Tarrafal Camp

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Tarrafal, Cape Verde

Tarrafal Camp Reviews

Toonsarah Toonsarah
566 reviews
Haunting history Feb 10, 2018
This former concentration camp in Chão Bom, on the outskirts of Tarrafal, made a real contrast to the rest of our day out. Now a museum, it commemorates a darker time for the islands, under Portuguese rule.

Also known as Campo da Morte Lenta (‘Camp of the Slow Death’) 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 and, 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.

A small room to the right of the entrance has various artefacts on display, including a prisoner’s uniform. 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, which are mostly in English (as well as Portuguese and French) for information.

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. It 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.

It has since been used in various ways, including as a military base and a school, but became a museum in 2000. The museum focuses on the prison buildings themselves – cells, first aid post, store rooms etc. Outside 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 and 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, where signs describe one of the harshest aspects of life here 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. He was, according to the description on the signs here, the very opposite of what a doctor should be – refusing to have unsafe water boiled, denying the prisoners medication (including that sent by their families) and approving 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’.
Tarrafal Camp
Tarrafal Camp
Tarrafal Camp - prisoner's uniform
Tarrafal Camp
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Toonsarah says:
Sad but interesting describes it perfectly Sylvia, and thanks for the congrats :-)
Posted on: Mar 07, 2018
starship1 says:
Sad and interesting at the same time. Congrats on this featured review of the day!
Posted on: Mar 06, 2018
Toonsarah says:
Hi Vic. I think the buildings were saved because they could be put to other uses, such as the army base and school. But they are not in good condition, for the most part.
Posted on: Mar 05, 2018
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Tarrafal Map
photo by: Bluenose