THE AÇORES ARCHIPELAGO
The Azores archipelago is located about 932 sea miles west of the Iberian Peninsula (Lisbon), roughly between latitudes between 37 and 39 degrees to north.
This means that the island of Santa Maria, in the far southeast of the archipelago, lies on about the same latitude as the Algarve (Sagres) on the mainland, while Corvo Island, in the northwest, is more or less on the same latitude as the city of Leiria.
The distance between Santa Maria and Corvo is 372 sea miles, so that simply adding up the islands’ surface areas (900.5sq.miles) or number of inhabitants (about 240,000) is misleading with regard to how the archipelago fits into its Atlantic context and to how the population is scattered. This dispersion gives rise to inevitable difficulties as well as cultural differences which distinguish each island from the rest.
The Azores archipelago is made up of nine islands, to wit:
Eastern Group: Santa Maria (37.5sq.miles), São Miguel (222sq.miles);
Central Group: Terceira (155sq.miles), Graciosa (24sq.miles), São Jorge (95sq.miles), Pico (173sq.miles), Faial (67sq.miles);
Western Group: Flores (55sq.miles), Corvo (7sq.miles).
Geologically, it appears that the islands began to be formed between the Cretaceous and Cenozoic periods. Being of volcanic origin, the countryside – showing shades of green, brown and black – is punctuated by conical peaks, ranging from small stacks to the Pico Island mountain which, standing 7,680 feet high, is the highest mountain on the archipelago and in the country as a whole.
The islands have various shapes, from almost round to markedly elongate – a consequence of the chain of volcanic masses from which they emerge. Mostly their coastlines are craggy on the western and northern sides, with gentler slopes in the south and east.
Located on the intersection of the tectonic plates of Europe (Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Faial and Pico islands), Africa (São Miguel and Santa Maria islands) and America (Flores and Corvo islands), the archipelago is set out in a long semi-circle along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
The climate is Atlantic temperate, heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream, with annual average temperatures of around 17’C and annual average relative humidity of 79%.
Under these conditions’ vegetation flourishes and, especially from the end of the 18th century onwards, tropical or sub-tropical species have been successfully introduced.
The soil – volcanic in origin and, before the archipelago was discovered, covered in Atlantic-type forest s which can still be seen in places, for example at the top of the Santa Bárbara range of hills on Terceira island – is in some places fertile and in others is covered by recent lava (the so-called crust) making it usable only for wine or timber production.
Basalt, trachyte, tuff and pumice rock are other types which can be found on the archipelago and which were used by the local people.
Due to the archipelago’s volcanic origin, on several islands it is possible to find volcanic smoke, thermal water sources, tunnels and underground caves, often of great beauty.
The prevailing wind in this area of the mid-Atlantic is from the west, sometimes changing to the south.
Indeed, in the winds change direction anti-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, clockwise in the centre, and again anti-clockwise in the South Atlantic.
Thus, there are three possible routes out of Europe: via north, like the Vikings; via the centre, heading towards the Caribbean like Christopher Colombus; and via south, like the Portuguese. There is only one way back, however, and that is via the Azores.
It could fairly be said that without the fortuitous arrangement of these Atlantic winds the so-called “island way back” would not have existed, the gold and silver from the Americas or spices from India would not, over the centuries, have passed through these latitudes and the city of Angra would never have become the “Universal stopover of the western sea”, as it was called by the chronicler Gaspar Frutuoso – that is, the mandatory stopover on transatlantic routes, name-ly of the Iberian empires.
Settlements, for reasons of climate and communications, have focused on low-lying areas (up to about 820 feet) along the coasts and in valleys and coves, around the foot of the central mountain ranges, with the houses arranged like white lace borders along the roads, mostly on the coastlines.
The origins of the people who populated the islands, mostly Portuguese, is still somewhat unclear, since characteristics typical of the south of the mainland have been crossed with customs and habits associated with the centre and north. The Algarve, Alentejo, Beira Alta and Beira Baixa, and Minho seem to have been the main provinces of origin. Coming together on certain islands, people originating from these areas have contributed towards the diversity of customs which can be seen today. Added to this significant segment of the population is the contribution – slight but noteworthy – made above all by the Flemish (up to the 15th century) and some French from Brittany, also in the early days of human occupation.
Two main levels distinguish the countryside which is intensively cultivated and almost Always divided up into squares lined with dry-stone walls called corrals or pens, enclosures or pastures depending on their size. Up to about 186 feet in altitude, mixed farming is prevalent; from there upwards, pastures dominate which now, due to the development of cattle-breeding, in many places stretch down almost to the coast. Where the soil is poor or unsuitable, timber-producing forests or vineyards can be found if the “crust” level of exposure to the sun and microclimate of the area are favorable.
Since 1976 the Azores archipelago has been an Autonomous Region of the Portuguese Republic created out of the earlier Autonomous Districts of Angra do Heroismo, Ponta Delgada and Horta.
The governmental structure is based on a Regional Legislative Assembly with its seat at Horta and on a Regional Government whose central administrative services are at Ponta Delgada and Whose Regional Secretariats are scattered between Angra do Heroismo, Ponta Delgada and Horta, the Archipelago’s traditional administrative centers.
The remaining aspect of the political set-up is the Minister for the Azores, based in Angra do Heroismo, who in general terms represents the sovereign non-regional services (Justice, Foreigners’ Service, Treasury, etc.).
The Azores became a diocese with its seat at Angra after a Bull was issued in 1534 by Pope Paul III “Equum reputamus.”
In that same year, in Evora on August 21, 1534, the town of Angra was give its charter by King John III, becoming the oldest city in the Azores. There followed Ponta Delgada, on Sao Miguel island, in 1546; Horta , Faial island, in 1833; Ribeira Grande, Sao Miguel island, 1981; and Praia da Vitoria, Terceira island, in 1981.
It is unclear when the Azores islands were first visited.
While maps exist, most notably from the European Middle Ages, showing islands scattered or grouped together in this area of the “Ocean Sea” as it was the known; there is no concrete evidence that could confirm whether this shows that navigators passed through here, even by accident, blown by storms, or whether they are only imagined islands.
These charts, or this knowledge, did not, however, give rise to any migratory movement of peoples until the first half of the 15th century. From this latter period, there is, for example, an anonymous letter from circa 1424 referring to the Azores with some precision, and in the Letter of Gabriel de Valsecca, dating from 1439, there is the following reference: “These islands were discovered by Diogo de Silves (or Sunis?), navigator of the King of Portugal, in the year 1427”.
The first settlements, from 1432 onwards, are attributed to Goncalo Velho Cabral, first Donee Captain of the islands of Sao Miguel and Santa Maria.
The seven islands of the Azores referred to in the Royal Letter of July 2nd, 1439, written by the Infant Pedro in nonage of the King of Portugal Afonso V, only because nine in 1452 when Diogo de Teive, returning from the west, discovered the Flores and Corvo islands which for some time after were called flower islands.
During the remaining part of the 15th century, the Azores islands were gradually colonized with the aim of obtaining for Portugal the wheat needed to supply the Kingdom and, above all, the fortresses the country held on the Moroccan coast.
Only with the more frequent appearance of ships which, on their way back from the Gulf of Guinea, had to head for these latitudes in order to find favorable winds for their return to Europe did the archipelago’s role switch from granary to watchful and protective mid-Atlantic trading post.
Vasco da Gama, returning from India in 1499, stopped over in Angra where he buried his deceased brother. Before that, in 1492, Christopher Columbus had passed through Santa Maria on his way back from the Caribbean.
Once the means and the route – which, as we remarked earlier, was to become known as “the island way back” – had been discovered, all or most all Portuguese ships carrying various riches from Guinea, India, Ceylon, Japan, Malacca, etc, began using the two bays of Angra on Terceira island for supplies, repairs and protection against pirates. From the middle of the 16th century they were joined by Spanish galleons with silver from the West Indies on a route that began at Cartagena, passed through Puerto Rico and Angra, and ended in Seville.
For this reason the King of Portugal created, in 1521, a Purveyor’s Office for the Armadas from India, with wide-ranging functions, namely to support the stocking of ships and coordinate the “island armada” – a group of warships whose task was to protect the passing wealth from the many Pirates who had begun to appear.
The first fortifications – at Sao Sebastiao in Angra and at Sao Bras and Ponta Delgada – were built for this purpose and show a modern design, with bulwarks and room for artillery to maneuver.
Part of the huge transatlantic trading system established by Portugal, the archipelago reached the peak of its development when in 1583, after three years during which some islands took the side of the independence movement, Phillip II of Spain also became King of Portugal.
For the 60 years (1580-1640) this “Iberian union” lasted, all or almost all the shipping of the two colonial empires on the peninsula coming from overseas passed through the Azores, making the archipelago a kind of ants, nest of trade and war ships acting on orders from Portugal and Spain, and of pirates and privateers from France, England and Holland.
The urban centers expanded, modernized, filled with convents, monasteries, churches, chapels and manor houses, and the islands took on a distinct maritime air – hardly surprising given the points of departure of the ships arriving in port.
Azores inhabitants spread, like their compatriots on the mainland, through the Spanish Indies, taking advantage of the fact that the sovereign was the same.
Spain’s evident concern in maintaining and protecting its ships can still be seen today in the huge fortress of Monte Brazil, in the city of Angra do Heroismo. The fortress’s three-square kilometers of area and more than four kilometers of unbroken defensive walls were ordered built by Phillip II of Spain and I of Portugal in a construction effort launched in 1592 which gave rise to what is perhaps the largest Spanish fortress in the world.
The type of economy which soon took root in the Azores meant that slavery never became as common as it did in other Atlantic archipelagoes colonized from Europe.
Indeed, as well as subsistence-level production, from early in the 16th century the Azores provided massive production of wheat (started the previous century), as well as pastel and orchid ink-producing plants destined mainly for Flanders, France and England. However, between the 16th and 18th centuries one of the main engines of the economy was the provision of services to ships and travelers.
The end of the Iberian union in 1642 significantly reduced the Azores islands role as a trading post. This was to some extent compensated in the 18th century by the passage of gold from Brazil and the creation of the Azores General Port Authority by the Marques of Pombal, prime minister of King Jose I.
It was at this time that Azorean emigration to Brazil filled the territories left vacant by the realignment of borders between the Portuguese and Spanish colonies of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Another emigration trend was towards the American ports on the east coast, spurred by whale-hunting.
The appearance of steam ships, the independence of the American colonies and the fierce competition from the Dutch and English East Indies companies, which had been growing since 1600 spelled the end of the role as trading post in the first quarter of the 19th century.
The new emerging powers quickly grasped the strategic geographical value of the Azores. First, the British who sought to ensure friendly use of the island ports as part of their management of British interests in Argentina. Orange production destined for England, which in the Azores was booming, greatly helped this intention.
In the 20th century, the United States of America, after a first experiment during World War I, set up a huge military support structure as part of bilateral agreements signed with Portugal.
Currently, the archipelago is seeking to free itself from over-dependence on the agriculture/cattle-breeding sectors, focusing on environmental, cultural and quality tourism.
Culturally, the inhabitants of the Azores keep alive many traditions and customs which on the European continent have already died out or are disappearing, such as popular street theatre shows during the Carnival celebrations with dances and balls that are fiercely critical of social mores; bullfighting in the best Mediterranean tradition; and, in full splendor, the celebrations and festivities in honor of the Holy Ghost. In the latter, which take place during Pentecost, almost all the island communities hold festivals whose main purpose is sharing and community celebration under the auspices of the Holy Ghost.
Contact with the region-due perhaps to the strong Franciscan influence during the early days of colonization- has thus created an archipelago where there is still a great balance, establishing a bridge to the new environmentally-minded generations.
Francisco dos Reis Maduro Dias
Governo Regional dos Acores
Secretaria Regional da Educação e Assuntos Sociais
Gabinete da Zona Classifcada de Angra do Heroismo
Contacts: Tel. +351-295-24871, Fax +351-295-23626