Top 20 Ethnic Roots

Of course it is always going to be extremely difficult when trying to extrapolate possible ethnic origins for presentday Cape Verdeans. When all you have is based on sketchy information dating from several centuries ago. Genetic continuity cannot be assumed in a context of:

  • transit slave trade
  • recurring droughts and famines
  • (voluntary) migrations between the islands
  • (voluntary) migrations from and to the mainland
  • skewed sex ratios
  • differentiated mortality rates according to slave/freed status
  • etc.etc.etc.

Founding effects and bottleneck demographics are bound to distort the picture greatly. Therefore I like to underline that this overview is not intended to be 100% accurate. Instead the aim is for careful analysis using sound intuitive judgement and as much information as possible. Trying to move beyond mere speculation and reach more solid insights on the plausible ethnic backgrounds of Cape Verdeans within Africa.

Some of the names in this top 20 might sound obscure or counterintuitive. This is because some ethnic groups used to be more prominent in the past and/or were disproportionally exposed to slave trade. A few of them greatly decreased in numbers because of this. Assimilation into neighbouring groups lead to further marginalization.

The top 5 I personally consider to represent the most important ethnic African roots for Cape Verde. Based on historically known presence, cultural retention and ancestral connections (as confirmed/indicated by DNA testing). The remaining top 15 I suspect will show much variation in actual contributions to Cape Verde’s ethnogenesis. But for each one of them there exists some type of historical testimony of their presence in Cape Verde.

1. Wolof (a.k.a. Jolof, Gelofa etc.)(Senegal)

  • Probably only ones to have formed an ethnic nucleus among Cape Verde’s population throughout its history. Being not only a plurality but also perhaps a majority (>50%) in the earliest settlement period (1460-1560). Supported by linguistical evidence and early slave trade patterns. Pending on future DNA research founding effects might be substantial. Therefore most widely spread among all segments of Cape Verdean population?
  • Oral traditions among Cape Verdeans themselves pick them out as founding population. These traditions  were maintained till the 18th century, when they were written down. But apparently discontinued afterwards in popular memory. Other legends are also mentioning a Wolof prince and his entourage arriving earlier in Cape Verde than the Portuguese “discoverers”. This seems to be a mix up though of historically documented events taking place AFTER Cape Verde got settled by the Portuguese . Historical accounts mention how this royal lineage of the Jonais was held in great esteem. Even well into the 17th century when their Cape Verdean descendants still remembered their background!
  • The Wolof weaving industry most likely provided both inspiration and skilled weavers to the Cape Verdean Pano (textiles) industry. In historical accounts it’s mentioned that Wolof weavers were still very much estimated in the mid 17th century. Even when direct Cape Verdean links with Senegal had much decreased. But in fact in the Cape Verdean slave census of 1856 a continued presence of  the Wolof in Cape Verde is still being attested.

2. Mandinga (a.k.a. Mandinka/Mandingo etc.)(Gambia, Casamance & Guiné Bissau)

  • Culturally they seem to have been by far the most dominant going by linguistic influence and other retentions in Cape Verdean culture. This outcome is not really surprising however given the rampant Mandinganization throughout Upper Guinea (assimilation of Mandinga culture by other ethnic groups). It is therefore possible that their cultural legacy was partially brought over by Mandinganized peoples, rather than the Mandinga themselves.
  • Still their presence in Cape Verde is testified from the earliest days in the 1400’s. And unlike the Wolof they are consistently among the top 5 Upper Guinean ethnicities mentioned in Latin American slave registers up to 1660. In the period 1760-1860 and perhaps already starting in the early 1700’s they would have been the most numerous ethnicity among slaves in Cape Verde. Going not only by the 1856 census of Cape Verdean slaves. But also relying on what’s known about the ethnic composition of slaves being imported in Maranhão in the 1700’s and comments by contemporary travellers, and other historical clues. Given that only a minority (<20%) of total Cape Verdean population was enslaved by this time their genetical impact might be more pronounced among some population segments than others though.

3. Biafada (a.k.a. Beafada, Biafara etc.)(Guiné Bissau)

  • Together with the Papel probably the most numerous ethnicity among Upper Guinean slaves exported to the Spanish Americas. Both according to the Cape Verdean travelling reports from the 1500/1600’s as well as what’s known about the Upper Guinean origins of slaves in Latin America. However compared with the Wolof who were earlier arrivals in Cape Verde they might have had a greater share of reexports from Cape Verde. Comparing the Biafada with the Papel they seem to have been introduced into Cape Verde more early. The main trading settlement in their territory, Guinala, possibly being more frequently visited by Cape Verdean traders than Cacheu (in Papel territory) until the 1590’s. Therefore the founding effect might be bigger for them than for Papel in Cape Verde.
  • They were among the first trading partners of the Portuguese and Cape Verdeans and said to be very accomodating. Many of them also reported to have moved voluntarily to Cape Verde as traders, sailors, interpreters, wives etc. According to other Guineans they are said to have been the ones to introduce slavery into the world. Apparently judicial enslavement (chai) seems to have been very important among them besides kidnapping/raiding. They were also being pressurized by the Mandinga from the Kaabu empire in the interior and the Bijago on the coast. In their early past, mid 1400’s, they had achieved a great victory against invading Fula though. An event that was still being remembered and documented by Cape Verdean writers in the 1500’s/1600’s!
  • Together with the Banhun and Cassanga they were among the most Mandinganized ethnicities in Upper Guinea. Their territory used to be much bigger than nowadays, covering much of interior Guinea Bissau. However many of them got assimilated first by the Mandinga and later on by the Fula.

4. Papel (a.k.a. Bram/Bran, also incl. subgroups Manjak & Macanha) (Guiné Bissau)

  • In the Spanish Americas probably the most numerous Upper Guinean ethnicity. Because Cacheu and Bissau are both located within Papel territory and these main slave ports used to have direct connections with Latin America (bypassing Cape Verde). When Cape Verdean traders still operated independently they had separate sourcing from Upper Guinea, not relying on Cacheu & Bissau exclusively.
  • In Cape Verde most likely dominant in the period 1600-1700 when Cape Verdean owned shipping started to collapse and the enslaved portion of total Cape Verde’s population was starting to decrease. In the period 1700-1860 they probably got eclipsed by the Balanta, Diola and Bijago as well as the Mandinga. This is also being testified by evidence from Maranhão, northern Brazil.
  • Cacheu & later on Bissau were Portuguese/Luso-African settlements within Papel territory which had to pay tribute/taxes to their Papel “landlords”. Most of the local traders, soldiers, priests, officials were Cape Verdeans and there was much interaction with local Papel population. The generic name for West African migrants in Cape Verde nowadays is Manjak, no matter if they are actually ethnically Manjak or even Guinean: Nigerians and Senegalese also being called as such.

5. Banhun/Bainouk (Casamance, Gambia, Guiné Bissau)

  • Among the earliest traded ethnicities from Casamance and Gambia. Reference to their presence among traded slaves being pretty much consistent later on as well. They were among the biggest clients for Cape Verde’s cotton exports.
  • Similarly to Biafada much assimilation into the Mandinga as well as into Diola populations. In previous times (before the expansion of Mande speaking peoples) it is assumed their territory covered the greater part of Gambia and Casamance. Nowadays they are much reduced. Originally in Mandinga their name is supposed to have meant “those who retreat”.
  • Besides Mandinga and Wolof weavers they also seem to have been in much demand as Pano weavers.

Continuing with 15 more ethnicities no longer ranked in any particular order except geographically from North to South:

(a.k.a. Peulh/Fulo/Pullo,Tukulor etc.) (Senegal, Gambia, Guiné Bissau, Guiné Conakry)

  • Few listings in the early slave registers we currently have. Notable exception for the late timeperiod however. See the very last 1856 Cape Verdean slave census. It is said that they were not enslaved frequently except as POW’s. Their political power seems to have been relatively uncontested from the 1510’s onwards so that might explain it. In the period of 1460-1500 they were however under Wolof occupation. And it might be that many slaves in the Valencia records, labeled as “de Jalofa” might actually have been Fula from Senegal. From the 1730’s or so the Fula from Guiné Conakry (Fouta Djallon) started their Jihad which caused many longlasting wars and displacement. Non-muslim Fula were also sometimes victims of their raiding campaigns. Although ultimately victorious they suffered many defeats as well. Generating captives on both sides. Their longstanding battles against the Kaabu empire probably already started in the late 1700’s but only ended in 1867.
  • Still there are plenty of references to their presence in Cape Verde as wel as Latin America also in the 1500’s/1600’s. Some of them are said to have come voluntarily to Cape Verde as free settlers.


tenho falado com muitos Fulos… em Guine, e com muitos que se fizeram cristaos e nesta ilha [Santiago] se casaram… ouvi a meu pai e a muitos antigos e assim a muitos Fulos antigos que de Guine a esta ilha vieram, que no tempo que esta ilha foi descoberta” (Cf. Carreira, 1972: 320)
  • Also during a Portuguese expedition via the Senegal river in 1546, Fula and Wolof interpretors were collected from Cape Verde.


“Pode-se atestar a presenca de Jalofos e Fulas entre os primeiros povoadores de Santiago. Em 1546, Diogo Carreiro, para seguir viagem rumo ao Rio Senegal, leva “muitos negros Jalofos do sertao de Jalofos e Fulos… e da ilha levou algumas linguas [interpretes]”


  • Another quote from Lemos Coelho (1684) hinting how there might have been a spezialized demand for them.


They sell few blacks of their own nation, but those Fulos who do become slaves are prized as cowherds or shepherds, just as the Jalofos are as stable-boys
  • Cape Verdean historian A.Carreira assumed them to be among the top 3 ethnicities for Cape Verde when writing in 1972. Partially based on a bloodgroup testing done in the 1950’s. Which might be considered outdated and faulty in methodology nowadays.  However Carreira (who grew up in Guiné Bissau and apparently spoke Fula fluently) also mentioned he noticed many Fula influences in Cape Verdean Crioulo and toponyms. He was under the impression Fogo might have received the most of them. It will be very interesting to know to what extent the higher than average North African %’s in personal DNA testing among people from Fogo can be related to Fula ancestry in the near future.
  • Another interesting tidbit is that apparently fula was also used as colour descriptor. I have seen this also in Brazilian slave registers. However it’s only to be understood as a phenotype classification and not per se hinting towards ethnic Fula origins. For example I have seen a slave from Cabinda/Angola also being described as having “cor de fula”


In general, there was a three-color code system in the 1856 slave census: preta (black), mulata (light-skin), and fula (brown). The Portuguese believed that some ethnic Fula were not “jet black,” whereas slaves, whether born in Cape Verde or from Upper Guinea,were sometimes described as cor fula (fula color)


(a.k.a. Berbesi etc.) (Senegal)

  • They had been much oppressed by the Wolof empire during the 1400’s but managed to break free in the early 1500’s. Creating two new states called Saloum and Sin. These states were multi-ethnic, incl. Wolof and Mandinga besides the Sereer. They also had extensive trading connections with the interior Fula. All of these peoples are said to have been culturally interrelated by contemporary Cape Verdean travellers.
  • They appear to have become the preferred trading partners of Cape Verde-based traders in the early 1500’s. They were reported to be very successful in many wars against the interior leftover state of Jolof. Resulting in many captives to be sold. However from the 1560’s or so there was increasing competition from North European traders and also constant pirate attacks causing Cape Verde-based traders to retreat from their area (Petit Coté). Still because of locally settled Luso Africans (despite increasing assimilation they maintained their Cape Verdean related Crioulo and (nominal) Catholicism till the 1800’s!) and their relay trade with Cacheu some indirect commerical ties with Cape Verde were still being preserved.

Diola (a.k.a. Felupe/Floup, Jola) (Casamance, Guiné Bissau, Gambia)

  • Said to be among the earliest native peoples of Senegambia together with the Banhun. Well known for their rice cultivation. Hostile to Portuguese and Cape Verdean traders from the beginning. Still they eventually (late 1600’s/1700’s) got involved in the Atlantic trading system through middlemen (Papel or Mandinga) nearby Cacheu and Ziguinchor (Casamance).
  • Had frequent wars with Mandinga/Papel/Banhuns. Mostly indecisive because they were well protected by the mangroves swamps of their area. Expanding in the 1700’s and 1800’s, they ended up assimilating many Banhuns in the process.

Cassanga (Casamance/Guiné Bissau)

  • Nowadays mostly assimilated into Mandinga groups of Casamance. However in the 1500’s they were among the preferred trading partners of the Portuguese/Cape Verdeans. Their elites at that time seem to already have been very much Mandinganized or even partially of Mandinga origin.
  • The region of Casamance (southern Senegal) is named after them, literally it means King(dom) of the Casa’s (Mansa = Mandinga for king).
  • They had longstanding wars with the Banhuns who also lived in the Casamance region and they were themselves (nominally) vassals of the Mali empire and later on the Kaabu kingdom, both dominated by Mande speakers.

Basari/Tenda (Guiné Bissau, Senegal, Guiné Conakry)

  • They are supposed to be the oldest native populations living in the interior of eastern Senegal, eastern Guiné Bissau and northern Guiné Conakry. Predating the arrival of Mande speakers from Mali. According to Rodney (1970) the Kaabu empire carried out most of its slave raiding among them. He also classified them as being “Palaeonegrids”. Many of them got displaced, marginalized or assimilated in the process.
  • Nowadays most historians seem to think that it was rather coastal populations being most dominant in Trans-Atlantic slave trade of the early period (till 1650 or so). Still there is a reference being made to them in Lemos Coelho (1684). He called them Bacheares and he personally witnessed great numbers of them being exported via Gambia. Also the Tiliboncas mentioned in the 1856 Cape Verdean slave census probably refers mostly to them.

Balanta (Guiné Bissau)

  • Like the Diola they were very hostile to Portuguese, Cape Verdean and Luso-African traders. At first not involved in slave trading but in order to get iron tools/weapons, they were forced to do so mostly via Papel middlemen.
  • In Mandinga their name translates as “those who resist” . Because they were usually able to withstand Mandinga attacks from Kaabu, their swampy territory protecting them from horse attacks. Still many might have been made captives.
  • In the 1700’s/1800’s they expanded a great deal, assimilating some Banhun, Papel and Biafada in the process.

Bijagos (Guiné Bissau)

  • Along with the Kaabu empire they seem to have been the biggest slave raiding suppliers within Guiné Bissau. They especially wreaked havoc on the Biafada and Nalu, but in earlier times also made frequent raids on the Papel.
  • Because of their fierce warrior spirit they were said to be unsuited as slaves. Many also preferring to commit suicide. Still their numbers increased in the late 1600’s/1700’s judging from the data we have on Maranhão. They were also among the top ethnicities mentioned in the Cape Verdean slave census of 1856. Possibly because there was more factional fighting between Bijagos themselves and also more women/children were being captured.

Nalu (Guiné Bissau/Guiné Conakry)

  • Neighbours of the Biafada, but unlike them not being under the influence of the Mandinga. Preferring to stay disconnected from the Atlantic trade like the Balanta, Diola and also the related Baga from Guiné Conakry. Not wanting to have anything to do with the Portuguese and Cape Verdeans. Still because of slave raiding, mostly by the Biafada and Bijagos, many ended up as captives.

Cocoli (a.k.a. Landuma) (Guiné Conakry)

  • They were most likely a partially Mandinganized people living near the coastal area of Guiné Conakry. However they were a Baga subgroup (closely related to the Sape from Sierra Leone). Acording to Donelha they were a vassal state to the Mali empire, having their own Farim (=Mandinga name for local ruler).
  • Together with the Susu they might have been involved in the regional indigo trade from Guiné Conakry carried out by Cape Verdean and Luso-African traders along the Nuno and Pongo rivers.
  • Mentioned first already in 1506 among the Valencia samples, also present among the Peruvian samples, especially during the 1630’s.
  • There’s a village in Santo Antão called Cocoli! Probably one of the very few African derived toponyms on that island.

Baga (various subgroups) (coastal Guiné Conakry)

  • The Portuguese and Cape Verdean travelling accounts of the 1500’s/1600’s describe them as generally hostile. But still there was an important trade in especially Indigo along the rivers Nunez and Pongo. These rivers would later on (1700’s) become the main slave export centers for the Fula of Fouta Djallon.
  • Cape Verdean traders and their Luso African offspring are known to have settled in these parts in the 1500’s-1700’s. Some of them intermarried into Baga nobility and eventually returned to Cape Verde with Baga wives, children and entourage.
  • Only rarely mentioned in the slave registers which is in agreement with the insignificance of slave trade in these parts until the mid 1700’s.

Susu (a.k.a. Soso/Zozo/Souso (Guiné Conakry)

  • A Mande speaking ethnicity distinct from the Mandinga. During the 1500’s/1600’s they were still located in the interior of Guiné Conakry. Only during the 1700’s they were forced to move to the coastal area because of the Fula Jihad. They had been in contact with Portuguese and Cape Verdean traders before that though, mainly trading in salt and textiles.
  • Together with the Fula they are said to have stopped the Mané invasions coming from the south/Sierra Leone in the 16th century. Apparently there was a fierce battle which might also have resulted in many Susu captives judging from some of the slave registers we have from Latin America in the period 1560-1577.
  • in the 1600’s there were already many clashes between the Fula and Susu but only in the 1700’s would the Fula gain the upperhand. Captives from this period seem to be in evidence from a 1624 Cape Verdean slave register.

Jallonké (a.k.a. Djallonké, Jalonga (Guiné Conakry)

  • A Mande speaking ethnicity just like the Susu and very closely related to them. Named after the Fouta Djallon their original location until they got replaced during the Fula Jihad of the 1700’s.
  • Only a few mentions in slave registers (both 1700’s and 1500’s) although some of them perhaps got labeled as Mandinga.
  • Intriguingly there are several places in Cape Verde called Ponta Jalunga which micht be toponyms referring to the Jallonke.
  • Julanque on Santiago is famously connected with a major Maroon uprising in the early 1700’s! See also this website.

Bambara (Mali)

  • Often used as an umbrella term for Mande speaking people from the interior. Therefore not per se to be identified as ethnically Bambara. However in the Cape Verde slave census of 1856 they appear next to the Assolum so perhaps in this case an ethnic distinction was made indeed.
  • Interior ethnicities like the Bambara are said to have ended up in Guiné Bissau because the traditional trading routes via Gambia got suspended after the UK ban on slave trade in 1807. Also it is said that slave trading with the region of eastern Senegal/western Mali and beyond only started around the 1650’s or so when the first mention was made of Bambara slaves. However Portuguese and Cape Verdean traders had been travelling to upriver locations along the Gambia and Senegal from early on. Even though most of the slave trade seems to have been Transsaharan I suppose it’s possible that some of the captives generated by the breakup of the Mali/Songhay empires in the 1500’s ended up in Cape Verde and/or Trans-Atlantic trade.
  • Intriguingly some emotionally significant Cape Verdean Crioulo words, Kode= youngest child & Bombu= mothers carrying baby on their back) of Mande origin are more similar to modern day Bambara words than words found in modern day Mandinga. There could be several explanations for this however (perhaps Bambara being more conservative than Mandinga?).

Sape (modern day Temne, Sherbro and other neighbouring Atlantic speakers) (Sierra Leone)

  • The term Sape was used sort of as a lump category for many interrelated peoples on the coast of Guiné Conakry and Sierra Leone. It is thought to derive from a Landuma subgroup called the Tyapi/Chapi (Brooks). However given the strong trading connections Cape Verdean traders had with the area around the Sierra Leone peninsula. And also the way Cape Verdean travelling reports focus on describing the Temne as their most important local partners. It is thought that the Sape in Cape Verde mainly might have been Temne.
  • The socalled Mané invasions of the 1550’s (described in great detail by Cape Verdean travelling reports) caused a big surge in Sape captives, noticeable in all the slave registers. However Sape slaves were already present in Cape Verde in earlier times.
  • Cape Verdeans from the late 1500’s and 1600’s had their eyes set on colonizing the Sierre Leone peninsula. They had high praise for its commercial potential and also for the Sape people, singling out the Temne. There were even plans for relocating the entire Cape Verdean population there! None of this materialized though. Direct trading connections between Cape Verde and Sierra Leone would quickly decrease in the 1600’s because of pirate attacks and the collapse of Cape Verdean owned shipping. Still because of the locally settled Luso Africans the mutual ties were not completely broken till the late 1700’s.
  • There is much anecdotal evidence of Sape presence in Cape Verde. It is known that at least two Sape kings and their entourage fled to Cape Verde during the Mané invasions. A Cape Verdean trader who left us a very valuable historical account Donelha (1625) went to school on Cape Verde with a Sape prince and had corresponce with him when that prince later on moved to Cacheu and then back to Sierra Leone. Many Sapes refugees however arrived as slaves in Cape Verde but apparently some of them were manumitted because they had been enslaved “illegally”.
  • In the early Cape Verdean capital of Ribeira Grande there used to be a neighborhood called the “Aldeia dos Sapes” which was still in existence around 1626. It is mentioned that it was inhabited by free blacks and poor whites.


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