A Brief History Lesson on the Azores: Portugal’s Mid-Atlantic Archipelago

Did you know the father of American Literature, Mark Twain, visited the Azores on an expedition back in the year 1867? In chapter six of his widely acclaimed travelogue, The Innocents Abroad, he documented his experiences on the island of Faial. He wrote my favourite quote on anything I’ve read about the Azores. He writes at the end of the chapter,

The mountains on some of the islands are very high. We sailed along the shore of the island of Pico, under a stately green pyramid that rose up with one unbroken sweep from our very feet to an altitude of 7,613 feet, and thrust its summit above the white clouds like an island adrift in a fog!

From the descriptions he wrote about his brief visit in the Azores I got the sense that the Azores was a much different place than they are today. A century and a half of evolution changes all aspects of a place’s society and economy. It got me thinking how much has changed in the Azores since the 1800’s and then I thought about even further back to its origins.

So here we are: A brief history lesson on the Azores: Portugal’s mid Atlantic Achepelago.


Geological Formation

The Azores platform is estimated to have formed 20-30 million years ago due to a volcanic hotspot. Beneath the Northern Atlantic Ocean sits the Azores Triple Junction, a point where the edges of three tectonic plates: North American Plate, Eurasian Plate, and African Plate intersect. Millions of years of volcanic eruption and solidification brought about the Azores archipelago which consists of nine islands spanning over 340 miles.

The geology of the Azores is volcanic in origin. The land is rugged and the soil is fertile. The formations you find on the islands consist of volcanos, calderas, fumaroles, thermal springs, caves, lakes and marine fossil deposits. Mount Pico, the stratovolcano that tourists climb every year, that “stately green pyramid” Mark Twain wrote about, is the highest point in Portugal and remains active to this day. The last major eruption took place in 1720.

Portolan Charts: Medici Atlas, Majorcan Maps

More than a century before Europeans officially discovered the Azores, ancient nautical maps identified them. Portolan charts were considered reliable and cartographically accurate. The first map to chart the Azores was made by an Italian cartographer (who remains unknown) called the Medici Atlas.

It charted the Azores on a north-to-south axis rather than aligned diagonally from northwest to southeast. Although the Islands weren’t named individually, they were named by grouping. For example, one group consisting of three islands situated to the west of what would be modern day Terceira was called insule de Ventura Sive de Columbis (islands of venture/winds or the pigeons) which more than likely were São Jorge, Faial, and Pico.

The Azores also appear in two other medieval maps called Majorcan maps which date back to 1375-1385.

European Re-Discovery and Colonisation

These nine islands remained “undiscovered” until European explorers missioned by Diogo de Silves claimed it as territory of Portugal in 1427. Sheep and cattle were released into the islands of Santa Maria and São Miguel, the first two islands discovered in the Azores, before settlement began. São Miguel was officially colonised in the 1440’s by settlers from mainland Portugal. With them, the settlers brought grain, grape vines, sugar-cane and domesticated animals such as chickens, rabbits, goats and pigs.

The Portuguese colonised along coastal inlets and the production of simple agricultural goods like wheat and sugar-cane became the main staples of the economy. The volcanic soil made agriculture sustainable and within a brief time period there was an export market which included plants used in the dye industry.

Ponta Delgada Railway,1861

The Azorean people faced hardship during the colonisation period. In one regard, awaiting shipments and supplies could take months and they didn’t have a way to communicate to Mainland Portugal if something were to go wrong. Colonists had to solely rely on themselves to build homes and establish villages.

Whale Hunting

Museu dos Baleeiros, Lajes Do Pico

The Azorean people resorted to whale hunting somewhere in the late 18th century due to how versatile whale parts proved to be. A single blue whale, for example, could yield up to 120 barrels of oil! The meat was valuable because not only was it rich in protein, but it was also a high source of iron and zinc which protected the immune system. Whale bones were used to craft a wide variety of products like baskets, fishing rods, utensils, knives, handles, ect. Other uses included soaps, perfumes, lubrications, and candles.

The whaling industry proved to be a reliable stream of income and material goods that vastly improve the society’s livelihood. It also became a great source of pride for Azorean heritage and whalers themselves were venerated. One of the most popular whale museums in the Azores, and arguably in the world, is located in Lajes Do Pico. The museum commemorates this tradition in an awesome fashion by not only archiving traditional equipment like boats, lances and cutting tools, but also by educating visitors on how the culture’s overall perception on whaling has evolved over the years.

Every street in Horta is handsomely paved with the heavy Russ blocks, and the surface is neat and true as a floor — not marred by holes like Broadway. And every road is fenced in by tall, solid lava walls, which will last a thousand years in this land where frost is unknown. They are very thick, and are often plastered and whitewashed and capped with projecting slabs of cut stone. Trees from gardens above hang their swaying tendrils down, and contrast their bright green with the whitewash or the black lava of the walls and make them beautiful. The trees and vines stretch across these narrow roadways sometimes and so shut out the sun that you seem to be riding through a tunnel.”

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Thoughts on visiting the Azores?

Tell me yours.

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