Tarrafal prison camp, Cape Verde Islands
A former prison/concentration camp
in the then Portuguese colony of Cape Verde
, namely on the island of Santiago. It mainly served as a place of incarceration of political prisoners during Portugal
's long dictatorship at home and during the independence struggles of the country's African colonies. Disbanded in 1974 and more recently turned into a memorial, the ex-camp is now the prime dark historical site of Cape Verde.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Built within a year of Portugal
's right-wing Estado Novo taking power under dictator Salazar, the Tarrafal prison served as a deliberately remote place for incarcerating political prisoners, especially from 1936, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, when repression against (alleged) communists tightened.
The prison, also known as "Campo da morte lenta" ('camp of slow death') for its horrid torture methods, also served as the main detention camp for captured rebels and revolutionaries during Portugal's West African colonial wars, in particular in Guinea-Bissau and Angola (both of which are still reeling from post-colonial troubles to this day).
The history of the camp can accordingly be divided into two phases. The first one lasted from the camp's foundation to the mid 1950s, when it housed exiled political prisoners from the Portuguese homeland. Partly due to international protests this phase came to an end in 1954. But the camp soon reopened in the 1960s for African resistance fighters against the colonial rule – and it continued to serve that function right to the end.
The prison only closed for good shortly after the Carnation Revolution in Portugal
ended the country's right-wing dictatorship on 25 April 1974 after which the last few colonies were released into independence, including Cape Verde
The prison buildings were used for various purposes since the camp's closure, but the site had long been monitored by World Monument Watch (who refer to Tarrafal as a "concentration camp
"). As late as in 2010 they reported "plans" to turn the site into a memorial museum, with the involvement of former political prisoners. I can't say to what degree the latter were indeed involved, but I can confirm from my visit in January 2013 that the old prison has indeed become accessible to tourists – and is even cautiously being promoted as a major historical sight. There is now a certain degree of commodification
in the form of historical exhibitions as well, but there is still plenty of scope for improvements, especially with a view to catering for foreign visitors from outside the Portuguese-speaking world.
What there is to see:
A prison-cum-ghost-town of an exceptionally eerie atmosphere. Even though it is labelled "concentration camp
" it doesn't bear so much resemblance to those camps of the Nazis
. It is much more prison-like in that it mostly consists of stone barracks/cell blocks with barred windows plus several ancillary buildings. If anything, Theresienstadt
would probably be the closest in character of the European concentration camps.
Overall, however, the ghost town
character dominates in Tarrafal. That's also due to the simple fact that it did indeed feel almost completely deserted when I visited the place in January 2013. Once past the main gate, where a couple of women sit guard and chat away (and collect the admission fee from the odd visitor dropping by), we had the place almost entirely to ourselves ("we" as in my wife and myself). There was only one other couple visiting during the whole time we were there – and they just rushed through the premises apparently without much interest (maybe they just read about it in their guidebook and deemed it one of those "things you do" when in Tarrafal, but they were clearly not typical dark tourism material).
However, I was myself quite taken with the eerie, desolate ghost town atmosphere. In a way it reminded me of Chacabuco
in the Atacama in Chile
… maybe just because of the similarly bright light and parched soil. It was only when you stepped up to specific buildings, saw the barred windows and cell doors and read the labels by those doors that it became absolutely clear what sort of place this used to be.
There are faded, sun-bleached words written on some of the walls, but apart from being so faint, my lack of Portuguese prevented me from deciphering what they said. I presumed, though, that they were slogans from either the days of the prison still being in service or had been written by freed prisoners shortly after the camp was disbanded. But I have no way of telling for sure.
The first thing that became clear was the nature/former function of a small stone building in the centre of the camp – one that looked a bit out of keeping with the rest of the structures in that it was a rather pretty little piece of architecture. A cross in the gable indicated what it was, and the words above confirmed this: it was the prison's hospital/pharmacy. Inside was a single text plaque with a photo of (presumably) a certain inmate – but I couldn't make out its significance as it was all just in Portuguese.
Through a door in a wall to the left the western part of the complex is reached. Here, a number of cell blocks can be seen, as well as buildings that used to serve as "dining halls", kitchens, and the laundry. Signs outside the doors are labelled trilingually, in Portuguese, French and English.
Amongst these buildings is also a block of solitary confinement cells. Naturally, these were especially poignant. The creaky doors with their iron bars only underscored the eeriness. Otherwise the place was completely silent.
At the far western end, a building with a short bricked chimney stack stood out – this turned out to be the former kitchen (so no crematoria here). A trench and barbed wire prevented any access to the squat stone walls that surround the entire camp, with elevated platforms like watchtowers on each corner.
The eastern part of the camp has more cell blocks – with plaques by the doors marking the type of prisoners that used to be kept here, such as "regular criminals" but also "political prisoners" from Cape Verde
, Guinea-Bissau or Angola. I did not spot any cells specifically marked as for political prisoners from the Portuguese homeland … maybe because the camp held Africans rather than Portuguese during its final phase in operation.
In one of the cell blocks there is a proper exhibition
, featuring mainly text-and-photo panels, about 30 of them, ordered thematically and partly chronologically. The texts are all in Portuguese only, though – so I was mostly left guessing their content. It was clear enough though that they covered topics such as the founding of the Tarrafal camp, resistance against fascism and Nazism in Europe in the 1930s (a photo the Guernica
painting stood out), the system of concentration camps set up by Germany
, censorship and the unhinging of the rule of law in Portugal
under its own dictatorship. Also covered are themes like everyday camp life and covert political organization of prisoners, the regime of rules in the camp as administered by the PIDE security services of the dictatorship (cf. Lisbon
), protests and solidarity at home in Europe, and several panels related to the end of the colonial era both in general and with specific reference to Portugal's African colonies in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and, of course, Cape Verde.
I spotted some inaccuracies on a map showing all the colonies of Africa together with their respective years of gaining independence, and colour-coding according to which of the ruling European countries used to "possess" them. Here Rwanda
was inexplicably allocated to Great Britain
, when in actual fact it used to be first a German
and then a Belgian
colony. But never mind, most of the rest of the chart was correct.
Only very few actual artefacts are on display, including a set of steel helmets, a musical instrument that was apparently owned by one of the camp's victims, and a model of a solitary confinement cell.
In a separate block (originally for Angolan political prisoners) was another special exhibition specifically about the struggles for independence in Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Angola. Whether this is another permanent exhibition or just a temporary one, I don't know. Again, the documents and explanatory texts on display were all in Portuguese only. This exhibition was augmented by a very small set of concrete artefacts as well, including again helmets as well as a khaki uniform. Some empty glass display cases suggested that more was to come (or that some items had been removed).
Another element of targeted commodification of the site is a detached building that serves as a library/reading room, which looked pretty new to me, probably part of a recent effort of developing the site further. The reading room was, however, locked when I was there. Presumably it is for pre-arranged study visits only.
The only other building in this more open eastern half of the camp is a ruin. You could go inside – it looked like it was another laundry or something like that. To the south there were some latrines too. Otherwise the space between the walls is bare, overgrown with knee-high yellowed grass in which a few egrets picked around for food (insects, most likely).
Speaking of latrines – at the back of the premises, behind the hospital building, are also contemporary toilet facilities for visitors. There was, however, no shop or any further touristy commodification that I could make out.
Outside the camp, the only such element was a large billboard by the main road (glamorously designated "National Highway 1" – but really just a regular dusty road), next to what must have been the gate and gatehouse for the access road to the camp. The sign featured rather faded images of the camp and across it in large letters the designation (in Portuguese) "concentration camp of Tarrafal – national heritage" and the dates of its operation: 20 October 1936 to 1 May 1974.
All in all, the site is certainly eminently dark in nature and eerie to behold. It is not, however, well commodified from the perspective of a foreign visitor. The signs by the doors to various cell blocks were trilingual, OK, but all of the more detailed background information was in Portuguese only, so without a good knowledge of that language you can't really get much out of the exhibition parts.
For those who can relate to such things, however, I would still recommend a visit here for the outstanding atmosphere of the place alone. If you don't know any Portuguese and want to learn about the history of the place, on the other hand, you should better look elsewhere. If you happen to be on Santiago and have a bit of time spare, it may still be a worthwhile detour to have a look at the real thing. But whether it's worth it to specifically travel to Cape Verde
only for this place is hard to say. It will very much depend on how deep your special interest is in the historical phase that the camp is associated with.
It's also a good place for photography
for those (like me) who get something out of the eerie visual ambience of a desolated place such as this. But at least in its current state of commodification it can hardly be classed as a prime dark tourism destination when compared to other such sites in the world. The potential is there, though.
about a mile (1.5 km) south of the village of the same name at the northern end of the main Cape Verdean
island of Santiago, some 30 miles (50 km) from the capital Praia.
Access and costs: a bit off the beaten track, but not too difficult to reach; inexpensive.
Details: You can walk to the site from Tarrafal village – it's not too far, albeit along a rather uninspiring dusty road. But it's doable. If you have a car, it's no problem at all. There's a car park right outside the main prison gate.
Reliable details regarding opening times and admission fees are a bit tricky to come by; I've found somewhat diverging information online. When I was there it was Monday, before lunchtime, and I paid 500 Cape Verde Escudos for two people … although I had the impression that the woman at the entrance simply accepted my 500 note (rather than having to find change for my next larger note) even though the full charge may actually have been 300 per head (as I had seen quoted in the TACV airline in-flight magazine). No official opening times or prices were posted by the entrance.
Time required: depends crucially on a) whether or not you can read Portuguese and b) how much you are into the special atmosphere of such a ghost-town-like semi-derelict place. While a) doesn't apply to me, b) certainly does, and I spent well over an hour here. However, the only other visitors I encountered during that time (a German couple, I believe) clearly lacked the prerequisite special interest and rushed through the grounds in less than 20 minutes. If you're more like me and can read Portuguese then you could probably spend upwards of two hours here.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
nothing in the vicinity – the closest place of some dark historical association would be Cidade Velha in the south of Santiago island – see under Cape Verde
in general. The airport of the capital city Praia also has connections to the neighbouring volcano island of Fogo
– and international connections to e.g. Dakar
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The town of Tarrafal that the camp is near to does have its own charms, mostly of the quiet, at times even sleepy variety, unless it is the time of the annual Santo Amaro festival … which was the case when I was there in mid January 2013. There was a big stage set up on the square right outside my hotel and for several days there was noisy entertainment all night, so that sleep became unusually hard to come by for this remote place. It was quite fun though. The Cape Verdeans are, after all, an exceptionally musical lot. So the soundscape, despite being sleep-disruptingly loud, was interesting to listen to. As is customary in this part of the world (Senegal
is the same) things don't get going much before midnight, but then carry on all night until dawn. Oh well, so you just have to follow the other local custom of sleeping away much of midday in extended siestas
At other times of the year, Tarrafal is said to be a very quiet place. Yet it does get a trickle of (non-dark) tourism, mainly thanks to the fact that the place boasts a couple of beaches (of which the island of Santiago does not otherwise have many). So it offers bathing, surfing and such mainstream delights, supported by a certain amount of infrastructure in the form of hotels and bars and restaurants. It's still a reassuringly far cry from the bustle of the real beach holiday centres of Cape Verde on Sal or Boa Vista. It's all much more niche here than mass appeal.
The other main attraction of the island of Santiago is its craggy inland, where there are plenty of rewarding hiking options. There are specialist operators catering for this type of activity. Cultural/history tourists will most likely want to head for Cidade Velha in the south-west of Santiago for its UNSECO world heritage status (see under Cape Verde
And the airport of the Cape Verdean capital city of Praia in the south of Santiago offers connections to the other islands and to the mainland of Africa and Europe.
- Tarrafal 01 - main gate to the former concentration camp
- Tarrafal 02 - layout of the camp
- Tarrafal 03 - inside the prison camp
- Tarrafal 04 - hospital
- Tarrafal 05 - inside the ex-hospital
- Tarrafal 06 - special cell block
- Tarrafal 07 - especially eerie
- Tarrafal 08 - small solitary confinement cell inside a cell block
- Tarrafal 09 - behind bars
- Tarrafal 10 - laundry
- Tarrafal 11 - corner watchtower on the main perimeter wall
- Tarrafal 12 - barbed wire and trench
- Tarrafal 13 - kitchen
- Tarrafal 14 - in the kitchen
- Tarrafal 15 - cell block for regular criminals
- Tarrafal 16 - main exhibition
- Tarrafal 17 - model of solitary confinemant cell
- Tarrafal 18 - a few artefacts
- Tarrafal 19 - not entirely correct colonial map
- Tarrafal 20 - one of the cell blocks for political prisoners
- Tarrafal 21 - special exhibition about the independence struggle in the Portuguese colonies in Africa
- Tarrafal 22 - a few more artefacts
- Tarrafal 23 - reading room
- Tarrafal 24 - view into the reading room
- Tarrafal 25 - ruin in the eastern part of the camp
- Tarrafal 26 - apparently another ex-laundry
- Tarrafal 27 - egrets in the former prison camp
- Tarrafal 28 - modern facilities
- Tarrafal 29 - behind the main gate
- Tarrafal 30 - view from the main gate
- Tarrafal 31 - view over the camp
- Tarrafal 32 - on the wall surrounding the camp
- Tarrafal 33 - sign by the highway
- Tarrafal 34 - gate to the approach road to the camp
- Tarrafal 35 - the town beach
- Tarrafal 36 - lighthouse on the headland
- Tarrafal 37 - local government building
- Tarrafal 38 - church
- Tarrafal 39 - beach and town at dusk
- Tarrafal 40 - sunset over the bay
- Tarrafal 41 - main square
- Tarrafal 42 - stalls getting ready for the night
- Tarrafal 43 - festival all through the night