With the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of Windsor in abeyance, war comes to the Azores.
With King Felipe as the new head of state, Portugal became part of the vast Spanish Habsburg empire which included mainland Spain, the Canaries and Balearics, Sardinia, southern Italy, Sicily, the Netherlands, Croatia, Hungary, and vast tracts of North and South America. This ‘Iberian Union’ between the two countries had been long-sought after by the Spanish and long-fought against by the Portuguese.
At the height of the Anglo-Spanish war (1585 to 1604), and with the country ‘demoted’ to merely a province of Spain, the long-standing peace treaties between Portugal and her oldest ally England were suspended. Spanish treasure ships were given a free reign across the Azores, and with King Felipe’s soldiers garrisoned in Azorean forts, the islands became a prized target for English privateers. Enter George Clifford: the 3rd Earl of Cumberland who, under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I, wreaked havoc across the islands in 1589.
A year after battling the Spanish Armada in the English Channel, Cumberland set sail for the Azores on the Elisabeth Bonaventure with a plan to intercept and capture treasure ships returning from the Spanish Americas. Arriving in the Azores on 1st August, he began with an attack on the main island of Sao Miguel – flying a Spanish flag to gain entry to the harbour at Ponta Delgada, he sacked four Portuguese ships and made off with thirty casks of olive oil and Madeiran wine.
Attack on Angra.
Knowing the western-most islands were an important navigation point for ships arriving from the Americas, Cumberland headed west to Flores. He received word of a fleet of Spanish ships which had recently passed by en-route to Terceira. With the assistance of two additional English ships, the Barke of Lyme and the Margaret, he found the small fleet at anchor in Angra bay and attacked.
Monte Brasil’s natural protection helped make Angra a safe anchorage, but also created a bottleneck from which the Spanish ships struggled to escape. Eight ships were either captured or sunk, and Cumberland’s spoils included ivory, silver, gold, and porcelain from the Americas.
Horta under fire.
Cumberland’s next stop was Faial. Approaching the harbour at Horta under a flag of truce on 6th September, he demanded the immediate surrender of the fifty Spanish solders garrisoned at the heavily fortified Forte de Santa Cruz. When surrender wasn’t forthcoming and with the Margaret taking heavy canon fire from the fort, Cumberland sailed around the Ponta Espalamaca headland.
Safely out of range of the fort’s fifty-eight guns, he landed three hundred troops with orders to march on Horta. Homes, farmsteads and churches were ransacked over the following four days before the island’s governor Diego Gomez conceded to surrender.
The Forte de Santa Cruz was stripped of it’s armaments – these Spanish cannons were then brought to bear Cumberland’s next victim: the small island of Graciosa.
Raids on Graciosa and Santa Maria.
Unassuming Graciosa was at the very heart of Azorean food production in the 16th and 17th Centuries, making it the perfect resupply point and target for Cumberland’s next attack.
At the height it’s agricultural output, the island had almost 14,000 residents – hard to believe if you visit present-day Graciosa with it’s population of just over 4000. You’ll find clues in the island’s architecture harking back to this time, particularly in the lavish interiors of some of the churches.
You’ll also see large ponds in the capital Santa Cruz – part of a complex network of reservoirs and underground aquaducts stretching across the island, transporting water to farms and residences. The Araucarua trees which surround the ponds were originally imported from Brazil – more evidence of the island’s far-reaching trade links.
With their supplies replenished, Cumberland turned his ships east to begin the voyage home. Unable to resist one final raid, they put into Vila da Porto on the easterly island of Santa Maria – to attack a Portuguese caravel en-route to Lisbon, laden with Brazilian sugar.
Vila’s high-sided harbour is an easily defended natural bottleneck, and the heavily-fortified Forte Sao Bras was ideally positioned to fend off a sea-borne attack. Under a barrage of canon and musket fire, rocks and missiles, Cumberland’s men quickly abandoned their attack.
He ordered the damaged Margaret to set sail for home with the captured Spanish ships from their Terceira raid in tow, before moving offshore and out of range of the Sao Bras’ guns. His wait was soon rewarded with the arrival of a second ship from Brazil, carrying 410 chests of sugar which they promptly stole.
It became apparent this was a convoy of three caravels, with lead ship the Nuestra Senora de Guia having already sailed from Vila some days before. Cumberland gave chase, catching and capturing the Senora de Guia two days later, before stripping her of her cargo.
With his holds full, Cumberland set sail for what was to be a disastrous voyage home. Hit by a series of intense storms, they struggled to catch the normally favourable south westerly winds. Supplies ran extremely low, and with no prospects for a resupply, many of the crew died from diseases exacerbated by thirst and hunger.
Cumberland finally made port in Falmouth on 27th December, where he was informed that the Magaret and the Nuestra Senora de Guia had both been shipwrecked off the Cornish coast – only six members from both their crews survived.
The Battle of Flores.
The most-famous engagement of this period occurred on 30th August 1597 – known as the Battle of Flores.
The English had assembled a fleet of twenty-two ships under the command of Thomas Howard, aiming to blockade the annual Spanish Treasure Fleet sailing from Havana to Seville. Receiving word of the plan, the Spanish dispatched a fleet of fifty-five ships to intercept – catching the English off-guard and ashore on the island of Flores.
Alerted to their approach from the east, Howard led the majority of the fleet north to safety. The English warship Revenge, under the command of Sir Richard Grenville, elected to stay and fight, allowing the rest of the fleet to escape.
Grenville had a reputation as a stubborn fighter and repelled boarders from five Spanish ships. After fifteen hours of fighting, the Revenge lost her mast and the surrendered. 150 of the crew were either killed or injured, including Grenville himself who died two days later.
Escaping the English, the Spanish Treasure Fleet set sail for home. Fifteen of the fleet’s vessels were lost in a severe storm off the coast of Terceira, including the Revenge which the Spanish commander Alonso de Bazan has claimed as a prize.
The engagment was immortalised by Tennyson in his poem The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet.
The end of Spanish rule.
Portugal was increasingly under pressure to contribute financially to the Spanish war effort. The Forte de Santa Cruz in Horta, and the Fortes Sao Sebastiao and Santo Antonio in Angra were all rebuilt, but at great cost to the local Portuguese nobility.
Matters were made worse as French and Dutch privateers joined the English in their attacks on Portugal’s merchant shipping. The Dutch West Indies Company were in dispute with both the Portuguese and Spanish regarding sugar exports from the Americas. The troubles came to a head in 1624 when Dutch Corsairs attacked the town of Vila Franca do Campo on Sao Miguel. The impacts from Dutch cannonballs are still visible today in the walls of Vila’s Igreja Matriz Sao Miguel Arcanjo church.
Tensions grew as war taxes grew, with anti-Castilian riots breaking out in the capital Lisbon. ‘Sebastianism’ began to spread amongst the general population: a nationalist movement based around the belief that Dom Sebastiao hadn’t died at the Battle of Alcacer el Kebir in 1578, and would return to reclaim his crown.
Under no delusions that Dom Sebastiao was alive but with the people on side, the Portuguese nobles devised a plan to take back the throne and their independence from Spain through their own ‘legitimate’ heir: the Duke of Braganza.
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