African slaves escaped to Santiago’s hills to freedom in homesteads

September 15, 2015

As Ribeira Grande’s infamy grew, it began to attract the attention of Spanish, English and Dutch pirates who, after hearing of the volume of trade at the port, would raid in siege, killing many and plundering slaves and all other commodities.

To combat the invaders and protect a vital source of income for the Portuguese crown, the rulers built the Fort of Saint Phillip on the cliffs overlooking the settlement. It still stands there today, more than 500 years later, as an alluring tourist attraction.

Young tour guides, who take groups around its red brick walls and embattlements, often explain to European visitors to Cabo Verde how during such pirate attacks thousands of slaves would escape to the relative safety of the hilly interior of Santiago Island. They explained that this was how residents of Santiago had come to be known as Badius.

They would tell of how the interior, or the ‘Fora’ as it is now known, was then unchartered territory to the Portuguese and how the escaped slaves immediately became free men and orchestrated their own settlements. They recounted how the Portuguese would attempt to hunt them down but the freed slaves would prove too resilient and brave, moving to new settlements to avoid detection. They would emphasis how the hard soles of the Badius beating on the red earth, laid down pathways over the hilly terrain. Trails that would later became the roads that connected the municipalities and towns on Santiago Island today.

And how finally the Portuguese gave up, electing rather to call these freed slaves “Badiu,” stemming from the Portuguese word for vagabond or runaway. The word came to be used affectionately to describe any Cabo-Verdeano native to Santiago Island. Indeed people from the interior today have more original Badiu in their genetic makeup and so are different from citizens of coastal Santiago.

Whereas the lighter skinned, slimmer, finer haired and occasionally blue-eyed coastal natives are stereotyped as having a comparatively easy lifestyle, Badius from the interior are bigger and stronger due to the hundreds of years spent working their own land. They are dark but their darkness has a radiance and consistency nourished through generations of the freshest and most abundant sources of vegetables and meat. Most of Praia’s food is still grown by these Badius and they often take pleasure in reminding disdainful citizens of Praia of this fact.

They were all wealthy. Some through years spent sustaining Santiago with the strength of their backs. Others made so by the recent increase in the price of land on Santiago. Both reasons left them proud to a fault. They believed in dressing immaculately and speaking loudly. The men could be cavalier in gestures extended to women yet ferocious with the knives they extended to men. They were a pleasantly eccentric people and some even called them our version of the American cowboy.

Citizens of Praia often made jokes about the differences. Calling them dim-witted and their customs outdated. It’s funny because anyone that is native to coastal Santiago today, barring only the whitest brancos, is more often than not a descendant from the interior.

In 1652 the Portuguese moved the capital from Ribeira Grande to a more militarily defensible location further down the coast at Praia (the Portuguese word for beach). Ribeira Grande’s name was then changed to Cidade Velha meaning “Old City.” Appropriate because by that time it was the oldest city in Cabo Verde and had become home to Our Lady of the Rosary Church, which would become the oldest place of Christian worship in all of Africa.

In the Portuguese-controlled Cabo Verde Islands of the 17th century, the other European communities had grown larger and more diverse and had spread to other islands. The German and Dutch farmers preferred Fogo, taking with them their slaves, while the English, Scottish and Italians took theirs to the islands of Sao Vicente and Sal.

Many of these early European settlers had been banished to Cabo Verde without their families and so had formed liaisons with slave women, increasing the mullato population that still makes up 60 percent of the entire Cabo-Verdeano gene pool today.

Through this migration the Portuguese and Spanish remained on Santiago where they hoped the slave trade would never end. Many amassed the wealth of kings and so simply ignored the free Badius who would journey into coastal Praia to sell their crops, then journey back to work the land until the next harvest.

It appeared as though supply and demand had brought about an informal truce between the Portuguese and the tens of thousands of free slaves living in the Fora. The Portuguese came to appreciate them as being vital to the future growth of the colony and so tolerated their defiance.

It even surprised the Portuguese that, ironically, many of these enterprising Badius spoke Portuguese and even retained the Portuguese slave names given to their ancestors. They promoted this dichotomy and hoped that it would foster a sense of harmony that would make life easier to bear for everyone.

The rulers had chosen the lesser evil in that many more slaves were sold than escaped, and it made little sense in using resources to hunt and capture those who were growing food for the entire colony. Even if a few more, waiting in the slave holds and spurned by the idea of freedom in the Fora, managed to escape and join them. The Badius would surely put them to work expanding farm land. The next two hundred years saw a relatively harmonious existence prevail on the Cabo Verde Islands but unfortunately it was not meant to last.

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