Cidade Velha, former historic centre of Ribeira Grande, was founded in 1462, two years after the arrival of the Portuguese navigators to the island of Santiago, the first island of the Cape Verde archipelago to be discovered.
Cidade Velha was also the first European colonial town to be built south of the Sahara and the first capital of Cape Verde. It was the seat of the first diocese in Africa’s West Coast. As a result of a request from King João III to pope Clement VII, in 1532, a Pro Excellenti papal bull established the new diocese the following year.
The archipelago proved to be in a strategically important location, serving as a key port of call in the routes to America and the south of Africa. It was mainly used for water and fresh food supplies, as well as ship repairs.
Besides, Cidade Velha was a precious laboratory where agricultural and animal species, both European and African, were created and tested, and subsequently introduced into the American continent. Likewise, species from the American continent were also tested so as to be introduced in Africa and Europe.
Cidade Velha proved to have appropriate natural conditions for human settlement.
In its most inhospitable areas, where the island forms a platform reaching the sea from a 100 metre height, there is a very deep and steep valley, of great landscape beauty, where a stream used to flow almost all year round through luxuriant plants, that came to be known as ribeira grande.
The abundance of water and propitious conditions for agriculture were determinant for the choice of this settlement.
Consequently, it was near the mouth of this stream that Cidade Velha was founded. Its building layout took advantage of the steep soil so as to form an amphitheatre sloping down towards the sea.
The whole ensemble is crowned by the Saint Philip Fortress, isolated from town by about a 100 metre height. Construction of the fortress was prompted by the 1578 and 1585 attacks by Sir Francis Drake, the renowned English pirate.
This fortress was the head of the defensive system. Only the foundations remain today of the Presídio fortress, that used to be located at the centre, overlooking the sea. To the east is the fort of S. António with vestiges from the fort of S. João dos Cavaleiros, now destroyed, and the fort of S. Veríssimo, of which two batteries remain; to the west, some vestiges of the fort of S. Brás, and the no longer existent fort of S. Lourenço.
Cidade Velha’s period of splendour occurred from mid 15th century to the end of the 16th century. However, it still maintained some of its glory in the 17th century due to the slave traffic.
By mid 16th century, the town had about 500 stone and lime buildings and a considerable number of religious buildings: the church of Our Lady of Rosário, the only remaining church that is still open for services, has a small Gothic chapel with Manueline motifs; the church of S. Roque, which is disfeatured today, and the no longer existing churches of Saint Peter, Mount Alverne, Our Lady of the Conception and the small chapel of St.ª Luzia. Moving downwards, and also inexistent today, except for part of the bell tower, is the church and hospital of Misericórdia and, further inside, the hospice and houses of the Jesuits.
The Convent of Saint Francis was built halfway up the hill in mid 17th century. Among its ruins, a restored church can be found.
The Saint Philip fortress also included the chapel of S. Gonçalo and, next to the See, the Episcopal Palace.
The imposing See Cathedral stood out in the ensemble due to its large dimension. Located in the district of S. Sebastião, 25 metres above sea level, it overlooked the town and dominated it with its strong presence.
Its construction began in 1556, by order of Friar Francisco da Cruz, third bishop of Cape Verde, but was interrupted. The works were resumed a century later, under the instructions of Friar Vitoriano Portuense, and were completed round 1700. By this time Ribeira Grande had already lost its glory.
In fact, better conditions in the port of Praia de St.ª Maria, 12 km away, combined with the insalubrities of Cidade Velha, where fevers caused by stagnated water at the mouth of the stream were much feared, led to its increasing decline along the 17th century, and to its ruin in the 18th century.
Besides, its defensive system, that was meant to defend any attack from the sea, never had sufficient men or fire arms, nor was it efficient in case of an attack from land. This situation occurred frequently, and the highest casualties took place in 1712, under the French commander Jacques Cassard.
Cidade Velha’s economic downturn prompted the transfer of the capital to Cidade da Praia in 1769. From then on, following its administrative decline, the town was progressively abandoned, as its military and religious buildings went to rack and ruin in in the 19th century. Most of them would collapse in the 20th century (except for the church of Our Lady of the Rosary), while the civil buildings disappeared completely.
Meanwhile, the site was inhabited by populations coming from inner lands. This is the present day Cidade Velha, raised on the site of earlier foundations, with simple dwellings, built of stone and covered with coconut tree leaves, with abundant use of cut stone found in the rubble.