Between the 1790s and the 1850s, outward-bound Nantucket whaleships stopped at the Cape Verde Islands to provision and recruit more crewmen. Some of these men returned to Nantucket and settled on island. Many more Cape Verdeans joined New Bedford whaleships, sparking immigration to the Massachusetts coast.
The Cape Verde islands are subject to prolonged periods of drought leading to famine. A deadly famine occurred in the 1830s followed by an eruption of Fogo in the 1840s. These conditions led many Cape Verdean men to join the crews of whaleships for hardly more compensation than food. At the end of their voyages, the vessels returned to home port, bringing their diverse crews with them. Some Cape Verdean seamen who reached Nantucket on whaleships stayed, married Nantucket women, and raised families.
In 1811, “a Cape di Verde Portuguese Negro” known as Michael Douglass married Mary Boston, the widowed sister-in-law of Nantucket mariner Absalom Boston. Born around 1766, Douglass had resided on Nantucket since at least 1809. His name is spelled Mikel Dauglass on a headstone in Nantucket’s Historic Coloured Cemetery; his surname may have originally been “da Luz.”
In, 1824, José da Silva, another Nantucket resident, became the first person from Cape Verde naturalized as an American citizen. Silva was born on Brava in 1794. Sworn in before the Nantucket Court of Common Pleas in late October 1824, he is described in the court documents as “an Alien, being a free white person and citizen or subject of the Kingdom of Portugal, but now a resident of Nantucket.” The court clerk wrote his name as “Joseph Sylva” on both his renunciation of Portuguese citizenship and his oath of allegiance to the United States of America. José da Silva signed with a mark rather than with a signature.
Two years before assuming US citizenship, da Silva had married a Nantucket widow, Mary Lyon, the mother of a young daughter, Rebecca. In the course of the 1820s, Mary and Joseph had three children together. The family of six appears in the 1830 federal census for Nantucket. Mary died in 1847, and there are no Nantucket marriage or death records for daughter Elizabeth or for Joseph Jr., suggesting that after their mother’s death they left the island. Middle daughter Delphina remained on Nantucket, however. She married, had four children, and lived until 1907.
The 1850 U.S. Federal Census returns for Nantucket included a list of more than 630 transient seamen on Nantucket vessels. Of these, 76 were counted as Portuguese from Portugal, the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde—59 classified as white and 17 as nonwhite. Out of these 76, the largest number, 45, were from the Azores and just 11 were identified as from Cape Verde.
Cape Verdean mariners in the 1850s Census for Nantucket
Michael Antone (22, from San Antonio) He died on Nantucket and is buried in the Historic Coloured Cemetery.
Jose Bondry (17)
William Coffin (40)
Manuel Domiguez [Domingues] (21)
Jack Bravo (39)
Fernando Elando (22)
Antone Esantes (22)
John Murray (25)
Edward Sylvia (22, from St. Nicholas)
Paul Sylvia (20)
John Tappow (25, from St. Nicholas)
Arrivals of single men from Cape Verde ceased as Nantucket whaling declined in the 1850s, but Large-scale commercial cranberry cultivation brought a second wave of Cape Verdean immigration, this time of whole families, to Nantucket.
Commercial cranberry cultivation began on Nantucket in the 1850s as the island’s whaling industry failed. Dry-picking cranberries has always been stoop labor carried out on hands and knees. In 1877, the Nantucket Journal described “a wavering line of men and women, with now and then a child, some picking the ripe fruit, some emptying their full baskets into wagons that stood nearby.”
In 1906, the Burgess Cranberry Company imported Cape Verdean labor to plant and harvest its new Gibbs Pond cranberry bog. Women and children picked by hand, while men wielded heavy wooden cranberry scoops. At the time of the 1910 federal census for Nantucket, sixty Cape Verdeans were living in housing on the bog while others lived nearby. Many had arrived from Cape Verde within the year. More Cape Verdeans arrived, and many found employment in the service jobs and trades of Nantucket’s seasonal economy.
Dry-picking continued on Nantucket until water-harvesting of cranberries was introduced to the island in the 1960s, an innovation that mechanized the process and reduced the demand for seasonal cranberry pickers.
Nantucket Cape Verdeans in Government Service
Cape Verde–born Annibal Martin arrived in the United States in 1897. By 1910, he was a surfman at the Muskeget Life-Saving Station. He later operated his own nursery and landscaping business on Nantucket.
In 1917, John Gebo, the son of Cape Verdean–immigrants, moved to Nantucket from Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard with his family at age 14. In 1917, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy to serve in World War I. He returned to Nantucket afterward and became a charter member of the Byron L. Sylvaro Post of the American Legion.
Joseph Viera was another Cape Verdean World War I veteran and charter member of the Byron L. Sylvaro Post of the American Legion. According to his obituary in the Inquirer and Mirror “He was an avid checker player and played in tournaments by mail not only in New England but all over the United States. His name may be found in checker record books all around the country, as he played many famous checker players, maintaining an undefeated record and acclaimed as a champion until he finally retired in the 1950s.” According to his granddaughter, Karen Carvalho-Franks, at the time of his death, he was Nantucket’s oldest surviving World War I veteran.
In thick fog on the morning of May 15, 1934, the passenger liner Olympic rammed and sank the lightship Nantucket, on the South Shoals, with a loss of seven of the lightship’s eleven crewmembers. Among those lost were four Cape Verdeans: Isaac Julio Pina, Alfredo Pinto Monteiro, John M. Fortes, and Matthew Francis Rodriques.
Cape Verdean Surnames on Nantucket
(multigenerational families in bold)