It was the first settlement founded by Europeans below the Tropic of Cancer. In crucial times for Portuguese expansion to Africa and South America and for the slave trade that accompanied it, Cidade Velha became a poignant but unavoidable legacy of Cape Verdean origins.
We've conquered a final slope. At the top, that scenery overlooking the Old Town is even drier and ocher.
We see it dotted with thorny bushes that cling to the stony ground and any traces of moisture. In the background, the battlements of a fortress in the same tones as the earth cut out the blue sky and only blue.
In 1578 and 1585, the English privateer Francis Drake so threatened the newly founded village of Ribeira Grande and the Hispanic domain of the Atlantic that Filipe I, then owner and lord of the Portuguese Crown, became fed up with the insolence of the pirates and the Crown. British sponsoring them.
He ordered the reinforcement of the defense system, which already had several other fortifications: those of São Lourenço, São Brás, Presidio, São Veríssimo, São João dos Cavaleiros and Santo António. The Fort Real de São Filipe that we were confronted with was the last to arrive. Built with incredible solidity with stone brought from Portugal, is to last.
The Verdant Valley of Ribeira Grande
We come face to face with its imposing front, half walls with the threshold of the plateau on which it stands and with the sinuous gorge excavated by the Ribeira Grande de Santiago. A lady who takes care of a bar installed in the shade of a leafy acacia, controls our movements, if we didn't need her services.
Instead, we climb the wall that contains the top of the steep slope and let ourselves be dazzled by the tropical drama ahead.
A flurry of verdant vegetation flows from the northern reaches of the canyon to where it surrenders to the sea. In the depths below, some historic houses with old Portuguese tile, agricultural patches, trails and rural alleys coexist with a small forest, with stiff coconut trees standing out.
Considering how arid the Cape Verde archipelago and its Santiago island are, the sight catches us off guard. It deserves a thorough contemplation and a corresponding photographic attention. Only then did we go through the side hatch opened on the stone device that served as the entrance and invade the trapezoidal fort.
To the conquest of the Fort of São Filipe
Beaten by the sun, devoid of the surrounding vegetation, the interior proves to be rough and spartan, even if the structure had a Casa do Governador and a chapel, called São Gonçalo. Little steep ramps for access to the boulevards are cut into it.
And, because of its surroundings, a brick cistern stands out, preventing the men deployed there from dying of thirst, even if it was under siege. As the blue-white-red-yellow flag of Cape Verde, the island nation that the Portuguese colonization of those of the Atlantic Ocean gave rise to.
There are few visitors to the monument. We have the company of a fidgety French couple and two Cape Verdean twin sisters, dressed the same and with two identical Afro-curly hairstyles. We are alone when we approach the battery of cannons aimed at the ocean and look forward.
About a hundred meters below, the slope becomes a smooth platform, in a foothill that cuts the sea right beside where the Ribeira Grande gives itself.
From Ribeira Grande to the Old Town
The Ribeira Grande, which ends there, was the beginning of everything. In 1460, António de Noli, a Genoese sailor in the service of Infante D. Henrique and believed to have discovered the first five islands of the archipelago, spotted Santiago. Two years later, de Noli settled in the Ribeira Grande area with his family and settlers from the Algarve and Alentejo.
Despite its isolation, the village evolved in such a way that it became the first colonial city of the future Portuguese Empire – and European in general – to emerge south of the Sahara, in the tropics.
Ribeira Grande was also quick to assume the role of central hub of Portuguese maritime routes connecting southern Africa and the Americas.
In such a way that, a few years later, Vasco da Gama (in 1497) stopped there on the voyage where he would discover the sea route to the India and Christopher Columbus (in 1498) stopped there and resupplied on the third of his expeditions to discover the Americas.
More and more territories were explored and occupied in Africa and South America. Ribeira Grande also gained preponderance in the transatlantic slave trade that the Portuguese inaugurated in the XNUMXth century and, until the end of the XNUMXth century, intensified. using the labor of enslaved native Africans.
Over time, they welcomed an ethnic and cultural mix between slaves and colonists that was much deeper than in other parts of the Portuguese Empire. This mix is readily apparent throughout the archipelago.
Old Town, no longer Ribeira Grande
Unsurprisingly, it is very evident in the people and in the day-to-day life of Cidade Velha, thus the former colony was renamed, in order to avoid confusion with the Ribeira Grande on the island of Santo Antão. But if the village that we will soon enter is the old woman of Cape Verde, it does not lack life. Even if time has already doomed most of its older buildings.
We left the Cidade Velha fort pointing to the shore that we could see from there. Once a tight hook is accomplished, the asphalt gives way to a robust cobblestone of black stone well polished by tire rubber and years. We parked next to some ruined walls that stand above the nearby houses.
We go through a new yellowish door frame and enter what is left of the nave of the old Cathedral, begun to be built in 1556 with stone similar to that of the Forte Real de São Filipe, completed only in 1700, when it became the great temple of the Old City and the first diocese on the west coast of Africa.
Pillory, the Colonial Column of the Old City
We explore the ruins, fascinated by the grandeur of both the work and its decadence and intrigued by the life of the neighboring São Sebastião, where, from time to time, we see residents of the Old City leaving, cutting through the ruins, the path to the road and to contiguous riverside areas.
We ended up following them. A few hundred steps later, along Rua do Calhau, we come to Largo do Pelourinho, the main historical landmark of colonialism in the territory.
Today, the place is the most touristic place in the Old Town. It has terraces and snack bars surrounding it. And four or five coconut trees overhanging the square. There, handicraft and snack vendors encourage newly arrived outsiders to spend some copper and subsidize their lives.
Originally, the monument was not playful or decorative. More than symbolic of the power of the Portuguese Crown, the pillory of Cidade Velha became the malevolent pillar of the triangulated slave trade that the Portuguese implemented in the Atlantic.
Cidade Velha: at the heart of the Atlantic slave trade.
Ships coming from the metropolis docked in Santiago. They made the necessary repairs, replenished themselves with water and food.
After which their captains maneuvered them towards the African continent, especially Angola and Congo. They continued with the sole purpose of filling the cellars with slaves destined to guarantee the labor and all kinds of services in Portugal, in the Canaries, later, in an increasingly massive way, in Brazil.
And not only. This traffic has evolved in such a way that it is almost consensual among linguists that it was from Cape Verde that the most diverse Creole dialects of today have radiated to the Caribbean and other parts of the Americas.
The pillory was, above all, a symbol of imprisonment and cruelty. In their native lands, the natives got used to blowing their drums to warn of the approach of slavers. Drums were thus prohibited in Ribeira Grande, as elsewhere Cape Verde.
Rebel slaves who dared to touch them were whipped against the stone column, and often slavers or masters there cut off their hands. This was just one among many other punishments imposed in public, in the heart of the village. In front of the Atlantic that separated the victims of the recent past and the lives abandoned in their lands.
Descendants of Slaves, made fishermen
The cove of sand and black stones to the south of the pillory is lined with gaudy artisanal fishing boats. One of them testifies to the deep connection to the old metropolis, however severe the colonial history has at times revealed. “Dany Love … and a symbol of Sport Lisboa e Benfica” stands out from the stern of a red and white boat, as you would expect.
Other boats dock and unload the fish. A fishmonger crosses the beach with a large cauldron full of fish on her head, keeping an eye on the nets coiled on the ground that could trap her.
We crossed the pillory square again and pointed to the valley of Ribeira Grande, the same one that had dazzled us when we saw it from the top of the Fortaleza de São Filipe.
The Pioneer Church of the Old Town
We pass by the town hall, reject the Caminho do Vale and head for Rua da Banana. It is delimited by a row of one-story houses, made of white stones from which bushes and banana trees stand out.
In the sunny courtyard of one of them, a young native woman sitting under a clothesline as folkloric as the boats on the beach, catches fish in the company of a lazy dog. We detour to a staircase and to the atrium of the Church of Nª Srª do Rosário, from 1495 (the oldest building in Cidade Velha), one of the few with Gothic architecture in Africa, even if it is now white.
This church was, for a long time, the scene of the baptism of slaves. The irony of ironies is that the colonists named her in honor of the patroness not of slaves…but of black men.
The gatekeeper and guardian of the church lives in one of the houses on Rua da Banana. When he sees us approaching, he opens the door of the house and walks ahead of us, key in hand. All the time we are examining the interior of the nave, she remains evasive, seated on the bench farthest from the altar.
It has nothing to tell us. Respond to us with as little word as possible, hoping that the visit would not take long.
Convent of São Francisco da Ribeira Velha and Return to Pelourinho
Up in the valley, along a path shared by chickens, goats and pigs and also among coconut trees, we come across the Convento de São Francisco. It is another of the temples with which the Church reinforced its presence and influence in the new Atlantic city.
And with which he justified the growing taxation of the increasingly lucrative slave trade and thus obtained the financial graces that allowed him to establish himself elsewhere. The convent remains hidden by vegetation. We found it with the door open but with much less content than the previous church.
With the entire vast island of Santiago unexplored, our history in Cidade Velha was at an end. We return to Largo do Pelourinho. We installed ourselves on the terrace of one of the cafeterias. Although humble, it serves meals “both meat and fish. Everything is done in a disinfected frying pan”, the lady at the counter assures us, with an unfounded concern with our demand.
We let the sun fall towards the island of Fogo. When we had had enough of that modest but sacred rest in Cidade Velha, we returned to the car and pointed to much higher ground in Santiago. And to another sensitive place in Portuguese history, Tarrafal.
TAP – www.flytap.pt flies daily from Lisbon to the city of Praia, capital of Cape Verde, located a few kilometers from the Old Town.