It may come as a surprise to many visitors since there are no remaining people of the Jewish faith practicing in Cape Verde. About 95% of the population today is Catholic or Protestant. But, in the five hundred years immediately following its colonization, there was an influx of thousands of Jews fleeing religious persecution in Spain and Portugal. Many of the early Jewish settlers were Sephardim who came by way of Morocco and Gibraltar. And in more modern historical times (the 1800s) many immigrants of Jewish descent arrived in the islands to seek economic opportunities.
Many of the Jews who settled in the Cape Verde islands married local Catholic women and made contributions to the islands economic, cultural and religious heritage. There are thus many Cape Verdean descendants of the original Jewish settlers who cherish and celebrate their Jewish ancestry even to this day including a former prime minister and president of the archipelago.
For visitors who wish to explore Cape Verde's Jewish heritage, there are several physical items that remain to tell of the legacy of the Cape Verdean Jews. In particular, there are four Jewish cemeteries: there is one on the island of Boa Vista near the entrance to the Hotel Marine Club, another within the main cemetery in the capital city, Praia, and two on the island of Santo Antao.
Most of the immigrants settled on the island of Santo Antao which is recognized today by the locals as the cradle of the Jewish settlement. In Santo Antao, visitors should proceed to the town of Ponta do Sol, where high on a ridge overlooking the beach of Praia de Lisboa is a Catholic cemetery. In the midst of that cemetery is a small walled enclosure containing seven Jewish tombstones. The other burial site in Santo Antao is four kilometers away - in the seaside town of Penha de Franca - carved into the side of the mountains.
Yet there is one other gravesite - that of Hillel Ben-Shimol who asked to be buried on his own land. He was a Sephardic Jew from Morocco and died in Cape Verde in 1902 during the famine. Of the 30 known Jewish grave sites, his is the only one not in a cemetery.
What might explain why there are only 30 known graves left of Cape Verde's Jews? Considering that many of the graves would be hundreds of years old, having any reminders is a testament to the preservation efforts that may have been undertaken by the descendants of these early immigrants. Moreover, in 1961, there was a massive mudslide on the island of Santo Antao which destroyed many graves including many Jewish graves.
However, while the cemeteries may be an attraction to those who are interested in Jewish legacy and heritage of Cape Verde, these remaining grave sites are in danger of crumbling away and forever being lost to erosion and encroaching development.
Carol Castiel, an American journalist, has made the forgotten community her life's passion. She is the executive director of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project whose goal is preservation and restoration of the Jewish cemeteries, and publishing articles and videos to document the legacy of Cape Verde's Jews.
As stated eloquently by Vaclev Havel, "The special union between ancestors and descendants is one of the foundations of the existence of every sound human community aware of its identity." So, please, visit Carol's website in the link above if you're interested in learning more or simply wish to contribute to her efforts.