A brief history of the Azores – Part Two

A brief history of the Azores – Part Two: the Atlantic islands


Henrique’s captains had mastered the Atlantic trade winds, but there was still a need for Portuguese ships to resupply on their epic explorations.


history of the azores


The west coast of Africa itself was often too hostile a place for Portuguese ships to make land. The Canaries, the Madeiras and the islands of the Azores were perfectly placed resupply points. All three groups of islands appeared in various guises on charts of the Atlantic as early as 1373. Being under the control of Castile, the Canaries were not a viable resupply option (although Henrique did succeed in purchasing Lanzarote for a brief period). It wasn’t until 1420 that two of Henrique’s captains, Joao Goncalves Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixeira, landed on Madeira’s small neighbour Porto Santo and claimed the archipelago for the Portuguese crown.

history of the azores

Madeira was quickly colonised and became the main source of timber for the mainland – and as the forests were cleared, the rich fertile soil and abundant supplies of water allowed the first settlers to grow cereals, wheat and (most significantly for the Portuguese economy) sugar cane.

Santa Maria

Spurred-on by his captains’ successful settlement of Madeira, Henrique turned his attention to the unhabited islands of the Azores. Exact dates are sketchy – we know Henrique was granted permission by his brother the king to begin transporting settlers and livestock in 1439. The more widely accepted story (without an official record) has Goncalo Velho setting sail in 1425 to establish settlements on the two most eastern islands of Santa Maria and Sao Miguel. The village of Anjos (on Santa Maria) is the location of the very first Azorean settlement, with the present-day Vila do Porto being granted town status in 1470.

history of the azores 09

Anjos and it’s naturally-sheltered bay appear as a historical footnote in Columbus’ exploration of the Atlantic. In February 1493, Columbus was caught in a severe storm whilst trying to return to Spain following his first voyage to the Americas. Searching for a safe haven, they sailed into the Baia dos Anjos – by Columbus’ reckoning their location was somewhere near the Canary Islands and a small group headed to shore in the hope of attending Mass (to give thanks for surviving the storm). As Columbus was sailing under a Castilian flag, they were promptly arrested by the governor of the island and charged with piracy.

Columbus sailed to nearby island of Sao Miguel, to appeal for the release of his crew and to try and repair his ailing ship (the Nina). With the backing of his brother-in-law (Pedro Correia da Cunha – governor of the island of Graciosa), Columbus eventually secured the release of his crew. As a mark of respect, he attended mass in the small Anjos chapel before continuing his voyage. In the centre of the village today, you’ll find a statue of Columbus overlooking the chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Anjos.

history of the azores

Sao Miguel

The colonisation of Santa Maria’s much-larger neighbour Sao Miguel followed, with a first settlement being established on the site of present-day Povoacao in 1432. This eastern-end of Sao Miguel quickly became the agricultural heart of the island, with much of the land devoted to wheat farming and the cultivation of oranges. In the mid-19th Century, Sao Miguel was the largest exporter of oranges to the UK and the rolling hills and ‘lombas’ in the east were covered in orange groves. Sadly, a pan-European disease (more widely known as the Great French Wine Blight) decimated the entire orange crop (and most of the Azorean vineyards) in the late 1800s.

history of the azores

Heading west

The colonisation of the archipelago expanded as the settlers ventured further west – establishing settlements on the islands of Terceira and Graciosa in 1450, Faial, Pico and Sao Jorge in 1460, and Flores in 1480.  There’s a long gap of a hundred years before the eventual colonization of the tiny island of Corvo in 1580. Together with it’s closest neighbour Flores, Corvo became an important navigation beacon for ships sailing the trade winds between mainland Portugal and her Brazilian colonies. Come the industrial revolution, these westerly islands quickly lost their significance as steam-driven ships transformed Atlantic navigation.


history of the azores

Initially, Henrique had difficulty attracting settlers to the Azores. Setting aside the logistics of transporting axes, shovels, hammers, livestock, seeds, and personal belongings 1400km across the Atlantic Ocean – many of the islands were still volcanically active. The Azores sit on a tectonic plate boundary between the North American, the Eurasian, and the African plates, with the Azores Microplate squeezed in between. Flores and Corvo sit on the western-side of the boundary, whilst the seven other islands are on the eastern-side. The plates are slowly moving apart – increasing the distance between Flores and the main island of Sao Miguel by around 25mm each year (a whole 15 metres since the first settlers arrived).

history of the azores

Help from Flanders

Colonisation of the central groups of islands was eventually spear-headed Flemish émigrés. The Hundred Years War was devastating their homeland of Flanders, making the Azores an attractive prospect for relocation. Terceira’s first Governor (or Captain-Donee) was Jacome da Bruges – a Flemish noble, Jacome brought modern economic theory to Henrique’s court, having learnt his trade in Bruge, the capital of the Hanseatic league. Henrique tasked Jacome, together with seventeen other Flemish families, to colonise Terceira in 1450. It’s estimated that a total of two-thousand Flemish settlers followed Jacome’s lead to relocate to the Azores.

history of the azores

Their influence is still felt today: the etymology of Faial’s capital Horta is said to be a derivation of ‘Huerter’: the surname of Josse van Huerter, the first Captain of the island. On Sao Jorge, the island’s famous cheeses are still produced using the same tried-and-tested techniques of the early Flemish Settlers. Whilst on Pico, Flemish technological know-how built the windmills you can still see dotted around the islands, and the drystone Currais plots which are a key-component of the island’s UNESCO-protected vineyards.

history of the azores

Our brief history of the Azores continues with Part Three: the Carreira da India.


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