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The excavation site

First known colonial building in sub-Saharan Africa, with dark history, revealed to the public

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The Cabo Verde islands, situated in the South Atlantic Ocean between Africa and South America, were an important hub in the slave trade. Archaeologists have now revealed to the public a church there that dates from the 15 th century and is the oldest known formal European building in sub-Saharan Africa. Buried under the church with a huge tombstone was a slave who also served as the capital city’s ‘treasure holder.’

Portuguese colonialists laid the church’s foundation around 1470, and it was not many years after that the islands became a trans-shipping point in the Atlantic slave trade. A couple of centuries after that, the islands came under attack from pirates.

In the 1400s, as they began to explore, the Portuguese found 10 volcanic rock islands that make up Cabo Verde, about 500 kilometers (310 miles) west of the African continent. There were no people, mammals or trees there until the Portuguese brought them beginning in 1456.

“The Portuguese transformed the islands into one of the major hubs for the transatlantic slave trade, bringing with them crops, livestock and people in the form of traders, missionaries and thousands upon thousands of slaves. The slaves were funneled through the islands where they were ‘sorted’ and sold before being shipped off to plantations across the Atlantic World,” says a news release from the University of Cambridge, which has scholars there studying the church and the ruins of Cidade Velha, which was Cabo Verde’s capital and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Cabo Verde became a republic in 1975.

At its height, Cidade Velha was the Portuguese empire’s second-richest city, and for 300 years slavers channeled people through it for sale in the New World.

Some of the tombstones included those of slavers.

Some of the tombstones included those of slavers. (University of Cambridge photo)

“It’s a profound social and political story to which these new archaeological investigations are making an invaluable contribution,” Cambridge Professor Marie Louise Stig Sørensen said in the news release.

Establishment of plantations in Brazil, which was first visited by Europeans in 1500, resulted in an explosion of trade through Cabo Verde. “The islands were a focal point for the initial wave of globalization, all built on the back of the slave trade,” said Sørensen. “The excavation reveals these global connections as the finds include fine ware and faience from Portugal, German stoneware, Chinese porcelain and pottery from different parts of West Africa.”

Africans in the hold of a slave boat, a painting by Johann Moritz Rugendas

Africans in the hold of a slave boat, a painting by Johann Moritz Rugendas (Wikimedia Commons)

Archaeologists found a densely packed cemetery under the floor of the church. They estimate more than 1,000 people were buried there by 1525, giving a time capsule of the first 50 years of the colony. They also found several tombstones of local dignitaries, including the huge grave marker of slaver Fernão Fiel de Lugo, the city’s “treasure holder” from 1542 to 1557.

Researchers’ preliminary study of the bodies determined half of the people buried under the church were of African ancestry, and the rest were from various parts of Europe. They intend to exhume the bodies and do isotopic analysis to learn more about the population and slave history.

“From historical texts we have learned about the development of a ‘Creole’ society at an early date with land inherited by people of mixed race who could also hold official positions. The human remains give us the opportunity to test this representation of the first people in Cabo Verde,” said Christopher Evans, director of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

Scholars know of 22 other churches, including a large cathedral, in the small river valley where Cidade Velha is situated.

Archaeologists have been digging in Cidade Velha since 2007.

Archaeologists have been digging in Cidade Velha since 2007. (University of Cambridge photo)

“It is clear the church had huge influence here – a mere 15 degrees north of the equator – from the late medieval period onwards, say the researchers,” the press release states.

In later centuries, pirate attacks beset the islanders. In 1712, French privateer Jacques Cassard attacked Cidade Velha, and it would never recover. Then, the island nation lost its financial basis when the slave trade began to be outlawed in the 19 th century, and Portugal began to neglect the islands. “The islanders were left to the mercy of an inhospitable landscape with erratic rainfall that undermined agricultural activities and caused drinking water to be scarce,” the news release states.

Archaeologists have been excavating Cidade Velha since 2007. The church building has been conserved and is now on public display. The first structures of the church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição date from around 1470. Around 1500 there was more construction and later there was extensions and re-cladding with tiles from Lisbon.

Featured image: The excavation site (University of Cambridge photo)

By: Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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