Cape Verde and the Atlantic: Crossroads of People, Goods and Capital Investments (1460–1610)
By Lesley Braun
A report of the workshop, “Cape Verde and the Atlantic: Crossroads of People, Goods and Capital Investments (1460–1610)”, held in Cidade Velha, Cape Verde, on January 28–29th, 2019. The workshop was organized by Carlo Taviani (DHI Rom) and others, in cooperation with Villa I Tatti – The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, the Kunsthistorisches Institut Florenz, and the Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin. A full program of the event can be found here.
The archipelago nation of Cape Verde is a compelling example of cultural encounter set against a historical dynamic of deep asymmetrical power relations rooted in plantation slavery. Drawn into relation with each other in spite of (and because of) the chasm that slavery introduced, Europeans and African slaves formed Cape Verdean creole culture. Édouard Glissant, a philosopher writing extensively on the notion of creolization, suggests, “Relation is not made up of things that are foreign but of shared knowledge. This experience of the abyss can now be said to be the best element of exchange”.
The constellation of church, state, and economy is a useful analytic in understanding the emergent social relations in Cape Verde and beyond. Cape Verde’s strategic location became a site in which this configuration of forces danced together. Dance, both in the literal and metaphorical sense, is a productive entry point into the complexities of métissage, or creolization, resulting from the global entanglements of people in circulation. It reveals the cultural intimacies emerging through encounter, and expresses, quite literally, the push-pull forces that characterize these dynamics. With the entrenchment of the transatlantic slave trade, trafficked Africans found themselves displaced in new lands—one of which was Cape Verde. Rhythms from former times were not abandoned, rather they remained a constant in people lives, and were eventually blended into new dance forms introduced from Europe in the 19th century, such as the quadrille. Contrary to pre-colonial African dance forms, in which men and women danced separately, partner dance became part of the new local vernacular. Couples hold each other in close proximity moving to syncopated rhythm found in coladeira and funaná music, in which strong beats become weak, and weak beats become strong.
Cape Verde served as an important node in trade networks involving the trafficking and sale of human beings. Plantations were established to produce products for export. Cape Verde and the Atlantic: Crossroads of People, Goods and Capital Investments (1460–1610), was the title of the international conference held in the capital of Praia, organized by Carlo Taviani (Rome), in cooperation with Villa I Tatti – The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, and the Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin, held on January 28th and 29th, 2019. This conference represented an important event for participating Cape Verdean institutions, in part because it was the first occasion wherein slavery was the central thematic. It also served as a propitious occasion in which international and local academics encountered each other to share research projects as well as discuss ways forward for future collaborations.
In addition to appearances by national dignitaries, including the President of Cape Verde himself, the audience was composed of Cape Verdean scholars and students. The diversity of interests pushed discussions into productive directions, particularly in terms of the contemporary relevance of the presented historical material. In particular, Maria Silva, one of the conference’s coordinators, commented on the role of the diaspora in the establishment of creole culture, pointing to the ways in which circulating peoples participate in continuous cultural blending. Cape Verdean scholars, Lourenco Gomes and José Silva Evora, stressed the centrality of archeological evidence in historiography, and made a plea for more interdisciplinarity among scholars working on Cape Verdean heritage issues. This was echoed in President Jorge Carlos Fonseca’s poetic inaugural message about the ways that historical narratives, both oral and textual, play in nation-building endeavors. This articulated reflexivity on how history is consciously wielded and applied to nation-building set the tone for the conference, encouraging scholars to consider the political implications of their unearthed sources.
Accounting ledgers showing the names and exchange values of slaves were an integral feature of many of the papers presented—the intimacy of the handwritten lists of names visually animated several presenters’ lines of argumentation. David Wheat’s presentation suggested that not all of the names of people in circulation were slaves or merchants, pointing to the possibility of other kinds of narratives associated with individuals not necessarily involved in business dealings.
Carlo Taviani and Daniele Tinterri presented papers regarding early Mediterranean trading networks in the 15th and 16th centuries and the role Genoese merchants played in the movements of both goods and people. Here, the triangulation of merchants, farmers, and the crown became visible, pointing to the entanglement of interests and the emergence of a new social stratification in the archipelago.
Drawing from copious records of Genoese notaries, a database is being assembled by a group of researchers, which, when completed, will offer a comprehensive depiction of the transregional trading entanglements across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, as well as from West Africa to the New World. Steven Teasdale focused on methods relating to his project that collects vast and detailed data about people aboard these ships in the effort to infer information about social structures.
One thematic thread of the conference was the way in which power circulates in and through people and objects, which calls to mind Glissant’s proposition that “in Relation, every subject is an object, and every object is a subject”. This was taken up by Ingrid Greenfield’s presentation about luxury items such as carved ivory circulating between Africa and Renaissance Italy, which pointed to an unacknowledged form of cultural blending that had impacts on both European and African iconography.
While this conference focused on a period between the 15th and 17th centuries, it certainly resonates with our contemporary moment, one which is characterized by an acceleration of cultural encounter. One only needs to think of China’s new role in evolving trading relations in Africa. What are the new intermingling forces that dance together? This conference, with all of the fruitful research presented, clearly reaffirmed the necessity of interdisciplinary scholarship, particularly a nexus between archeologists, historians, anthropologists, and art historians. It also called attention to the obligation of bridging the scholarship emerging from global-north and -south institutions.
 Glissant, Édouard, and Betsy Wing. 1997. Poetics of relation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Lesley Braun is Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Social Anthropology, University of Basel, Switzerland. Thematically, her research investigates the gendered dimensions of transnational mobility, and how gender and sexuality impact, as well as shape women’s activities in the public sphere. She is also interested in performance in Kinshasa, DRC, and the ways that popular dance—in its embodied and symbolic forms—participates in the construction of an urban experience. In 2016 she was a fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. She recently completed a ten-month visiting lectureship at Humboldt University in Berlin.
Citation: Lesley Braun, Cape Verde and the Atlantic: Crossroads of People, Goods and Capital Investments (1460–1610), in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.04.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18383.