Readers will know that David Torrance, a political commentator by trade, has a mission: to visit every country on earth. Here are his notes from Cape Verde.
I remember Nicola Sturgeon observing during the independence referendum that no nation had ever not wanted to be independent. It was a neat line, although I’ve since come across several exceptions, for example Alaska and Hawaii, which chose to become United States in 1959, and closer to home Malta, which in 1956 voted to ‘integrate’ with the United Kingdom.
Having just spent a week in Cape Verde – a group of ten islands situated west of Africa – I can now add another to the list. Although it threw off its colonial shackles back in 1975, for the next few years it actively pursued the idea of unity with another former Portugese colony, Guinea-Bissau on the African mainland. Following a 1980 coup, however, relations became strained and Cabo Verde (as it’s known by non-Anglophones) chose to pursue its own path.
I’d only recently become aware of the sheer extent of the former Portugese empire, brought home to me while studying an old map in a Porto restaurant. About a decade ago I’d caught a hydrofoil to Macau (from Hong Kong), shortly after it had become part of a second ‘system’, as the Chinese put it, within ‘one country’, while last summer I spent a few days in Mozambique, once the jewel in Lisbon’s colonial crown. What I hadn’t realised was that Goa, now part of India, had remained under Portugese control for almost a decade after the British relinquished its jewel.
Nothing now remains, not even the imperial dregs the UK charmingly calls ‘British Overseas Territories’, but many of these places still feel and look very Iberian, certainly much more so than the former British colonies I’ve visited. But then racially there was clearly much more integration, and it was obvious just from walking the streets in Mindelo (where I began my trip) that many colonisers – and their subsequent offspring – had never left. They’re known, along with hoards of European tourists, as ‘Brancos’, and not in a good way.
In 1951 Portugal changed Cape Verde’s status from a colony to an overseas province in a well-worn attempt to kill home rule with kindness. A cursory glance at Cape Verdean history suggests its population had much to be nationalist about, for Salazar even turned the village of Tarrafal (to the north of Santiago) into a re-education camp for disloyal citizens. Now the Museu da Resistência, it displays photos, plaques, and artefacts from that unhappy period.
Other aspects of the islands’ history are more complex. Originally a convenient stopping off point for the slave trade between Africa and the New World, in the late 1970s and 1980s, when most African countries prohibited South African Airways from making similarly practical overflights, Cape Verde allowed them to land, turning it into a hub for the airline’s services to Europe and the United States.
It probably needed the cash, for today the economy is virtually reliant upon tourism (and some fishing). Indeed, Cape Verde is one of those countries in the unusual position of having more nationals resident overseas than it does in situ, sizeable communities existing in Rotterdam, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. These expats generally send money home, which undoubtedly helps mitigate an official unemployment rate which is, in reality, probably much higher.
This probably explained the sleepy quality of most of the towns and cities I visited. The cultural capital of Mindelo exuded a particularly languid air, and at one hotel it was even difficult to find anyone to take payment. On Saturday 6 February I watched the annual Karnival from my balcony, a colourful tradition derived from Brazil (another former Portugese settlement), although it was clearly just a warm-up for the main event the following Monday; I had to watch that on television from the weird moonscape of the island called Sal.
Beyond that (and a day traipsing the charming, crumbling streets of the capital Praia) there wasn’t an awful lot to do in Cape Verde, but I didn’t mind as I had a short biography to write. Lots of my friends balk at the idea of working when travelling, but as a freelancer a) I generally have little choice, and b) I’m at my most productive while on the move: I wrote, for example, my (unauthorized!) biography of the present First Minister while on a two-week Caribbean cruise shortly after the referendum, although I guess critics might suggest that it showed.
Mindelo and Praia were full of quiet rooftops where I could sit with my laptop and go into the zone necessary for typing around 5,000 words a day (more if I had an article to write), furious bouts of keyboard bashing and, I suspect, a furrowed brow; perhaps being so completely out of context makes writing about another’s life that much easier. I also had my usual columns to write, one of which was filed from a tiny, chaotic airport with a surprisingly good (and free) Wi-Fi signal.
There was one thing I didn’t have time to do: track down an old CalMac vessel which the Guardian columnist Ian Jack had told me functioned as a car ferry somewhere on the islands. There must, I thought, be an interesting story behind that. Africa, meanwhile, remains the most challenging part of my global bucket list, but Cape Verde deserves its reputation as one of the most stable African nations, with relatively little corruption and no obvious poverty. A noisy and often ostentatious country, it struck me, full of very quiet and courteous people.