“Those visiting Cidade Velha for the first time could be forgiven for not recognizing in this pleasantly sleepy town the major trade post that it once was at the crossroads of Atlantic slave trading routes.”
Thus begins the text, slated to be published in the magazine Current World Archaeology soon, on the archeological excavations in Cidade Velha led by two scientists from Cambridge University in England.
In collaboration with Cape Verdean and Portuguese colleagues, students and local workers, Marie Louise Stig Sørensen and Christopher Evans have worked since 2007, not only to save the oldest religious construction erected by Europeans in the tropics from oblivion, but also to uncover part of the historical past of the Cape Verdean population.
When the Cape Verde islands were discovered by the Portuguese in 1456, decades before Christopher Columbus would stumble upon the Americas, they were uninhabited. The ten small islands making up the archipelago are made of volcanic rock and at the time there were trees or people, or even mammals. “This is a place where everyone, as well as most of the plants and animals, came from somewhere else,” stress Sørensen and Evans in their text.
But what began as a strategic spot for trade with Sub-Saharan Africa turned into a global hub for the trade in African slaves in the 16th Century, especially those being exported to the new Portuguese colony of Brazil.
“These islands were a point of departure for the first wave of globalization, based entirely on the slave trade,” says Sørensen, quoted in a Cambridge University communiqué..
The Portuguese transformed the islands into one of the main transatlantic slave trading hubs, bringing with them crops, livestock and people – merchants, missionaries and “thousands upon thousands” of slaves. The slaves were selected and sold before being shipped to the plantations scattered throughout the entire Atlantic world.
As Cape Verde is located more or less half way between the West African Coast and Brazil, “the discovery of Brazil and the establishment of plantations there made the trade moving through Cape Verde skyrocket,” reads the text.
Cidade Velha, located in a small valley featuring sugarcane fields and palm trees, was the first city founded in Africa by the Portuguese during their age of discoveries. And over the course of 300 years, not only was it the capital of Cape Verde, but also went so far as to be “the second richest city of the Portuguese empire,” according to the communiqué. Cidade Velha was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, and its historic nucleus is a well-known tourist attraction.
In 2006, Sørensen and Evans were invited by Jean Piaget University of Cape Verde to undertake excavations in Cidade Velha with the support of Cape Verde’s Ministry of Culture. The main objective consisted of locating the Nossa Senhora da Conceição chapel, which was believed to be Cidade Velha’s first church – and, as such, very likely one of the first Christian churches in the tropics, as the two scientists explain in their as-yet unpublished text.
“Konstantin Richter, an architecture historian at Jean Piaget University, had noticed a platform with mortar that stood where a map indicated the location of the church to be,” said Evans to Portuguese newspaper Público in an e-mail. “We then located the façade of the church and carried out two preliminary excavations. And we concluded that we had indeed found the church.”
Now, the scientists, who have since reaped the benefits from the “push” given by UNESCO, have concluded the excavation and conservation of the monument, which is soon expected to be visited by the public. The first vestiges of the Nossa Senhora da Conceição chapel hark back to 1470, with a larger constructing dating from 1500.
“We managed to recover the entirety of the church’s surface plan, including the sacristy, the lateral chapel and the side veranda, and now we have a truly notable monument,” continues Evans. “Obviously built around 1500, its most complex portion is the choir located on the western edge, where the main altar was located and which underwent successive reconstructions due to the damage caused by seasonal flash flooding,” he concludes.