Looking down on faded yellow-painted buildings
Cape Verde,  CFFC,  Dark tourism,  Ruins

Campo da Morte Lenta: Camp of the Slow Death

On the southern outskirts of the small fishing town of Tarrafel on Santiago, one of the Cape Verde Islands, is a haunting sight. Now a museum, this former concentration camp commemorates a darker time for the islands, under Portuguese rule.

Tarrafel Camp was also known as Campo da Morte Lenta (‘Camp of the Slow Death’), for chilling reasons. It was established in 1936 as an overseas penal colony, by the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, to house opponents to his right-wing authoritarian regime. The aim was to isolate activists from the mainland; also, by incarcerating them in such tough conditions, to send a clear message to others that the punishment for opposition to the regime would be severe.

High walls and metal gate
Entrance to the camp

Conditions in the camp

Wikipedia describes the conditions thus:

‘The PVDE [the Portuguese secret police force] modelled its camp regime on the Nazi concentration camps. Prisoners were subjected to brutal authority. Strict regulations were enforced and outside information was forbidden. The PVDE used physical and psychological violence against the prisoners, this included sleep deprivation, beatings and humiliation. Men and women were tortured for information on their organizations and networks in Portugal. The most severe punishment was conducted in a concrete cell called the frigideira (English: ‘frying pan’). Inside this windowless 6m x3m building, daytime temperatures could reach up to 60° Celsius. Prisoners could be held inside these blocks for days, weeks or months.’

Folded beige uniform
Prison uniform

There is a model of this frigideira on display in a small room to the right of the entrance. It also displays a prisoner’s uniform and a few other artefacts. A video tells the story of the camp but unfortunately only in Portuguese. It’s better to wander around soaking up the rather sombre atmosphere and relying on the various signs for information. These are helpfully mostly in English (as well as Portuguese and French).

The camp was closed in 1954, but not before 32 political prisoners had died there. In 1961 however it was reopened, this time to serve as a labour camp, housing militants who were fighting Portuguese colonialism in Cape Verde, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau. The frigideira was replaced with an hollandinha, a tiny cell within a cell used for solitary confinement and can still be seen. The camp closed for a final time in 1974, when the Portuguese rule came to an end, and an order was given for all prisoners here to be released. In 1975 Cape Verde achieved full independence and the camp was handed over to the newly-formed government.

Touring the camp

After closure the camp was used in various ways, including as a military base and a school. It became a museum in 2000. The museum focuses on the prison buildings themselves – cells, first aid post, store rooms etc. Outside the walls, the former officers’ and guards’ quarters seem to be still occupied by local people who moved in when the army base closed.

The buildings are not in a great state of repair; there is little to see beyond the few artefacts I mentioned already, but the camp is very evocative. It is currently on the UNESCO tentative list as a possible future World Heritage site.

First Aid?

Top of building with red cross
The First Aid Post

One building where more has been done to enhance the visitor experience is the first aid post. Inside it, signs describe one of the harshest aspects of camp life for the political prisoners in the 1930s and 40s. Illness was unsurprisingly rife, and in 1937 a doctor was sent here, Esmeraldo Pais de Prata, with the task not of curing the sick but verifying whether their claims of illness were genuine or if they were trying to avoid work.

Pais de Prata was, according to the description on the signs here, the very opposite of what a doctor should be. He refused to have unsafe water boiled; he denied the prisoners medication (including that sent by their families); and he approved their too-meagre rations. A quote attributed to him is displayed on the wall:

‘I am not here to heal but rather to sign death certificates’.

Esmeraldo Pais de Prata
Looking out of a barred window
Looking out of a cell
Inside a bare long room with iron roof
Cell block with inner walls no longer standing

Signs elsewhere focus on the later stage of the camp’s history, as a labour camp during the colonies’ struggle for independence from Portugal. According to these, for a long while Portugal denied that the camp even existed, telling the United Nations that rumours of its existence were ‘entirely without foundation’.

Buildings with peeling paint, twisted tree
Camp buildings

The revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral invoked the Geneva Convention, with the result that a delegation from the international Red Cross visited the camp in 1969. While conditions at that time were not as harsh as during the 30s and 40s (inmates could, for instance, read books and newspapers in the library, have visits to the cinema and beach, and go to the hospital for medical treatment), nevertheless the Red Cross inspection led to some prisoners being released.

A second Red Cross visit two years later was, according to the sign I read, a bit of a fudge. Only certain aspects of prison life were inspected and little attention paid to poor diet and lack of medical facilities.

Of course, history is written by the victors, and the Cape Verdeans won their battle for independence from Portugal. I have no idea if the Portuguese would tell the story of this camp differently.

It’s possible that if the camp achieves the sought-after World Heritage site listing that the buildings here will be repaired and restored. In some ways I feel that could be a shame, as it would risk sanitising the horrors of this place. For now it stands as a faded memorial to all who lost their lives here, an evocative example of architectural decay to share for Cee’s CFCC ‘Rusty or decayed’ theme.

I visited Santiago in 2018


    • Sarah Wilkie

      I wouldn’t have thought it either, until we visited. It’s easy to dismiss them as a ‘sun, sea and sand’ destination, but while they have that side to them there is also a lot of history, not all of it pleasant.

  • maristravels

    What a fascinating post, Sarah, and one that should be highlighted. I knew vaguely about this place as I’d met a former Portuguese prisoner in Cuba who had escaped from an island off Africa (he told me) and ended up in Cuba after being involved in the Angolan war. I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe him as I’d never heard of this although I was well aware of the Salazar brutal regime. Along with Franco. They were the bogey-men of my day. I’m glad it’s still there, we must never forget places like this and what they stood for.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh, that’s so interesting Mari. I wonder if it could have been this island? If you google Salazar and concentration camp this is the only one that seems to come up but that could simply be because it’s the best known or the only one left standing. I knew vaguely of him and his regime, yes, but I’d not known much about the history of Cape Verde – I certainly didn’t know that the islands were used to isolate his opponents, and I didn’t know enough about their struggles for independence and connections to mainland African countries who shared that struggle. It was all fascinating.

      • maristravels

        There is so much we don’t know about other countries struggles for independence – and our country’s involvement in them, whether supplying arms or helping with covert ops. I should imagine this was the only concentration camp for the Portuguese dissidents as they would want to keep them all together. Going back to Cuba (we were there before the country opened up as it has recently), we met a lot of dissidents from other countries there, quite a lot from ETA in Norther Spain. It made for great conversations at night in the few bars we were permitted to use and it certainly improved my colloquial Spanish!

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Sounds like an interesting trip. We were there quite a few years ago but didn’t get much chance to engage with locals like that – perhaps in part because neither of us speaks Spanish, unfortunately.

  • Easymalc

    An excellent post Sarah. I’m sure people many don’t like to be reminded of places like this in somewhere so beautiful as the Cape Verde Islands, but it’s history, and coming to terms with history no matter what side of the history fence that you come from is a part of the healing process of the past.

    I’m also one of those people who don’t like to see such a place sanitized to such an extent that it loses its reason for still being there. That said, I’ve often wondered how some places manage to shake off their image of a miserable past without it being the only thing a place is remembered for. Thankfully, we don’t need to feel like that, but I do feel for those that live in such a place.

    You’ve done a fabulous job, once again, of getting the balance right Sarah. Thanks for enlightening me about this part of the world which I know very little about.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Malcolm, I really appreciate your kind comments 🙂 What I failed to photograph here, and which would have made an interesting contrast to these almost deserted ruins, were the old officers’ quarters now being used as homes by local people. I guess for them the miserable past is less important than the need for a roof over their heads in the present.

  • margaret21

    I didn’t know this story at all,. But once seen, never forgotten with this kind of site, I find. Visiting a concentration camp is part of a standard German schoolchild’s education I understand. Done well, it could be salutary.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It was unknown part of history to me too. I guess we all know about the Nazi concentration camps but I hadn’t realised until we came here that the Portuguese had any. In the same way, I guess, that relatively few people realise that not only did the British have them (in the Boer War) but can said to have invented the appalling concept 🙁

  • Rose Vettleson

    Your images leave me feeling somber. To read of a concentration camp, on an island, near a small fishing town, is incongruous. It’s difficult to read this kind of history, how humans can be so horrible to each other. If only we were smart enough to learn from these atrocities.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re right Rose, totally incongruous. And especially so as we were on a general island tour with a driver/guide which mostly took us to much more typical small island spots such as a busy local market and scenic viewpoints, as well as that fishing village. I hadn’t known much at all about the history of these islands until we visited but it proved fascinating, if at times very dark.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      So did I, until we started to explore the possibility of a winter break there and realised that if we stayed on Santiago there would be plenty to see and do. And actually, the weather in February wasn’t good enough for a beach holiday so we got the better deal than those who’d gone to lie in the sun 🙂

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Wow that certainly sounds like a gruesome place to visit, Sarah. Like visiting Auschwitz or places with a history of slave trade, your skin crawls as you read its history and absorb its horrors, but it’s important that nobody denies that these things happened. Burying history won’t improve humanity, but learning to live with our history and avoiding repeats, hopefully will.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I totally agree – places like this are an important reminder of the past. Many tourists to Cape Verde only lie on its beaches, wind surf and swim, but we like to get under the skin of a destination and see things that are unique to this one place. I knew nothing of the history of these islands and the Portuguese occupation of them until visiting.

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