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.
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.’
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.
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
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’.
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