Namibia & Mid-Atlantic Expedition: The Past and Present Meet in Praia, Cape Verde

The World’s Destination Experience to Praia and Cidade Velha on the island of Santiago was a walk through time and between continents. European expansion into the non-Western world began here in the 15th century with the settlement of Cidade Velha. The islands became key in the West African trade and, indeed, a gateway to the wider Atlantic world. Luso-Africans from Cape Verde became traders, intermediaries, and administrators throughout West Africa. Cape Verde was a colony of the Portuguese Empire from the initial settlement of the Cape Verde islands in 1462 until its independence in 1975.


The Destination Experience began in Praia, which became the colony’s official capital in 1770 (a major portion of Cabo Verde’s population now live there). Praia had been a sleepy fishing town, but was deemed better located than the older settlement of Cidade Velha. Today Praia has the feel of both Europe and Africa. The cobblestone streets and stone paved sidewalks are reminiscent of Lisbon, and there are many vestiges of the island’s colonial history. However, the glimpses of the main market, street sellers, and quiet bustle feel like Africa. Before leaving Praia we paid a quick visit to the Ethnographic Museum, which included an array of cases with artifacts illustrating the island’s long history.

Leaving Praia, we stepped back in time to Cidade Velha, now a World Heritage Site. This settlement was already more than 200 years old when Praia became the capital. Now a sleepy village compared to Praia, the island’s early colonial history is still readily apparent. Our trip started with a quick visit to São Felipe (Saint Philip) Royal Fort, which overlooks the town and provides a spectacular view. Construction of the fortress began following the attack of the settlement by the British privateer Sir Francis Drake in 1585. Some sharp-eyed participants spotted pieces of 16th-18th century Portuguese ceramics on the grounds.

We then drove down the hill to Cidade Velha. A short walk brought us to the Senhora do Rosário (Our Lady of the Rosary) Church. Construction of the Gothic church began in 1495, making it the oldest standing structure in the town. The quaint stone walled houses of the streets included white washed and recently refurbished homes, as well as buildings that survive without roofs – waiting for restoration.

A grim reminder of the island’s past was the pillory located in the town square. Erected in the early 15th century, it was the symbol of municipal authority and reputedly the place where disobedient slaves where whipped. As sobering as this site was, our guide stressed that slaves on the islands led very different lives than those in Europe and the Americas. Many new families developed from the union of “free” people and slaves, and for the most part everyone lived in peace. Today’s population are the ancestors of an eclectic mix of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and African – who share a unique Creole culture and language that is all their own.

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