From sea to land: social and legal aspects of ownership in Cape Verde (1600-1750)

At the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century, the archipelago of Cape Verde was uninhabited and, for this reason, required successive waves of people migrating from the European continent and the Guinea Coast for its population. This characteristic has formed something of a barrier to understanding the history of the Atlantic archipelagos and other such island spaces. On the one hand, as their population was often subordinated and silenced, colonised islands are seen as mere recipients of the social, economic, political and administrative models transplanted from the metropolis. On the other hand, historians focus on the contribution of these insular spaces to the formation of the globalisation process at the expense of their specific internal dynamics.

To overcome this bias, I propose looking at landholding in Cape Verde at the exact moment of the transition from a mercantile system, based on the slave trade, to an agrarian-based one in the 17th and 18th centuries. To do so, I will focus on the characteristics of land tenure and land use in Cape Verde, which were specific to the archipelago despite being based on European legal and institutional foundations. The vínculos (either morgados or capelas), types of land tenure that were restricted by a set of clauses which prevented the land’s division and alienation, are the main focus of this study. This choice is justified both quantitatively, by the ubiquity of this regime, and qualitatively, by the lack of studies on this institution in Cape Verde. However, rather than examining only possession or access to land, the project takes a closer look at the legal and judicial dynamics, with the aim of uncovering the resulting conflicts between the different social actors.

The project’s hypothesis is that, rather than early modern landholding regimes in Cape Verde being the result of the transplantation of Portuguese law, we see original legal models of land ownership taking shape in the archipelago, for a variety of reasons: due to its distance from the metropolis, its isolation, lack of water resources, the islands’ social texture and, last but not least, the population’s main language (crioulo). The phenomena of the autonomy of certain social groups and the centre-periphery dialectic, emphasised in the recent historiography of empires, will also be considered in determining whether a sui generis system of land access modalities, institutions, juridical and social relations emerged in Cape Verde during the 17th and 18th centuries.

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