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History of the Azores

Motto: Antes morrer livres que em paz sujeitos (Rather die free than in peace subjugated)

The exact date of discovery of the archipelago is unknown. In 1432 the Portuguese, Goncalo Velho Cabral, discovered the island of Santa Maria, and by the year 1457 all the islands had been visited by either Portuguese or Flemish explorers. The colonization of then unoccupied islands started in 1439 with people mainly from the continental provinces of Algarve and Alentejo. In the following centuries settlers from other European countries arrived, mostly from Northern France and Flanders.

After Santa Maria, the next island discovered was Sao Miguel, followed by Terceira (meaning “the third”). Then the central group of islands were found; Graciosa, Sao Jorge, Pico, and Faial. And finally the western two islands of Corvo and Flores were sighted in 1452. In 1439, the village “Praia dos Lobos” was settled. The first capital of São Miguel was Vila Franca do Campo. Since a violent earthquake in 1522 buried the town of Vila Franca, Ponta Delgada was designated capital of the island.

Luís Teixeira map of the Azores (c. 1584).old map azores

The third island to be discovered was initially called Island of Jesus Christ, later adopting the name of Terceira. Although the exact date is not known it is widely believed that the island of Graciosa was discovered around 1450 by sailors from the neighbouring island of Terceira. Vasco Gil Sodré, native to Continental Portugal, settled the island of Graciosa soon after. The first reference to the island of São Jorge was made in 1439 but the actual date of discovery is unknown. In 1443 the island was already inhabited but active settlement only began with the arrival of the noble Flemish native Wilhelm Van der Haegen.

Faial, known as “Insule de venture” in the old letters and sailing charts, is thought to have been discovered during the first half of the 15th century. Settlement began before the year 1460 on Faials’ northern coast with settlers from the north of Portugal. The two islands that comprise the eastern islands were the last to be discovered. Flores and Corvo were discovered close to the year 1452 by Diogo de Teive and his son João de Teive. The island of Flores was initially called St. Thomas and St. Iria but due to the abundance of yellow flowers (cubres) which covered the island the name Flores was considered to be more appropriate. The Flemish nobleman Wilhelm Van der Haegen, settled Flores in 1470.

From 1580 to 1640 the Azores, like the rest of the Portuguese dominions, had to submit to the rule of Spain. During that period the neighbouring waters were the scene of many hard fights between Spanish and English sea-rovers. The commercial prosperity of the islands declined after the recovery of Portuguese independence and the accession of the House of Braganza in 1640. Because of the Azores' strategic geographic position, the archipelago became the center of navigation between Europe, Africa, the East and the Americas during the 16th and 17th-centuries.

Material prosperity began to restore immediately after the period of the French invasion of the Peninsula and the flight of João IV to Brazil (1807), when the former restrictions of commerce were removed. The 1820 civil war, in Portugal, had strong repercussion in the Azores. In 1829, in Vila da Praia, the liberals won over the absolutists. Terceira Island became the main headquarters of the new Portuguese regime and the establishment of the Council of Regency (Conselho de Regência) of Mary II of Portugal.

From 1836 to 1976, the archipelago was divided into three districts, quite equivalent (except in area) to those in the Portuguese mainland. The division was arbitrary, and didn’t follow the natural island groups, rather reflecting the location of each district capital on the three main cities (neither of each on the western group). Angraconsisted of Terceira, São Jorge, and Graciosa, with the capital at Angra do Heroísmo on Terceira. Hortaconsisted of Pico, Faial, Flores, and Corvo, with the capital at Horta on Faial. Ponta Delgadaconsisted of São Miguel and Santa Maria, with the capital at Ponta Delgada on São Miguel.

In 1976 the Azores became the Autonomous Region of the Azores (Região Autónoma dos Açores), one of the Autonomous regions of Portugal, and the Azorean districts were suppressed.

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