First Voice Narrative: Building history one story at a time
The Cape Verde islands are an often overlooked archipelago of ten islands off the coast of west Africa. The small size belies its strategic geopolitical importance as the powerful nexus for the slave trade, whaling, emigration, and where the winds gather that form the hurricanes that sweep across the Atlantic. Symbolically, metaphorically and as a force of nature, Cape Verde has played an integral role in shaping the destiny of the new world.
Lying 240 nautical miles off the coast of West Africa, (click here for more information) the tiny, drought stricken archipelago of ten islands remained in the backwaters of world history until 1975 when the islands gained independence from Portugal. Uninhabited prior to discovery in 1462 by the Portuguese, Cape Verdeans developed as a mix of Africans, Portuguese, and other European voyagers to the islands.
Cape Verde became a central site for European, particularly Portuguese, colonialism. In the period of the Atlantic slave trade it was a staging post and slavery was part of the islands’ history until it was abolished in 1878. From Cape Verde the Europeans developed the economic enterprise we now know as the plantation and transported it to the New World. The complicated history of Cape Verde is central to the creation of the modern world. Cape Verde won its independence from Portugal on July 5, 1975.
Yet for Cape Verdeans these five hundred years also represent devastating cycles of drought, starvation and death where up to half the total population of the islands died. Stories from the old country talk about people dropping dead in the street from thirst or hunger, or “nuvem ingrata” cruel clouds, that hover within sight on the horizon, pouring their rain into the sea, leaving the land parched and people dying for lack of water. Eyes turned always to the horizon, searching for rain, or a sail, the symbol of hope and opportunity.
Emigration was not a choice, it was a necessity.
This distinctive migration to the USA began in the 19th century. Historically, Cape Verdeans are amongst the first people of the African diaspora to immigrate voluntarily to the United States, which is now home to the largest population of Cape Verdeans in the world outside of Cape Verde.
The New England connection to the Cape Verde islands began in earnest after the American Revolution. Desperate for crews to work in the dangerous and low-paying whaling industry, whaling vessels from New Bedford and Nantucket regularly sailed to Cape Verde to pick up sailors. These early ties to New England made the United States the primary point of debarkation for Cape Verdeans. The trickle of immigration to New Bedford and New England in the early 1800s turned into a flood at the turn of the century, as Cape Verdeans fled cycles of severe drought, starvation, perennial economic hardship and colonial neglect.They came across the Atlantic to New England on voyages lasting up to three months on packet ships of dubious seaworthiness, arriving in the ports of New Bedford, MA and Providence, RI, the oldest and largest Cape Verdean communities in America. (Click here to view video clip “The Ernestina”)Until the early 1960s, the packets were the vital link between Cape Verdean and the New England communities, carrying passengers back and forth, and most importantly the barrels of food and clothes back to the families in the islands.
Equally important were messages from loved ones that arrived in the New England ports, either by letter, or a personal message sent by way of friends from the same village or island. (Click here to view a video of Pres. Pereira talking about the importance of the packets.)The anguish of the separations of distance, years, or a lifetime, is immortalized in Cape Verdean music, especial the “morna” (made famous by Cape Verdean world music diva, Cesaria Evora). That feeling of “saudade,” or longing resonates throughout every aspect of society. “Tristealegria,” happy and sad together, bittersweet, is the essence of stoicism that characterizes the Cape Verdean determination to survive against almost insurmountable odds.
“Nantasket One Evening,” a traditional Cape Verdean song
The community of Fox Point was situated near the waterfront and the Port of Providence. Clustered in tenements, families, relatives and friends lived within shouting distance from one another. (Click to view video clips “Granny’s.”) Once a bustling port for loose cargo-lumber, coal, scrap iron-most of the men from the Point “worked the boats” as proud members of the Longshoremen’s Union Local 1329. (Click here to view video clip “Working the Boats.”) The neighborhood abutted Brown University and the affluent East Side. It was an uneasy and sometimes hostile relationship.
Fox Point was a major port of entry for Cape Verdeans arriving in the United States.
Social activities revolved around organizations like the St. Antonio Society, one of the main beneficent organizations that provided benefits and insurance for its members, as well as sponsoring dances and fundraisers for sick members, funeral expenses, or scholarships.
Every activity included music. Most of us have vivid recollections of the dances at the St. Antonio Society: small children dancing together, two old women, maybe widows, slowly moving to the morna, little girls learning to dance standing on the feet of their fathers. (Click here to see and hear Fox Point and Cape Verdean music legends, Flash Tavares and Vickie Vieira.)
What really kept the boys out of mischief was the Boys Club on 226 South Main Street, another venerable institution and the home away from home for generations of boys from the Point. From the moment the doors opened in 1916, the Boys Club on S. Main Street served the urban poor and kept the boys away from dangers of the streets and juvenile delinquency. The Club was a haven from crowded, cold water tenements with limited indoor plumbing or pull chain toilets.
These tight-knit, self-contained communities are concentrated most heavily, in descending order, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and then Connecticut. Cape Verdeans worked in Cape Cod’s cranberry bogs, as well as on the waterfronts and textile mills. The door on Cape Verdean immigration closed by the Johnson Immigration Laws of 1922 and 1924, reopened in 1968, beginning the second major wave of Cape Verdean immigration in the 20th century. Today’s population of Cape Verdeans in New England, now more than 300,000 strong, is greater than the population of Cape Verde.
Urban renewal and gentrification in the 1970s forcibly displaced three generations of our Cape Verdean community in Fox Point. Our history was erased before it was written. For me, the displacement meant searching for my roots in Cape Verde, crossing the Atlantic to explore the ties to the islands, and retracing the path and journey begun by my grandparents when they arrived in America in the early 1900s, then returning back to Fox Point and beginning another journey.