Preservation of memory is critical to the Jewish psyche, and in Cape Verde there is an uplifting story of remembrance that defies the all-too-common narrative of anti-Semitism and persecution. Hebrew and Portuguese inscriptions grace typical Sephardic Jewish tombstones in four small cemeteries on three islands in Cape Verde. Many reflect the date of death according to the Hebrew calendar and place of birth such as Tangiers or Mogador (now Essaouira), in Morocco. The cemeteries have fallen into disrepair, and since 2008, when I founded the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project (CVJHP), I have worked with a remarkable assortment of people Jews and Christians, and even one Muslim monarch to restore and preserve them.
I first learned about Cape Verde’s Jewish roots through a scholarship program I managed for Portuguese-speaking Africa in the late 1980s. Many of my students bore Jewish surnames, such as Levy, Benchimol, Anahory and Wahnon, which piqued my curiosity. As a Jew fascinated by Sephardic history and culture, who also loves Cape Verde and its people, I was moved by the poignant remnants of this small but influential Jewish community remnants that bespeak an important but under-documented chapter in African/Jewish history.
An archipelago of ten small islands about 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, Cape Verde is predominantly Catholic as a result of Portuguese colonial rule. However, in the 19th century, the islands had a prominent community of Jews, largely from Muslim Morocco. Sephardic Jews from Morocco and Gibraltar set sail for Cape Verde in the mid 1800′s (after the abolition of the Inquisition), in search of economic opportunity. During their heyday in the mid to late 19th century, the Jews played pivotal roles in the economy and administration of the islands. And to this day, many descendants continue to distinguish themselves at the highest levels in government, culture and commerce. For example, Carlos Alberto Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga, voted in as Cape Verde’s first democratically elected Prime Minister in 1991, was of Jewish descent.
Because the Jews were few in number and mostly male, many married local Catholic women. As a result of this assimilation, Cape Verde today has virtually no practicing Jews, even though many descendants express deep pride in their Jewish ancestry. Prominent Cape Verdean businessman Daniel Brigham, grandson of patriarch Abrao Brigham, once told me, “I am not a religious man, but I try to follow the Ten Commandments. I am proud of my Jewish rib.”
Many descendants of the Jewish families are collaborating on various aspects of CVJHP’s mission. For example, Lisbon-based architect Rafael Benoliel designed the blueprint to restore the Jewish cemetery of Boa Vista and the Project logo. Several descendants serve on CVJHP’s board of directors. And recognizing the symbolism of Moroccan Jewish patrimony on Cape Verdean soil, King Mohammed VI of Morocco is a major benefactor of the Project. In a world where tensions between Jews and Muslims tend to overshadow our many points of convergence theological, historical and cultural this gesture by a Muslim monarch, to recover Jewish heritage in Catholic Cape Verde is inspiring.
Dozens of descendants and dignitaries recently attended the re-dedication ceremony in May for the Jewish burial plot in Praia, the capital the first of four cemetery restorations that CVJHP is financing. The chief rabbi of Lisbon, who officiated at the ceremony, blessed the deceased and affirmed that in the Jewish tradition, creating and preserving burial grounds is actually more important than building a house of worship. The outpouring of pride from the descendants at the ceremony was gratifying–as if the project reawakened in many a sense of pride and identity with the Jewish people.
The encounter between the Sephardic Jews and the predominantly Catholic Cape Verdean population in the 19th and early 20th centuries teaches us lessons of tolerance and mutual respect. Unlike in many European countries, the local people welcomed the Jews. By preserving their burial grounds and documenting their contributions, we re-affirm Sephardic history and celebrate Cape Verde’s rich cauldron of cultures. A local resident who was following local television coverage of the Praia rededication ceremony put it this way to me: “by preserving Jewish heritage in Cape Verde, you are preserving Cape Verde’s history.”