A brief history of the Azores – Part One

A brief history of the Azores – Part One: Portugal’s Age of Discoveries


To understand the history of the Azores, you’ve got look back to the 15th Century – when Portuguese ships began exploring the unchartered waters of west Africa.


history of the azores

The 15th and 16th Centuries saw Portugal transform from a small fiefdom on the western fringes of Europe to the world’s first modern colonial power. Dom Joao I of Portugal married Philippa of Lancaster in 1387 – Philippa was the daughter of John of Gaunt and sister of English King Henry IV, and their marriage sealed the Treaty of Windsor: the oldest surviving diplomatic alliance between two countries. Philippa’s arrival into Porto is famously depicted in blue Azuelo tiles on the walls of the city’s Sao Bento railway station.

Of their nine children, third son Henrique was particularly smitten with the tales of his English Plantagenet cousins and their religious crusades. Henrique’s full title was the Infante Dom Henrique, Duke of Viseu, although he’s more commonly known outside of Portugal as Henry the Navigator.

A brief history of the Azores – Part One


Follow years of unrest (and with English support), Dom Joao struck a decisive blow against the neighbouring kingdom of Castile and an uneasy truce between the two kingdoms was signed. With a highly skilled army and navy now available, Joao saw an opportunity for his sons to follow in the footsteps of their crusading English cousins. On the morning of 21st August 1415, the Portuguese fleet began their assault on the ‘infidel city’ of Ceuta on the north African coast. Ceuta was quickly overwhelmed and occupied – and remained under Portuguese rule for over 250 years. Henrique distinguished himself in battle, bringing him to the attention of Pope Martin V. He was appointed the grandmaster of the Military Order of the Knights of Christ; the Portuguese successors to the Knights Templar.

history of the azores


Henrique’s next crusade against the Moroccan Citadel of Tangier ended in disaster and the near-destruction of the Portuguese army. Part-crusader, part-businessman, Henrique’s attention turned away from religious wars and more towards foreign trade. The Mediterranean trade routes from the far east were controlled by the Venetian Republic whilst the overland routes passed through the Muslim kingdoms of north Africa. Henrique’s captains set sail along the uncharted west coast of Africa – trying to bypass the Muslim Kingdoms in order to connect directly with the rich trans-Saharan trade routes. Never completely abandoning their crusader-fervour, the Portuguese nobility were also searching for viable, navigable routes inland by boat to ‘Prester John’: a legendary figure who ruled over a lost Christian nation (possibly modern-day Ethiopia), said to have descended from the Three Kings.

history of the azores

As they extended their reach further south, Henrique’s captains developed a sailing technique known as the Volta do Mar. The prevailing north-easterly winds off the African coast were perfect heading south, but not great when heading north for home. Rather than tacking back up the coast, Henry’s captains found that if they sailed west, out into the mid-Atlantic, they could pick-up south-westerly winds, bringing them back into the north Atlantic and home to Lisbon. Bartolomeu Dias took the Volta do Mar to its extreme when he became the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, shortly followed by his more famous contemporary Vasco da Gama in 1497.

history of the azores

Our brief history of the Azores continues with Part Two: the Atlantic islands.


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