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The small island nation of Cabo Verde was once a hub for slave trading

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's been an explosion of interest in America's slave history in recent years. What 18th century writers sometimes call the peculiar institution has been portrayed in films, artworks and books. And at the same time, new fights have broken out over how it should be talked about, especially in schools. Meanwhile, the place where it all began is all but invisible to Americans, but the people who live there hope that that will change.

I found that out when I visited Cabo Verde recently. It's an island nation off the coast of West Africa. And I saw a placid bay, gentle waves lapping the shore, a dusty plaza with souvenir stands, a stately fort and historic church. It could be any tucked away island getaway, the kind of place that tourists like to think of as their own special secret. But Cidade Velha, the old city near the capital of Cabo Verde, carries other secrets, an outsized place in one of the world's most transformative events, the transatlantic slave trade. Abel Djassi Amado is a scholar of Cabo Verde's history who teaches at Simmons University and is also Cabo Verdean himself.

ABEL DJASSI AMADO: You know, we cannot really understand the movement of people and other cargoes, plants and animals from one part of the world - from the old world, Europe and West Africa - to the Americas and vice versa without looking at the Cabo Verde. In fact, we can make the argument that Cabo Verde was one of the first hubs in the Atlantic world.

MARTIN: Cabo Verde, especially Cidade Velha, was the center of trade in enslaved people for more than 300 years. It was the site of the first settlement in Cabo Verde established by Portuguese explorers, who eventually began the trade that built fortunes, drew pirates whose names would become legend and helped shape the food, people and culture around the world as we know it today.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: Right now, we are in this beautiful building here, which is a Catholic church.

MARTIN: My NPR colleagues and I, together with a few other journalists, wound up on Cabo Verde on a crew rest and refueling stop on our way to the refugee settlement on the Chad-Sudan border. Our host, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, decided to make the most of it by arranging a tour of the historic sites. It was a surprisingly bracing experience.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: So this building, this church, was built - it started first as a small chapel where we had the slaves baptized.

MARTIN: Our U.S. embassy guide, a local employee, explains, that gorgeous baptismal font - where enslaved people were baptized so they could fetch a higher price at market. That restored fort, those holes in the ground where there is barely room to stand, let alone sit or lie down - where slaves were kept hidden so they couldn't be stolen during raids. That plaza - where enslaved people were bought and sold. Djassi Amado says it isn't exactly clear how the slave trade began there.

DJASSI AMADO: One hypothesis that we may want to start with is the pressure made by Portuguese settlers, the first settlers in the islands. You know, they reached out to the king, say, you know, one way that we could make a living here is if we are granted rights to engage in trade with West African territories, including engaging in human cargo trade. So that's the starting point. And eventually, the king wants to maintain a presence of Portuguese in the islands and issued that royal charter of 1466.

MARTIN: Because of its Portuguese colonial heritage, Cabo Verde has been a vacation spot for Portuguese and other Europeans for years, but not for many Americans, who have the Caribbean islands on their doorstep. And its pivotal role in the slave trade is not well-known in the U.S. This despite the fact that there's a long history of immigration to the U.S., often led by seamen who headed to traditional whaling towns in New England.

There are almost as many Cabo Verdean outside the country as in it, including House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, who traces his roots to Cabo Verde, and the late jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver. The country's leaders hope to take advantage of that connection by encouraging more Americans to visit and invest, especially those with ties to the island nation. But as Cabo Verdean scholar Djassi Amado says, no matter where they live or work now, Cabo Verdeans have one thing in common, longing for home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.