In 1460 Antonio and Bartolomeo da Noli, Genovese navigators in the service of Portugal, discovered and claimed the Cape Verde Islands in the name of Portugal. They described the ten volcanic islands as lush and green beyond the imagination. Greenery layered in an inviting fauna of tall Acacia trees and moist from the condensing heat of the hot earth. They described nature’s hues so vibrant that it was as if God had painted them with the rich colours of a child’s imagination.
They described a paradise in the Atlantic free of people or dangerous animals, thus ideal for settlement. The Portuguese had built a reputation as formidable seafarers and King Afonso V wanted to exploit this. For him, he not only saw a haven but one ideally placed to take advantage of commercial shipping routes opening to new lands in the West.
Though the brothers claimed there were no inhabitants, Mesopotamian folklore suggests that the islands had been visited by Arabs and Phoenicians centuries before their arrival. One such account told of early Arabs visiting an island which they referred to as “Aulil” or “Ulil.” The Arabs described a little island in the middle of an archipelago with an abundant salt mine. Some believe the Arab explorers were referring to the salt mines at the bottom of an extinct volcano on the island of Sal, the Portuguese word for salt.
True or not, no one, except the exploring da Noli brothers, could say for certain whether there were people when they arrived on Cabo Verde. The brothers never made references in any in their reports to Portugal and no inhabitants from earlier settlements have ever been found on Cabo Verde. The common belief was that if an indigenous society inhabited these islands before their arrival, these people were probably nomadic and not established enough to resist penetration by the Portuguese.
In fact, it is often claimed that it was these Genovese explorers, landing on the shores of Ribeira Grande (present day Cidade Velha), who started what would come to be known as the scramble for Africa.
Ribeira Grande translated into “The Great Stream,” and in 1462 the Cabo Verde Islands were granted to the brother of King Afonso V, Prince Fernando. The young prince later divided the island between two land grantees. Thus, starting in earnest the European settlement of the Cabo Verde Islands.
The early settlers were an assortment of Portuguese exiles, reprieved convicts, Genovese and Flemish adventurers and Sephardic Jews. They chose this part of Santiago Island for their homestead because it offered a reliable fresh water supply and moderately sheltered harbour.
It wasn’t until four years later that the industrious settlers from the Algarve region of southern Portugal petitioned the crown to trade in slaves. They were granted this authorization and the Cabo Verde Islands, and indeed the world, embarked on its ultimate course with destiny.
Ribeira Grande then became a bustling post where slaves, taken from continental Africa, were brought to trade with ships crossing to the new lands in the West. Pillories, where the slaves were paraded in chains for prospective buyers, still draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to Cidade Velha each year.
King Afonso V’s judgment had proved sound. Strategically placed to take advantage of an expansionist era enthralling the kings of Europe, Ribeira Grande became a new source of income for the Portuguese Empire. Held in a higher esteem than its other colonies because of its location and its riches.