The Cape Verde archipelago is a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean about three hundred miles west of Senegal in Africa, and seven hundred miles east of Brazil in South America.
The archipelago comprises ten inhabited islands: six northern, or “windward,” islands—Santo Antão, São Vicente, Sal, São Nicolau, Boa Vista, and Santa Luzia—and four southern, or “leeward,” islands—Maio, Santiago, Fogo, and Brava.
The island of Fogo is an active volcano that erupted frequently during the whaling era (1785, 1799, 1847, 1852, and 1857). Rising above the horizon, its column of fire by night and smoke by day marked the course for whaling vessels to Fogo and its smaller neighbor island Brava. During eruptions, residents of Fogo took refuge on Brava, leading the whalemen to call them all “Bravas.”
The Portuguese explorers who came upon the Cape Verde islands three decades before Columbus reached Hispaniola found the islands dry, remote, and uninhabited. Determined to make them productive, Portugal sent men to establish cotton and indigo plantations and imported enslaved Africans as labor.
There were almost no women among the Europeans sent to the Cape Verde Islands. Within a century, two thirds of the islands’ population were of mixed European and African heritage and the other third was of African heritage. Those proportions have remained approximately the same to the present, with some variation from island to island.
Today the population of the Republic of Cabo Verde numbers about a half million people. An estimated million more Cape Verdeans live abroad in Africa, Europe, and North America. For generations, these emigrants and their descendants have sent back goods and money to support those living in the islands. At the time the Republic of Cabo Verde achieved independence in 1975, it was estimated that twenty-five per cent of its gross national product consisted of cash remissions received from abroad.
The religion of the islands was historically and remains today Roman Catholic, and the culture is Portuguese. The language of administration has always been standard Portuguese, but over time a local language, Kriolu, emerged. Drawing from both Portuguese and West African languages, Kriolu is a distinct language, not nonstandard Portuguese.
The traditional Cape Verdean indigo blue and white woven cotton textile is known as pano or pánu di téra. Woven in strips and sewn together for width, panos have served as garments, head coverings, shrouds, and carrying straps for both babies and loads. Tightly rolled, held between the knees, and slapped in rhythm, panos also become drums.
The patterns on panos are a synthesis of European motifs and West African weaving traditions. Pano production was part of the history of African slavery. As the transatlantic slave trade flowed through the Cape Verde archipelago from West Africa to the sugar plantations of Brazil, West African men proficient in weaving were retained to stay and produce panos that were carried back to West Africa, where they served as currency for the purchase of additional enslaved people. By the 1600s, thousands of panos were required to meet demand. The islands of Santiago and Fogo were centers of production with roots back to the late 1400s.
The weaving of panos for domestic use continued in the countryside after the end of the slave trade. Antique panos are treasured within families. Since independence was achieved in 1975, pano weaving has experienced a revival as an expression of nationhood. In addition to historic blue-and-white and black-and-white patterns, modern panos are woven in many colors and incorporated into clothing and home decoration.