From Creole to African

Nos tud nos é criol

Tubaroes

Cape Verde football team participating in Africa Cup 2013

“Ethnic groups of Cape Verde:
Creole (mulatto) 71%, African 28%, European 1%”
Source: CIA Factbook,

“Statistics from Portuguese administration in the sixties stated that the racial composition of the inhabitants was 71% of mestiços, 28% of “Africans” (i.e. blacks) and 1% of “Europeans” (i.e. whites). Those figures have been overused in several sites, in spite of not being up to date [and misleading]. Since the independence in 1975 the official statistics in Cape Verde have no longer made statistics based on racial groups. Official sources[1] only states “the majority of the population is mulatto” (“…maioritariamente mestiça…”) without stating any number. Ethnically, Cape Verdeans see themselves as a single group, regardless of being mulatto, black or white.”

One of the biggest misunderstandings about Cape Verdeans seems to be about their etnically and culturally determinded “Creole” (or Crioulo/Kriol) identity. Many times an extra racial dimension of being mixed-race or “mulatto” is being assumed, as highlighted in the carelessly misquoted population breakdown by the CIA Factbook (oft repeated by other sources as well). When in fact each and every Cape Verdean brought up in Cape Verdean culture and fluent in the Crioulo language is considered Creole in Cape Verde regardless of racial appearance. Creoles are NOT a separate ethnic subgroup in Cape Verde, it’s rather a synonym for ALL native Cape Verdeans! Or as they say in Cape Verde “nos tud nos é criol” (“we are all Creole”) despite any racial or island differences. There’s no such thing as a separate “African” ethnic subgroup in Cape Verde either, aside from recent West African migrants (known collectively as “Mandjak”). Cape Verdean Creoles can be both black, brown or even white! 

This misunderstanding is not surprising given that the word “Creole” has many different interpretations in different countries/languages and its meaning will vary accordingly. In the USA the Creoles from Louisiana might be the first and often only reference for many, however there’s several other self labelled Creole populations across the Americas and even in Africa. In the previous blog post i already discussed the Creoles/Krio from Sierra Leone, there are also Creole populations on the African islands of  Mauritius, Réunion and the Sechelles aside from Cape Verde. In the Carribean there’s the Creoles of Belize and Surinam while many Caribbean languages are also called Creole like Haitian Kreyol. Ironically in Brazil the word Crioulo is used to refer to black people (although considered derogatory by some) but in the Hispanic Americas the word Criollo is used for white people with roots from the colonial period while in the US it’s usually interpreted as mixed-race. For a more detailed overview see also this Wikipedia article.

There’s some uncertainty where the word Creole was used first – either in the Atlantic islands colonized by Portugal and Spain or the Hispanic Caribbean. But it’s assumed the word was originally used to refer to any person from the “Old World” born locally in the at that time new colonies, regardless of racial background, African or European. Later on it assumed additional meaning by also implying a culturally adapted/blended identity or creolization because of the synthesis of African, European and (some instances) Amerindian influences. Either way Cape Verdeans are most likely the oldest self named Creole population in the world! 

The concept of Creolization has many fascinating and complex aspects I will revisit in later blog posts. But for now I’d like to focus on this particular interpretation:

“The word Creole was also used to distinguish those Afro-descendants who were born in the New World in comparison to African-born slaves.”

Now of course Cape Verde doesn’t really count as “New World” but as it was uninhabited when it was first discovered by the Portuguese and also because of the wide ranging early colonial connections with especially the Hispanic Caribbean and Brazil it can be seen as a historical stepping stone/midway station to the Americas along with the other Atlantic island groups (“Macaronesia“) of Azores, Canarias and Madeira. In an earlier blog post i’ve already mentioned that the vast majority of slaves exported via Cape Verde were actually not born in Cape Verde but on the Upper Guinean mainland. Cape Verdean born slaves were called “Naturales” or simply “Cabo Verde” in the Americas but almost all of them remained on Cape Verde itself and there they would likely be seen as “Creole” a.k.a. locally born slaves. Gradually also a new population segment appeared consisting of mixed race/mulatto persons as well as freed ex-slaves and even a minority of Africans who voluntarily settled in Cape Verde. All of their Cape Verde born descendants would also eventually be seen as Creole or “Crioulo”.  For anyone wanting to trace the ethnic African origins of Cape Verdeans it’s therefore crucial to know in which time periods Upper Guinean persons were “transformed” into Creoles and to what extent.

These charts below can be helpful in that regard. They are intriguing for several reasons (for a more detailed discussion see: http://www.cvraiz.com/?page_id=66) but the percentage of African born slaves is what matters for now. Summarizing we can see that:

  • 70,5% of slaves are described as Creole or born locally in documents from the Cape Verdean island of Fogo in the period of 1610-1758 (n=258). In batch 4 – the biggest one from 1624 – it’s even 80% (97/120)! Implying that their ethnic origins reflect slave imports from earlier time periods in the 1500’s.
  • The enslaved share of Cape Verdean population decreased sharply in between 1582-1731 from 80% to 17%. Throughout the 1800’s the total proportion of slaves in Cape Verde would remain below 10%. Most likely already in the late 1600’s a majority of Cape Verdean population would have had a freed status and would not experience major additional geneflow from Upper Guinea or other parts of Africa.
  • 82.5% of all slaves registered during the last official slave census of 1856 (n=5182) were born in Cape Verde or “naturais”. Even if many of them possibly only 1 or 2 generations removed from mainland origins it still implies that in 1856 only about 1% of Cape Verdean population was from the African mainland and not born on the islands (17.5% of 5.8% =share of slaves in total population) 
  • Tracing back from Creole to African is going to take you back several centuries and many generations therefore. Everyone has individual family trees (i will continue stressing this) however generally speaking for many Cape Verdeans it might mean that most of their African mainland born ancestors arrived in Cape Verde more than 400 years ago and perhaps as much as 12 generations ago when the total maximum potential number of ancestors could have been 4096!!! (of course realistically you would have to take into account a minor continuing African geneflow from later centuries plus non-African admixture + a certain degree of inbreeding between distant cousins etc., see: http://dgmweb.net/Ancillary/OnE/NumberAncestors.html).

Documented slave origins from Fogo

M.Torrao & Soares - Slave Origins from Inventories 1610-1758

Share of slaves in total population of Cape Verde

CV escravosa

Origins of the slaves described in the last slave census of Cape Verde held in 1856

A. Carreira - Census 1856 B

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