The History of the Azores Islands
The history of the Azores islands and their discovery is an interesting and often conflicted series of events that reflects on the current Azorean diaspora. The nine islands knowns as the Azores or Açores (Portuguese) were discovered officially in the 15th century. Goncalo Velho Cabral (great uncle of Pedro Álvares Cabral; discoverer of Brazil) is credited with the discovery of the islands. The first island to be discovered was the island of Santa Maria which is located at the southern tip of the Azores archipelago. According to the legend on August 15th, 1432, Cabral’s crew disembarked on a small beach in the northwestern Ponte dos Canestrantes, where he encountered a population of Eared seals, proclaiming the beach Praia dos Lobos. The Captain and his crew explored the island, collecting various samples of the native and unfamiliar plants, as well as canisters of earth and water to give to the Prince as proof of their discovery. Once, Prince Henry, the Navigator received the gifts he informed his brother the king of Portugal, and the colonization of the island with herd animals ( cows, sheep, goats, pigs) was ordered immediately so they could populate the island for future settlers. The island was uninhabited at the time and only migratory birds and coastal mammals were present on the island. It is interesting that Santa Maria was the first island to be discovered in the archipelago and also is the oldest island as well. Scientists have found that the volcanic eruption from the ocean floor around 8 million years ago gave rise to this island, with similar eruptions later on causing the remaining 8 islands to be formed in the region. There are many examples (public buildings, churches, auxiliary structures, military constructions) of Santa Maria’s cultural heritage that have been remodeled, conserved, and preserved for their important histo-cultural significance. Since Santa Maria was the first island to be colonized, there are older examples of these buildings and structures that have lasted longer, due to no documented volcanism and rare earthquakes. In settling the Azores, the crown applied a system that was successful on the island of Madeira in 1425: the new lands would be administered by title grants (donatário) to loyal noblemen and men of confidence (donatary-captains) that would oversee security and colonization while enforcing the King’s law. Gonçalo Velho, with the support of Queen D. Isabella, was nominated the first captain of the island of Santa Maria and (later) São Miguel, where he arrived in 1439 with colonists, bringing their families. Although the existence of the Azores islands has been proven in recent years to have been documented in various maps before their initial colonization. It is safe to say that the islands were rediscovered by the Portuguese and were definitely uninhabited when the Portuguese arrived, however knowledge of their existence is evident prior to the Portuguese arrival. By 1440, other settlements had developed along the river valleys and coastal inlets of São Miguel, Terceira, Faial, and Pico, supported by game animals and fishing. An abundance of potable water sources, along with fertile volcanic soils, made the islands attractive and easy to colonize, and the growth of the wheat market supported an export economy.