Home Cape Verde History Foto's MyBooks Books Maps/Cartography Postcards Familie-foto's Heuijerjans Links Contact
Source: University of Michigan Making of America: Charles W. Thomas, New York, 1860

Charles W. Thomas

Adventures and observations on the west coast of Africa, and its islands. Historical and descriptive sketches of Madeira, Canary, Biafra, and Cape Verd islands; their climates, inhabitants, and productions. Accounts of places, peoples, customs, trade, missionary operations, etc., etc., on that part of the African coast lying between Tangier, Morocco, and Benguela, by Rev. Chas. W. Thomas ... With illustrations from original drawings.


The Cape Verd Islands-Origin-Droughts-Population —Climate —Mayo -Boavista -- Sal - Fuego - San Vincent - Porto Grande-American Graveyard —San Antonio-Brava —St. Jago-Porto Praya-Untold Incidents-Homeward Bound-The U. S. Steamer Jamestown —Home Again-Adieu.

THE Cape Verd Islands, situate between 140 48' and 17~0 12' N. lat., and 220 43' and 250 23' W. long., have been long and favorably known to the seafaring and commercial men of Europe and America, as a half-way house, or caravanserai on the seas, between the ports of Europe and South America, and those of America and Africa. They are visited frequently also by the homeward-bound Indiamen of Great Britain, and by American whalers. In later years they have obtained some notoriety as being the refdezvous of the American African Squadron. The group (sometimes, but incorrectly, called the "Cape dce Verdes Islands") takes its name from Cape Verd on the opposite coast, 400 miles distant, and was discovered in the year 1450 byAntonio Noli, a Genoese in the service of the prince of Portugal. The inhabited islands are ten, namely: St. Jago, Sal, Boavista (generally called Bonavista), Mayo, Fuego, or Fogo, Brava, St. Nicholas, St. Vincent, St. Antonio, and Branco. Besides these there are several islets, barren and without inhabitants, remarkable only as the resort of fisher. men and sea-birds, and for the grotesque beauty of their dark cliffs and foam-lashed shores, and the well-characterized types of their geological formations. These islands are all of volcanic origin; the fruit, no doubt, of the same subterraneous throes which gave the Madeiras and Canaries to the superaqueous world. There are, however, abundant evidences of distinct and well-marked periods of elevation, widely separated from each other, the last of which may be referred to a comparatively recent disturbance. The bold cliffs, and wind-denuded peaks and mountain sides, reveal perpendicular dikes of volcanic breccia, protrusions of green stone, and beds of secondary limestone. In outline these islands are wildly jagged; in surface, everywhere uneven; but few of their tortuous valleys contain any verdure, and the mountains are generally without trees or even shrubs. Noli must have called them Verde for the reason that they were not green. The soil is a well-decomposed tufa, and when dulywatered yields most abundantly the fruits and grains of the tropics; but alas! they have no rivers, no " fountains abounding with water," and rain seldom falls on the thirsty fields. Our first visit to them was in August, 1855, and at that time no rain had fallen on any of them in three years, and some of them had received none in four years. In many of them the cattle had perished, and the famine-stricken inhabitants were flying to those in which there was still some food. Appeal was made on behalf of the sufferers to the mother country, and to America: some relief was obtained, but before it came, the population, which at the commencement of 1855 was 120,000, had fallen below 100,000. For nine months of the year, the islands are swept by the strong northeast trade-winds, and during their continuance no rain is expected; the plants, except the orckilca, and others which subsist mainly on the atmosphere, wither; and it is only by irrigation that the fruit trees are preserved in the valleys. During the months of August, September, and October, the prevailing winds are from the southwest, and they occasionally bring rain with them. Of late years the droughts have been more frequent than formerly; and each succeeding one becomes longer than the former. A few more such as that which has just passed will leave the islands without inhabitants; and when they are gone, the world will be just as good and quite as intelligent as it is with them. For many years these were the penal colonies of Portugal; the criminals were allowed to import negroes, as slaves, from the coast; with these they intermarried, and the present inhabitants are worthy representatives of this mixture of depravity and ignorance. Physically the African element predominates; their skins are black and their heads are kinky, and but for the regularity of their features they would pass for genuine Ethiopians. The officers of the government, many of the merchants, and the higher priests, are white Portuguese; but the rest of the inhabitants may be called blacks, without the least violation of language. The climate of the Cape Verd Islands is in every respect tropical; but owing to the constancy of the trade-winds which sweep over them, the temperature is moderate and uniform. During what is termed the rainy season the climate is deadly to Americans, and persons from the north of Europe. African fever prevails, and frequently, becoming epidemic, carries off many of the inhabitants. During the prevalence of the northeast trade-winds the atmosphere is dry and laden with dust, swept from the lifeless fields; inflammatory fevers are then frequent, and it becomes the white-skinned stranger to be always temperate in living and exercise, and to avoid the night air. The sanitary regulation of the African squadron, which prohibits staying on shore on the coast after sunset, is, and for sufficient reasons, applied to these islands also. Some of this group are worthy of particular notice.

MAYO, which is twelve miles long and eight broad, is remarkable for having but one spring of fresh water in its whole extent. It is thinly populated; the wretched inhabitants make a scanty living by manufacturing salt from sea-water; and they do no more of this than will suffice to buy corn enough to keep body and soul together. The living sharers of their want are pigs, donkeys, and goats. By the way, I should like to know if the experiment of starving goats or donkeys has ever been tried. If so, with what success?

BOAVISTA, (literally good view), is said to have been productive at one time; at present it is almost a desert. Its people, of whom there are four thousand, are always hungry, and the lean cattle, with sad faces and tears in their eyes, walk solemnly in enudless rumination over grassless fields. In the valleys there is some vegetation. Fishing, salt-making, and going to funerals, are the chief amusements and employments of the people.

SAL is well known to the American trade for the excellence and quantity of the salt produced there. Along the beach, on which the salt-pans lie, vast hills of it may be seen glistening in the sun, like huge drifts of snow.

FUEGO (Fogo) is remarkable for the height of its central mountain, which is a slumbering volcano. It emits smoke and gaseous vapors; and at night, in heavy weather, the clouds above it reflects a dull red light from the fires in its crater. Its height, as estimated by M. Kerhallet, is 2,976 metres, and the depth of the crater 186 metres. Mrs. Somerville, quoting from Vidal, gives the height as 9,154 feet. As late as the latter part of the last century this volcano was so active that it served a valuable purpose as a lighthouse to mariners on the adjacent seas.

ST. VINCENT is favorably known to the American cruiser; for here the English steamers of the Brazilian line deliver the American mails for the African squadron. The tax on letters is one readily paid; but this is no reason why the exorbitant charge of sixty-five cents per half ounce should be extorted from men who are serving their country on the African coast. Surely they are taxed disproportionately; and that portion of it which goes to our own government might well be lessened. The bay of Porto Grande, in the island of St. Vincent, affords a secure anchorage from the prevailing winds. The town, bearing the same name as the bay, is a collection of small stone huts, surrounded by hills and valleys that are the very emblems of barrenness. It is the coal depot of the English Brazilian lines, on the local expenditures of which the town is supported. The houses of the American and English vice consuls, coal agents and traders, help to give it an air of civilization and decency. On an arid plain beyond the town is the American graveyard. We have visited it often, but never without sadness at the fate of those who met death and found their long homes on so lonely a shore. After we are dead, it will matter little where earth returns to earth; but in anticipating that event, it would add much to its gloom to think that the bed of our long sleep should be made where the surf beats on a neglected shore, where the dreary wind speaketh continually in a mournful voice, where flowers find no life, and where the angel of desolation spreadeth his wings forever. On such a spot is the American graveyard of Porto Grande. But even here, as though kind nature would speak to us in the language of hope and life from the midst of death, on a soil unmoved by swelling germs or insect forms, a few dwarf cedars, emblems of immortality, rear their tiny heads and point us to the skies. Here sleep officers and men, carried off by diseases contracted on the coast, who never dreamt that a life of honorable ambition and faithful service could end in such quietude and obscurity. The fence of the yard is falling down; the American eagle which stands over the gate, spreading his wings in the attitude of defence, is dropping to pieces; and many of the tombs and head stones have fallen down. The same state of things exists in the graveyard of Porto Praya; and I am sorry to say, that, as compared with those of other nations, the American burial-grounds abroad are generally in a disgraceful condition. Is it true that the civilization and refinement of a people may be estimated by the respect which they show for their dead? Our consuls abroad and the commanders of our foreign squadrons might do much toward wiping out this reproach. When last at this port we exhumed the remains of Lieut. Henry, formerly of the TU-. S. navy, an accomplished, worthy and beloved young officer. They rest now, amid the dust of his fathers, under the greensward of Pennsylvania. As we came away for the last time fiom that unconsecrated ground, and our feet sank ankle deep in the burning dust, the earnest prayer was: " bury me not among strangers. No, let me sleep where spring shall scatter flowers o'er the moldering urn, and the carolling of birds shall mingle with the lullabies of angel watchers, and friends shall come in the quiet evening to commune with the invisible beloved, to gather thoughts of heaven, and to learn the way.

The adjoining island, ST. ANTONIO, produces corn, sugar-cane and fruits; but not enough for the support of its population.

BRAVA has some well watered and fertile valleys, and produces cattle and vegetables for exportation to the other islands. Fortunately for these people, the waters around the group produce excellent fish. Whales are taken occasionally in the breeding season; and the barter with the whalers produces bread.

ST. JAGO is the most important island of the Cape Verd group. Its population is more numerous, its exportations and importations are larger: it is the port of entry to the other islands, has the seat of government, the cathedral, and the U. S. storehouse of the African squadron. Porto Praya is the chief town. The bay of the same name opens to the southward, is a mile and a half wide at its entrance, and a mile inland. Its shores are bold and high, and being lined by huge masses of conglomerate, are almost inaccessible. At the head of the bay there is a sand beach half a mile in length. IHere boats land, or rather stop, and the passengers are carried through the surf on the shoulders of the boatmen, or natives, hungry for a fee. The town is built on a plateau, or table land, 150 feet ~high, which contains about a square mile. Its native inhabitants number four thousand; Portuguese officials and other foreigners, about a hundred. Here resides W. H. Morse, Esq., our hospitable and energetic consul for the Cape Verd Islands. The houses are built on the sides of a large square; many of them are of good size, and all are substantial, being built of stone and covered with Dutch tiles. There is a small market here; and beef, poultry and vegetables, call be obtained in small quantities; and besides these, some of the finest oranges in the world. Water is sold, but at a low price. It is wholesome, but of an unpleasant flavor, as it passes through strata of rotten limestone. Beef, water and tobacco are monopolies; that is, a company or an individual pays the government so much for the right to sell these articles, and none are allowed to sell but by appointment of the monopolist. Monopoly has this advantage here, that a small quantity is sold at the same rate as a large quantity; thus preventing speculation, and putting the poor on the same footing with the rich. Slaves are still sold in St. Jago, and by the pound at that; but a pound of old negro meat will not bring as much as the more young and tender flesh. It may be well to remark, however, that this meat is not generally eaten! The flag-ship Jamestown spent much time at Porto Praya, as in duty bound, and we had ample opportunity of making short excursions in its vicinity. I should like to tell you of some of these, and, dear reader, of our walks to the baobab tree, forty feet in circumference, which was standing where it now stands when the island was discovered; and of our walk to Trinidad, where there are gardens and orange orchards; and how we broke down on the way; and how our dignified fleet surgeon worked his passage to town on the back of a donkey "that wouldn't go." I should like to give an account of our visit to the ancient capital of the island, the city of Cidade (formerly St. Jago), now in ruins; its venerable cathedral, ruined monastery, and parish church, in which are tombstones which date back to a period anterior to the discovery of America; and how we came near losing our lives on the way by being struck by a flaw. I should like to tell you something of our excellent friend, the governor of these islands; and of our dear and pious old friend, the Roman Catholic bishop of the Cape Verd Islands; and how his fat sides shook with laughter when we proposed to send him two Methodist preachers from America who should do more and better work than his forty priests all put together. All about these things I could tell you, and more besides; but I fear that you are already weary of these sketches, and I know I am. The Jamestown left Porto Praya and the African station on the first day of May, 1857, and entered the Delaware on the first of June; having visited over twenty foreign ports, many of them several times, boarded over a hundred vessels, and sailed 37,000 miles. She was pronounced in " perfect order and efficiency" by the inspecting officers on her return; and I question if a better disciplined or more moral crew ever worked a ship: thanks to her excellent Commandcer, J. H. W.; First Lieutenant, T. HI. P.; Marine Officer, W. L. S.; and the exemplary lives of all her commissioned officers. I would like to describe the emotions which stirred ill our hearts as the shores of our own beloved land loomed above the horizon; the pride, the gratitude, which glowed when we breathed again the air of the noblest, the freest of earth; the tears of joy that welcomed us home, and the thanksgiving of devoted hearts in our behalf. But language fails us.