Ceremonies this week will mark the latest step in efforts to preserve and commemorate the Jewish heritage in Cape Verde, a state composed of 10 tiny islands in the Atlantic Ocean, around 500 km off the coast of West Africa.
Events November 5 and 6 will see the inauguration of commemorative plaques at two Jewish cemeteries on Cape Verde’s westernmost island, Santo Antão, those of Penha de France and Ponta do Sol.
The work was carried out under the auspices of the Government of Cape Verde, the Mayor of Ribeira Grande (CMRG) on the island of Santo Antão, and the Washington, DC-based Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project (CVJHP), which since 2007 has spearheaded preservation and other efforts to rediscover and promote Jewish cemeteries and memory in Cape Verde. The Cape Verde government listed these and two other cemeteries as National and Culture Historic Patrimony in 2017.
The CVJHP announcement of the events states:
These nineteenth century cemeteries were meticulously restored through a partnership between Ribeira Grande City Council and CVJHP with funding from His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco. They are surrounded by the natural beauty of the mountains of the island of Santo Antão, where most of the Jews who migrated from Morocco during the 19th century settled. Bronze plaques that were manufactured in England, tell the story of this migration and serve as permanent signs to educate local populations and foreigners about the presence of the Jews in the archipelago. A map of the graves for each cemetery reflects the original inscriptions, in Portuguese, in each tomb. The restoration and preservation of cemeteries honor in perpetuity the memory of their ancestors and ensure that their heritage will never be forgotten.
Jews settled in Cape Verde today mainly from the mid-19th century, most of them Sephardic and many from Morocco. There is no Jewish community in the islands today. The CVJHP we site notes:
Hebrew and Portuguese inscriptions on the tombstones in the small Jewish cemeteries throughout the islands indicate that the majority came from the Moroccan cities of Tangier, Tetouan, Rabat, and Mogador (now Essaouira), bearing distinctive Sephardic names such as Anahory, Auday, Benoliel, Benrós, Benathar, Benchimol, Brigham, Cohen, Levy, Maman, Pinto, Seruya and Wahnon. These families landed primarily on the islands of Santo Antao, Sao Vicente, Boa Vista and Sao Tiago where they engaged in international commerce, shipping, administration and other trades. The Jews prospered in Cape Verde and were often considered pillars of the local economy. Because they 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.
Moment Magazine published an article by Rosanne Skirble providing further details of the CVJHP’s work:
Four cemeteries were identified for restoration. Modeled after Jewish burial grounds in Morocco, each has white horizontal stones with inscriptions in Hebrew and Portuguese. All, like in Praia (restored and dedicated in 2013) had languished, and were in various stages of deterioration. One was overrun with grasses and weeds, so much so that the graves were barely visible. The cemetery in Boa Vista sits close to the sea and is subject to erosion. Road and building construction have also taken their toll.
Watch an Al Jazeera report about this project (with English subtitles)