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More History of the Azores

by Robert L. Santos,California State University, Stanislaus Librarian/Archivist

Early Accounts of Land Beyond

With the sea at his toes and an inquisitive and adventuring mind, the Portuguese natural orientation is towards the west. The 17th century Portuguese writer, Antonio Vieira wrote, "God gave the Portuguese a small country as a cradle but all the world as their grave."

There were mythical lands across sea as suggested by ancient writing. Theopompue in 4th century B.C. wrote of a large western land in the Atlantic. Pliny and Diodorus wrote of a large continent beyond to the west. Solon of Greece in 600 B.C. visited Egypt and was told of an island named Atlantis which Plato wrote about in his Dialogues of 400 BC. His account tells of a powerful land outside the columns of Hercules which was larger than Libya and Asia combined. It was a land that was the way to other lands, but it sank during a time of earthquakes and floods. The water was so muddy from its sinking that it was impassable.

But there were islands located in the Atlantic that were steeped in myth and seen on early maps. They had names like the Fortunate Isles, Antillia, Brazil, and California.There were stories, such as Irish St. Brendan of Clonfert in 545 sailing from Kerry and finding islands which may have been the Madeiras.On a Catalan chart these mysterious Atlantic islands were identified as the Isles of St. Brendan and lie only a few hundred miles off the Strait of Gilbraltar. Mohammad al Edrisi was credited at one time of having located a series of islands which might have been the Cape Verdes, the Maderias, the Canaries, or possibly the Azores. This was in the 12th century. 

A Medici map of 1351 contained seven islands off the Portuguese coast which were arranged in groups of three. There was the southern group or the Goat Islands (Cabreras); there was the middle group or the Wind or Dove Islands (De Ventura Sive de Columbis); and there was the western island or the Brazil Island (De Brazil). On a Catalan map of 1375, there were three Islands with the names of Corvo, Flores, and Sao Jorge. It was thought that maybe the Genoese may have discovered the Azores at that time and gave those names. These speculative sightings indicate that there was some ocean exploration occurring, or at least, there was interest in what lay beyond confines of continental Europe.

Prince Henry the Navigator and the Age of Exploration

Portuguese Prince Infante Dom Henrique (1394-1460), or Henry the Navigator, was exactly what the literature proclaimed him to be, the founder of modern navigation.  He was singularly instrumental in opening up the rest of the world to the Europeans. For the Azoreans, he was their founding father as we shall see. Henry studied the sea, weather, ships, geography and trade routes. He talked to navigators, and sea captains. He brought to his navigation school, which he founded at Sagres in 1416, cosmographers, mathematicians, cartographers, and learned men of all kinds. He collected maps, charts, books, and ephemera that would educate him and his circle of adventurers.

The motive for this industry was to find a sea route to link up with the mythological Prester John, thereby encircling the Moslem world and with armies driving them from northern Africa and the Holy Land. To do this Henry needed money which he could garner through trade once he found a sea route to India. He was the leader of the religious-military organization, the Holy Order of Christ. Its program of exploration, discovery, and settlement was for the purpose of conquering the Muslims. 

henry the navigator
Henry the Navigator

Henry's first move was to defeat the Muslims at Ceuta (Morocco) in order to free the African coast for exploration. He, his brothers, and his father, King John I of Portugal, did this in 1415. Henry  experimented with ships and navigation during this venture, which led to designing of the caravel, a long and slender ship (by comparison) with lateen sails, that would be used by his Portuguese explorers on their long voyages. Also the navigational instruments, such as the astrolabe, quadrant, and cross-staff, were developed to fix a ship's position. His captains kept logbooks of their voyages to document their experience for the knowledge of others. They also used flat maps to record longitude and latitude thereby simplifying cartography methods.

It took great courage to navigate the unexplored seas. Positions had to be known to find one's way back. There were winds, weather changes, and sea currents to master. A small wooden ship could be broken at sea. Supplies of food and water could run out during a voyage. Disease could strike. Superstition and fear would attack. It took only the stout-hearted to head out onto the unknown waters on a voyage of exploration.

Next, Henry colonized the Madeira Islands which were accidentally found by Joao Goncalves Zarco in 1419. They were uninhabited and were to be used as a point of departure for further exploration and in particular, for this study, the discovery and settlement of the Azores. Camoes wrote in The Lusiads, "Thus far, O Portuguese, it is granted to you to glimpse into the future and to know the exploits that await your stout-hearted compatriots on the ocean that, thanks to you is now no longer unknown."

Discovery of the Azores

There are accounts that Henry sent his able seaman and knight Goncalo Velho Cabral, in 1431, with the orders "to sail towards the setting sun until he came to an island." Others say the islands had been found accidentally by Portuguese sailors returning from a voyage along the African coast or the Madeiras, but this is not possible because the prevailing winds and ocean currents would not have allowed it. Henry and his school of navigators knew there were islands located a few hundred miles off the Portuguese coast because they were shown on a Catalan map. In 1431, Cabral found a series of volcanic rocks protruding out from under the water which he named "formigas" or ants. He was just 25 miles from the nearest Azorean island at the time which apparently was not visable to his crew or him.  He returned to Henry and was sent out immediately the next year to reexplore the area.

On August 15, 1432, Cabral found Santa Maria, the easternmost island of the Azorean archipelago. It was the feast day of the Assumption of Our Blessed Mother, or Santa Maria, and consequently named for her. The island was lush with forests, streams, and birdlife. Apparently, there were many birds in flight, thought to be goshawks, and hence, the islands got the Portuguese name "acor" or hawk. However, there have never been goshawks there according to ornithologists. Many believe the birds seen were the Azorean buzzards.

It is thought too that maybe the name for the islands came from this statement written by Martin Behaim, the maker of the  Nuremburg globe of 1492: "All birds found in the islands by the first settlers were so tame that they came to the hand like hawks." Another theory is that the word "raca" or "raka," meaning bird of prey in Arabic, was translated to the Portugese acor. Raca appeared in an Arab manuscript designating an island, or islands, in the same location as the Azores. 

A letter written by Alfonso V, King of Portugal, dated July 2, 1439 is the first known document with a reference to the Azores. Its content reveals that there were seven islands and that Henry was given the right to settle them. The next known document is a Majorcan map of the same year which had seven islands and the date of discovery was recorded as 1432. There have been differing versions concerning the year-date of the discovery. It appears, after some analysis by scholars, that 1432 is the correct date. Unfortunately, there were no written accounts of the voyage by the participants. In fact, there is little information on the discoveries of the other eight islands because of the same reason.

Sao Miguel was sighted followed next by Terceira, which means the"third." Then the central group of islands were found which were Graciosa, Sao Jorge, Pico, and Faial. And finally the western two islands of Corvo and Flores were sighted in 1452 which concluded the discovery of the archipelago. There is no evidence that humankind had ever been on the islands. But there are mysteries. There is the mystery of an equestrian statue on Corvo, and also the mystery of the Phoenician or Carthagenian coins said to have found there as well.

Corvo along with Flores are the two westernmost islands of the archipelago, and hence, the last inch of European soil. It was here in the early 1500's, that Damiao de Goes, under the employment of King Dom Manoel of Portugal, wrote of a statue of a man on horseback pointing to the west which was clinging to a rocky ledge. The king asked for a drawing of it, and after seeing the drawing, he sent someone to bring it back. As the story goes, it was shattered in a storm en route, but the king received the parts. There too was an inscription in the rock below the statue, and an impression was taken of it. But neither the shattered parts of the statue, nor the impression of the inscription were ever found. Was it a hoax? Scholars are still unsure.

Some have speculated that the statue was really just one of many rock formations seen on the island and nothing more. Others feel it did exist and could have been evidence of the lost continent of Atlantis, or of another settlement of ancient peoples. Coins too were found on Corvo, and their images were published in a journal of the Society of Gothenberg. They were considered to be of Carthagenian or Cyrenean origin by the society. A twentieth century Portuguese scholar, made a serious effort to locate the coins. He went to the convent to which they were first supposedly taken. He also visited museums where he thought information could be found. But his investigation turned up nothing. 

Settlers and Settlement

At some point, following the discovery of Santa Maria, sheep were let loose on the island before settlement actually took place. This was done to supply the future settlers with food because there were no animals on the island. Settlement didn't take place right away, however. There was not much interest among the Portuguese people in an isolated island world hundreds of miles from civilization. But patiently Cabral gathered resources and settlers for the next three years (1433-1436) and sailed to establish colonies on Santa Maria first and then later on Sao Miguel. 

Brush had to be cleared and rocks removed for the planting of crops. Grain, grape vines, sugar cane, and other plants suitable for settler use and of commercial value, were planted. Domesticated animals were brought, such as, cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs. Houses were built and villages established. 

The first settlers were a mixed group of people from the Portuguese provinces of Algarve and Minho. Also, Madeirans, Moorish prisoners, black slaves, French, Italians, Scots, English, and Flemings were among the early settlers. There were petty criminals, Spanish clergy, Jews, soldiers, government officials, European merchants and sugar cane growers. 

The purpose of the Azorean colony was to service the mother country with commodities and tribute. It was to be a station for Portuguese ships to be  resupplied and repaired. The islands too were to produce crops for trade. In its peak trade years, there would be more than one hundred ships anchored at the Bay of Angra. Slaves had to be removed from the islands and sent to Brazil and the Caribbean because there was concern about a slave insurrection.

The islands were colonized under the Holy Order of Christ, and the settlers were to be Christians. There were many languages, but after awhile Portuguese became the standard language of communication. Because of the isolated nature of the islands, and the harshness of the land, and at times, climate, all settlers, regardless of their background, had to work together to survive. This gave the people a sense of equality and togetherness. As a consequence, more settlers were given the right to purchase land. There were some slaves on the islands, and there were lingering concerns about a slave revolt which no settler wanted. Soon the slaves were sent to Brazil and to the Caribbean. 

The Flemings

People from Flanders settled in the Azores beginning in 1450. These Flemish settlers played an important role in the creation of the Azorean culture. By 1490, there were 2,000 Flemings living in the islands of Terceira, Pico, Faial, Sao Jorge, and Flores. Because there was such a large Flemish settlement, the Azores became known as the Flemish Islands or the Isles of Flanders. Henry was responsible for this settlement. His sister, Isabel, was married to Duke Philip of Burgundy of which Flanders was a part. There was a revolt against Philip's rule and disease and hunger became rampant. Isabel appealed to Henry to allow some of the unruly Flemings to settle in the Azores. He granted this and supplied them with the necessary transportation and goods.

flanders flag
Flag Flanders Belgium

First group of Flemings was led by Willem van de Hagen, later known by his Portuguese name of Guilherme da Silveira. They settled in Terceira, and the Flemish nobleman, Jacome de Bruges, was placed in charge. The next contingents went to the islands of Faial, Flores, Sao Jorge, and Pico. Joos van Huerter founded the city of Horta on
Faial where evidence of the Flemish people and culture still exists today. Faial was in fact called the Flemish Island and the valley behind the city still has the name, the Valley of the Flemings or O Valle dos Flamengo.  

But the Flemish language disappeared before long, and the Flemish settlers changed their names to Portuguese forms. For example, van der Hagen became Silveira, and Huerter became Dutra or Utra. Flemish physical traits of light hair, light complexion, and blue eyes can still be seen in the features of many Azoreans. Flemish oxcarts and windmills are still seen on the islands. The Flemish beghards and beguines (lay-religious group) brought the Festival of the Holy Spirit and their distinctive cloaks and hoods to the islands. There are many religious statuary, paintings, and furniture found in Azorean churches and museums which show the Flemish influence.

An interesting sidelight is the speculation that some Flemish people may have reached the North Carolina coast inadvertently during this migratory activity. In North Carolina, there was a group of people, calling themselves the Melungeons, who had light colored skin and identified themselves as Portuguese. These were not Native Americans. It is thought, that maybe one of the ships bound for the Azores, coming from Flanders, may have overshot the islands and
found its way to the Carolina coast, but evidence is lacking.

Captain-Donatary System

The captain-donatary system of government was a conception of Prince Henry. He tried it first at Madeira and then next in the Azores. The system was duplicated throughout the Portuguese colonies and also used by the Spanish in their empire. It simply was a system by which absentee landowners could control their property and also receive payments from the peasant tenants on crop production. Alfonso V, King of Portugal gave Henry the privilege of settling seven of the Azores Islands. Alfonso awarded the same privilege to his uncle, Alfonso Duke of Braganca, to settle Corvo, and to Dona Maria de Vilhena to settle the island of Flores.

Henry made Cabral "captain" (governor) of Santa Maria and Sao Miguel. Van der Hagen became captain of Flores and Corvo, and Graciosa was given to Pedro de Correia, who was Christopher Columbus' brother-in-law. Van Huerta was designated captain- donatary of Faial, Pico, and Sao Jorge, while de Bruges was given the same title for Terceira. The difference between a "captain- donatary" and a "captain" was the former was able to pass along his title as inheritance while the latter could not. 

The captains and captains-donatary were like governors who had full control over their domain. They held the office of judge. They could make land grants. They monopolized the gristmills, public baking ovens, and salt sales. Henry and his successors got a 10% tax from these monopolies, and his captains got 10% of his 10%. The land they granted was subdivided for tenant farming. This way the lands were farmed by peasants who had no ownership and had to pay high rent and tax. This system lasted for centuries and was one key reason for the high Azorean emigration. There simply was no way the peasants could advance up the socio-economic ladder.

Through this system the King of Portugal had control over his lands and had administrators in place to manage and to collect royal tribute. Shortly, the land grant owners became wealthy and wanted more control over government. As a result, municipal districts were established with town councils where appropriate. This was a pseudo-democratic system which allowed input into local governmental policy. But in reality, the wealthy and the absentee landowners still controlled the islands. 

Important Historical Events

Dr. James H. Guill of Tulare, California is an American expert on the history of the Azores. His 1972 publication of A History of the Azores Islands and his 1993 work, A History of the Azores Islands: Handbook, are two of the only English language histories available. Any student of the islands should certainly have the latter work for reference. Incidentally, there are no modern histories of the Azores in Portuguese which is surprizing.

The Azores, because of its natural setting in the Atlantic, has always been a resupply depot and a trading station for Atlantic shipping. Horta, Angra, and Ponta Delgada harbors were in constant use by ships of all nations even during wartime. Many types of people have put ashore at these ports and have left something of themselves there.

The French, English, and pirates of all types raided the Azores and attacked Spanish shipping along the coast. Angra, Terceira was the center of government for the Azores, and when the Spanish took control of Portugal in 1580, they wanted to claim the Azores as well. On July 25, 1581, the Terceirans along with other Azoreans fought the Spanish in a bloody land battle where cattle were released by the Azoreans to disperse and stop the invaders.

Undaunted, fifty Spanish ships bombarded the island with cannon. The French sent troops to help the Azoreans, but the Spanish forces prevailed. Soon though the Azoreans rejected the authoritarian rule of the Spanish governor and were supported by 7,000 French and English troops and 70 ships. Spain sent a fleet of ships and won the battle. Another skirmish on land followed, but this time the Spanish won. They held the Azores in what is called The Babylonian captivity of 1580-1642.

The Azores were involved in the Portuguese Civil War which lasted from 1820 to 1833. The Azoreans supported a constitutional monarchy and repelled invaders from opposite side in 1829. This resulted in a government for the Azoreans under the Portuguese crown. The king gave them the latitude to make most local governmental policy themselves.

To end this discussion on the history of the Azores Islands, the Dabney family of Boston needs to be mentioned. Various members of the family served as U.S. Consul to the Azores through the 1800's. Their consulate was in Horta, Faial, and they were closely involved in commerce between the U.S. and the islands. The family had their own ships, and they made major contributions to the islands. They supported the whaling enterprise and were involved in connecting the islands by submarine cable. Also they helped to erect a breakwater at Horta which was extremely important to protecting the habor.

While Charles W. Dabney was U.S. Consul in the late 1850's, there was a famine in the Azores. He had 43,000 bushels of corn shipped to help alleviate the problem. In 1858, he distributed at his own expense wheat and Indian corn to 800 needy people on the island of Pico with each receiving 1/2 lbs. of food daily for four months. In 1859, he solicited friends and countrymen in Boston to pay for 10,000 bushels of corn. He was praised by the Azoreans as seen in this excerpt from an  official government statement: "This corn was transported in the barque 'Azor' which he owned, free of cost; and he also refused to accept any compensation for the use of his granaries, and landed the corn at his own expense."


Philip II of Spain
Maria II of Portugal

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