More History of the Azores
Robert L. Santos,California State University,
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
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
told of an island named Atlantis which Plato wrote about in his
Dialogues of 400 BC. His account tells of a powerful land outside
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
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
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).
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
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
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'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
fix a ship's position. His captains kept logbooks of their voyages
document their experience for the knowledge of others. They also
used flat maps to record longitude and latitude thereby simplifying
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.
took only the stout-hearted to head out onto the unknown waters
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
in particular, for this study, the discovery and settlement of the
Azores. Camoes wrote in The Lusiads, "Thus far, O Portuguese,
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
setting sun until he came to an island." Others say the islands
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
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
series of volcanic rocks protruding out from under the water which
he named "formigas" or ants. He was just 25 miles from
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
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
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
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
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
storm en route, but the king received the parts. There too was an
inscription in the rock below the statue, and an impression was
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
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
found on Corvo, and their images were published in a journal of
Society of Gothenberg. They were considered to be of Carthagenian
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
done to supply the future settlers with food because there were
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.
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.
were built and villages established.
The first settlers were a mixed group
of people from the Portuguese provinces of Algarve and Minho. Also,
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
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
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,
the harshness of the land, and at times, climate, all settlers,
regardless of their background, had to work together to survive.
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.
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
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.
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
charge. The next contingents went to the islands of Faial, Flores,
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
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
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
Azores, coming from Flanders, may have overshot the islands and
found its way to the Carolina coast, but evidence is lacking.
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
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
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
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
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
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
On July 25, 1581, the Terceirans along with other Azoreans fought
the Spanish in a bloody land battle where cattle were released by
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
battle. Another skirmish on land followed, but this time the Spanish
won. They held the Azores in what is called The Babylonian captivity
The Azores were involved in the Portuguese
Civil War which lasted from 1820 to 1833. The Azoreans supported
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
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
Pico with each receiving 1/2 lbs. of food daily for four months.
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
transported in the barque 'Azor' which he owned, free of cost; and
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