The republic of Cape Verde, an archipelago of 10 islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa, is perhaps best known as a burgeoning tourist spot and as the home of the late folk singer Cesaria Evora, who gained worldwide fame as the “Barefoot Diva.”
Less known, until now, is Cape Verde’s status as the onetime home to many Moroccan Jewish emigrants, whose cemeteries are being restored, thanks to the determined effort of a D.C. woman who stumbled upon this aspect of the diaspora a few years ago.
The cemeteries are a “reminder of the Jewish presence” in Cape Verde, which began in the early 19th century, as emigrants from Morocco came in search of economic opportunities, said Carol Castiel, who discovered the connection when working on a USAID-funded scholarship program for New York’s Africa-America Institute. The institute, according to its website, promotes “enlightened engagement between Africa and America through education, training and dialogue.”
Ms. Castiel came across Cape Verdeans with surnames such as Cohen, Levy, Benoliel, Benros, and Wahnon, all of whom were of Sephardic Jewish origin — those who came originally from the Near East but who also had lived in the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) before the Inquisition led to their expulsion.
By 1842, Ms. Castiel said, treaties between Portugal and Britain created the conditions for Jews, especially those from British-controlled Gibraltar, to live and work in Cape Verde, then a Portuguese colony. While the community wasn’t highly visible and some prejudiced attitudes still persisted, there were no attempts to hide members’ Jewish origins. She quoted Eliezer Shai di Martino, Chief Rabbi of Lisbon, who said that “people who ask why there isn’t a synagogue were not asking the right question.” It was “how the Jews buried their dead [that] was a more important question,” and that the presence of Jewish cemeteries was “a poignant remnant of their presence” in this nation 300 miles off the coast of Senegal.
At a May 2 ceremony to rededicate the restored burial plots in Praia, one of the Cape Verdean locations with a Jewish cemetery, the importance of the efforts became clear.
“This ceremony is important because it helps the descendants of the Jews from Morocco better understand the contributions their ancestors made to the development of Cape Verde. It helps us know where we came from and points us in the direction we ought to follow in the future,” said John Wahnon, a descendant who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1962 at the age of 20 and now lives in the Baltimore area. He flew to Praia for the ceremony.
“We are encouraged by the success already achieved in this project and it encourages us to move forward confidently in other phases of the work ahead of us,” added Praia’s mayor, Ulisses Correia Silva.
In an intriguing turn, King Mohammed VI of Morocco is a major benefactor of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project, the nonprofit Ms. Castiel started to raise funds for the cemetery restoration. Abdellah Boutadghart, deputy chief of the Moroccan Embassy in Dakar, Senegal, represented the monarch at the Praia event. In a statement, Andre Azoulay, senior counselor to the king, said, “The support of King Mohammed VI [for] this project is representative of Morocco’s attachment to the preservation of its patrimony — Arab, Jewish or Berber.”
Ms. Castiel said the Jewish community soon assimilated, since the majority of the immigrants were men, many of whom intermarried with local residents. The Jewish faith is matrilineal, and without Jewish mothers in Cape Verde, the religion died out. Some Cape Verdean descendants who live outside the country have embraced Judaism in recent years, Ms. Castiel said.
A total of $250,000 to $300,000 is needed to finish the restoration work and to help document the history of Jews in Cape Verde, Ms. Castiel said, and the organization is about a third of the way to reaching that goal.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at email@example.com.