A brief history of the Azores – Part Four

A brief history of the Azores – Part Four: the great earthquake of Vila Franca.


The south coast town of Vila Franca do Campo was once the capital of Sao Miguel – until the great earthquake of 1522.

History of the Azores

Vila Franca is born.

Founded in the mid-15th century, the peaceful town of Vila Franca do Campo sits on the south coast of Sao Miguel. With it’s relatively sheltered harbour and central location, Vila quickly became the island’s main sea trading port – and the seat of government when Rui Goncalves da Camara became Sao Miguel’s governing Donatary Captain in 1474. Rui was the second son of Joao Goncalves Zarco – one of the Infante Henrique’s fleet commanders who first settled the islands of Porto Santo and Madeira.

History of the Azores

Vila’s location was ideal for expansion – the naturally-protected harbour was easy to locate, thanks to the distinctive Ilheu de Vila Franca: an extinct volcano just offshore, which acted as a easily identifiable navigational landmark for trade ships. Also, Vila was situated on a relatively flat coastal plain which would allow easy expansion to the west, and a readily available supply of fresh water was close by, courtesy of the Ribeira de Agua de Alto and the Ribeira Seca.

History of the Azores

History of the Azores

However, the quality of the building materials and techniques used by the early settlers was severely lacking. Lime was non-existent on the island, and only the wealthiest households could afford to import mortar (from Porto Santo, a 1000km away). Most buildings were constructed using drystone methods with double-faced, thick walls packed with gravel. The tough basaltic rock was almost impossible to work with the rudimentary tools available to the settlers at the time. The majority of found-stone was rounded and couldn’t be squared, compromising the strength of the masonry. Local clay was also in short supply – again, only the richest settlers and the church could afford tiled floors and tiled roofs, leaving the majority of the buildings roofed with wheat thatch.

History of the Azores

History of the Azores

Subversao de Vila Franca.

Despite these limitations, Vila flourished as a trading community with no inkling of the tragedy which was to befall the town. In the early hours of 22nd October 1522, a devastating earthquake destroyed Vila utterly – collapsing buildings and burying the town and harbour under a pyroclastic landslide.  The only contemporary account this tragic event is called ‘O romance de Vila Franca’ – written by Azorean priest and historian Gaspar Frutuoso.

History of the Azores

Born in the year of the earthquake itself (in Ponta Delgada), Frutuoso was an Azorean priest, historian and the writer of the Saudades da Terra: a six volume encyclopedia recording the history, geography, genealogy and day-to-day life of the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde islands in the 16th century. For reasons unknown, he wasn’t able to publish the Saudades da Terra during his lifetime and the manuscript remained in storage in Ponta Delgada for almost three-hundred years before it’s publication in the late 1800s. It’s now considered one of Portugal’s most-important historical documents. As priest, Frutuoso’s church was Nossa Senhora da Estrela in the north coast town of Ribeira Grande – his final resting place following his death in 1591. A statue at the foot of the church’s steps now commemorates his life and work.

History of the Azores

History of the Azores

In O romance de Vila Franca, Frutuoso describes nightfall on 21st October as being calm and clear: ‘…Era uma quarta-feira…Quarta-feira triste dia…a em a noite mais serena, nada d’ele se sentia…não corre bafo de vento…estrelado estava o céu…nuvem não o escurecia…’.

‘… It was a Wednesday…Wednesday sad day…in the most serene night, nothing of it was felt…no breath of wind…starry was the sky…cloud did not darken it…’.

History of the Azores

The calm would be short-lived – at around two o’clock in the morning, ‘… a huge and frightening earthquake was felt throughout the island…in which it seemed that the elements, fire, air and water fought in the centre of it.. like the waves of a furious sea, appearing to all the inhabitants of the island…which turned it’s centre upwards and the sky fell…during the dawn and until noon on the fateful 22nd of October, the replies were many and hard…’.

Recent geological studies place the epicentre of the earthquake North/Northeast of Vila Franca, close to modern-day Monte Escuro. It’s also estimated that the maximum intensity of the quake was an X on the Macroseismic Scale – ‘X’ is defined as ‘Very Destructive – most current constructions and buildings collapse completely’, with only ‘XI – Devastating’ and ‘XII – Completely Devastating’ higher on the scale.

History of the Azores

As the initial quake subsided, and unbeknownst to the residents of Vila Franca, an immense landslide had been triggered. Deposits in and around modern-day Vila Franca indicate that the debris originated close to the source of the Ribeira da Mãe d’Água, where heavy rains in the preceding days had softened the low-density, pyroclastic deposits that formed the peak of Monte Rabacal (close to present-day Pico da Cruz). Rabacal collapsed completely, sending an estimated 6.75 million cubic meters water-saturated debris down the Mae d’Agua river valley at a speed of three metres per second, reaching the centre of Vila Franca in a matter of minutes: ‘…from the stream to the east…everything was devastated and the residents were all almost dead…some houses escaped, most of them collapsed…where up to 70 people were left alive… calling for God and others for the blessed Virgin Mary…’.

History of the Azores

The consequences were tragic: it’s estimated that up to 5,000 people were killed in the town alone, buried under a thick layer of pumice or dragged into the sea by the landslide. The mud mass buried the port and entered the sea, generating a tsunami which destroyed the ships which were at anchor at the Ilheu, drowning the crews and passengers awaiting passage to Lisbon.

history of the azores

‘…there were four or five ships in the port, sheltered on the islet to leave for Portugal, which caused more people to die…where people gathered from all over the island to make that voyage…and when it was already daylight…some people who lived in the mountains and on the farms and those who remained alive in the outskirts…all astonished by the great tremors and roars they heard…and seeing the village in the state it was in, they were amazed…

‘…Many people from all over the island who had their homes there, relatives, friends and acquaintances sent each one to dig wherever they liked…some to remove the bodies of the dead, others to see if they could find money and implements they had in their homes, others to do the same to the bodies and possessions of their relatives and acquaintances…and so they dug up in many parts of the village, and some found dead in the streets and others in their houses and beds, among which they found some alive…

‘…In one tragic night, many lives were ended and everything became covered…of which no noble had houses, nor high buildings, nor sumptuous temples, nor nobles or simple people throughout the morning appeared…becoming everything flat and ground, without a sign or sight of where the town had been.…’.

The aftermath.

The tragedy had a profound effect on the social and geographic development of Sao Miguel. Initially out of necessity, the political and economic governance of the island shifted along the coast to Ponta Delgada, which suffered far less damage during the earthquake. As it became apparent that the damage to Vila Franca was so extensive, the relocation of power became permanent and Ponta Delgada was officially elevated to City status in 1546. It would be another three hundred and seventy years before Ponta Delgada officially became the capital of the Autonomous Region of the Azores in 1976.

The ‘Subversao de Vila Franca’, as the earthquake became known, is one of Portugal’s worst natural disasters, second only to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. 22nd October 2022 will be the 500th anniversary – the day is to be marked with a series of seminars in Vila Franca on natural disasters in history through the lens of natural sciences, evidence of catastrophic events in the archaeologic record, and the impact of natural disasters on social, economic and political dynamics.


Our brief history of the Azores continues with Part Five: the Crisis of Succession.


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