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The history of Cabo Verde is dominated by three overriding facts: there were no people of any sort on the islands when the Portuguese first arrived; the environment has become increasingly fragile over the centuries, largely due to the impact of people and overgrazing; and it's further from the African mainland and closer to the Americas than any other African country. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that Cabo Verde developed along lines somewhat different from the rest of Africa.

When Portuguese mariners first landed in Cabo Verde in 1456, the islands were barren of people but not of vegetation. Seeing the islands today, you find it hard to imagine that they were once sufficiently verde (green) to entice the Portuguese to return six years later to the island of Santiago to found Ribeira Grande (now Cidade Velha). The Portuguese soon brought slaves from the West African coast to do the hard labor. The islands also became a convenient base for ships transporting slaves to Europe and the Americas. Cabo Verde islands became part of the Portuguese empire in 1495.

The islands' prosperity brought them unwanted attention in the form of a sacking at the hands of England's Sir Francis Drake in 1586. Cabo Verde remained in Portuguese hands and continued to prosper, but in 1747 the islands were hit with the first of the many droughts that have plagued them ever since. The situation was made worse by deforestation and overgrazing, which destroyed the ground vegetation that provided moisture. Three major droughts in the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in well over 100,000 people starving to death. The Portuguese government sent almost no relief during any of the droughts.

The 19th-century decline of the lucrative slave trade was another blow. Cabo Verde's heyday was over. It was then, in 1832, that Charles Darwin passed by, finding dry and barren islands. It was also around this time that Caboverdeans started emigrating to New England. This was a popular destination because of the whales that abounded in the waters around Cabo Verde, and as early as 1810 whaling ships from Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the US recruited crews from the islands of Brava and Fogo.

At the end of the 19th century, with the advent of the ocean liner, the islands' position astride Atlantic shipping lanes made Cabo Verde an ideal locale for re-supplying ships with fuel (imported coal), water and livestock. Still, the droughts continued and the Portuguese government did nothing. Many more thousands died of starvation during the first half of the 20th century. Although the Caboverdeans were treated badly by their colonial masters, they fared slightly better than Africans in other Portuguese colonies because of their lighter skin. A small minority received an education.

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