Born in 1897, General Viriato Gomes da Fonseca was a man committed to bettering the lot of those he served through his innovations. Inventor, politician, scholar, and military leader, he was the only black man to achieve the rank of general in any European army.
When we think of the history of Cape Verde and the most famous figures in its long fight for betterment, we think of Amilcar Cabral, Pedro Pres, Aristides Perreira, and their ilk. In focusing solely on them, we forget one of its best-loved pre-independence era champions: General Viriato Gomes da Fonseca.
Born on December 13th 1863, at Curral de Coculi in the parish of Santo Crucifixo, Gomes da Fonseca moved to the capital of the Portuguese empire at the tender age of seven. There, he attended the War College, completing his studies in 1897.
Then a young lieutenant, Gomes da Fonseca made it his mission to return to Cape Verde with one ambition: helping to progress the development of the islands. Highly charismatic and blessed with extraordinary oratory talents, he quickly set to work making his mark and getting himself noticed.
Within 10 years, the lieutenant was promoted to commander of a battery. Sent to Guinea, he fought in the ‘Pacification Wars’ against the indigenous people on behalf of the Portuguese army, whose influence they sought to overthrow.
Public service and civil responsibilities
Gomes da Fonseca had been noticed, whether or not he realised it. Returning to Lisbon, he was raised to the rank of major, and appointed Director of Public Works and Head of Surveying in his beloved Cape Verde.
This finally placed him in a position where he could make a real difference. Knuckling down to his task, he made significant improvements to the island of Santo Antão. As well as connecting the water supply to a village named Ponta do Sol, his other notable achievements included a study of the levadas, and topographical surveys of Concelho do Paul and Montado Real.
By 1910, Gomes da Fonseca had been given the additional titles of Military Commander of São Vicente, Director of the Municipality of Santo Antão, and President of the Municipal Commission of that island.
He was soon beloved of the people. Hailed for his commitment to the betterment, and tangible improvement of the islands, he was also renowned for his great patriotism and love of his homeland. It was this acclaim that helped him to be elected to Parliament in 1919, where he represented the Province of Cabo Verde.
A Black European army general
This was not the end of his illustrious career, and at 63, Gomes da Fonseca was promoted to the rank of general: the only black man awarded such a title in any European army at the time. An individual whose undoubted goodness and commitment to his people shone through, he had somehow done what no other had, overcoming the many prejudices he faced in his lifetime to achieve a position of power in which he could truly help the citizens he served.