for faraway lands
to which the sea is always inviting you,
the echo
of the sound of the long desired rain
the echo
of the voice deep within all of us
of the voice of our silent tragedy!

The Morna...
takes from you and from the things around us
the expression of our humbleness
the passive expression of our drama,
of our revolt,
of our silent melancholic revolt! . . .*

Here is a NASA satellite image of Cape Verde. It resembles a constellation in the heavens. ‘Constellation’ has four parts to its definition:
1. a) a group of stars in the sky, usually named after some object, animal, or mythological being that it supposedly resembles or suggests; b) the area of the sky assigned to such a group of stars; currently the sky is considered to have 88 constellations;
2 any brilliant cluster, gathering, or collection;
3. Astrol: the grouping of celestial bodies at any particular time, especially at a person’s birth.
4. Psychol: a group of related thoughts or feelings regarded as clustered about one central idea.

Human beings, including those on Cape Verde, are like stars in the sky, with light at the center of their cells, regardless of history or geography. The Cape Verde/Mars projects a red light that may shine on the satellites carried by the turtles on earth, who hopefully will not become mythological beings. The area of the earth assigned to Cape Verde has many shameful memories of past and current crimes and injustices; simultaneously harboring the clean, clear waters that tourists covet. The brilliant clustering, gathering and collection of the soil of Cape Verde came about because of the actions of four good-hearted people. And this journal entry is a group of related thoughts and feelings centered about one central idea—the soil of Cape Verde and its inclusion in the Common Ground 191 conceptual art project, one aspect of America that is very much open for Cape Verde.

America is finished for you
she closed her doors to your expansion!

These adventures across the oceans
no longer exist...
they only live
in the tales you recount of your past,
with joyful laughter
that will never hide
melancholy. . .*

Sea salt field at Maio island  
  The hinterland of Santo Antão island
  Forte de S.Filipe. Cidade Velha
The town of Mindelo at São Vicente island    

*The poem quoted here is called BROTHER and was written by Jorge Barbosa, after the U.S. Government enacted restrictive immigration laws of 1922. Jorge Vera-Cruz Barbosa was a Cape Verdean poet and writer. He collaborated in various reviews and Portuguese and Cape Verdean journals. A publication of Arquipelago in 1935 marked the beginning of Capeverdean poetry, memorializing social, political and constitutional themes. Jorge Barbosa was born on the 25th day of May 1902 in the city of Praia, on the island of Sao Tiago and died in Cova de Piedade, in Lisbon, Portugal, on the 6th of January 1971. This translation was by the author's son, Jorge Pedro Barbosa, and Dr. Michael K. H. Platzer.

Photo Credits:
Darwin's Beagle journey -

Picture of Cape Verde on Mars:




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