Azores - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Azores: the Bradt Travel Guide


Horto by Dinozzaver, Shutterstock

Horta © Dinozzaver, Shutterstock

Colonisation of the islands was undertaken in a typically medieval way. King Alfonso V granted them to his nephew, the Infante Dom Henrique (Henry the Navigator) as Master of the Military Order of Avis, of Crusades origin. It was this Order of Avis that financially supported the discoveries of the 15th century and for reward was given the new lands to explore and populate.

The Infante in turn delegated control over administration, defence, justice and land grants to the Captain Donatário (donatory or lord proprietor, the Portuguese equivalent of a colonial governor), together with the revenue from certain taxes, and the monopoly control over mills, salt and the ovens for baking bread. The king retained oversight of customs, control of selected taxes and of the death penalty.

The usual practice was followed when discovering islands; cattle, goats and pigs were landed to provide future food, and also very likely to begin the tremendous task of penetrating the dense vegetation. The first islands to be populated were Santa Maria and São Miguel, followed by Terceira in about 1450.

Settlers came from mainland Portugal, particularly the Algarve and Alentejo, and from Madeira. Portugal’s population was only 1.5 million, so Henry encouraged immigration from Flanders, and in 1466 Faial and Pico were settled by Flemings, under the Captain Donatário Josse Van der Huertere, and a few years later Flores by Willem Van der Hagen; for a time, these islands became known in northern Europe as the Flemish Islands because so many settled there, refugees from the scourges of the Hundred Years’ War.

The first settlers faced an enormous task and probably used fire to begin to clear the vegetation. On some of the islands this would have revealed a very stony soil, and especially on Pico it must have been heartbreaking. Huge neatly piled stacks of stones metres square and 2m tall remain testimony to this tenacity and determination, as do the numerous stone walls.

With such an inhospitable coastline, wherever it was possible to land must have dictated the location of those first settlements. Looking at them today, some still appear daunting, often at the foot of steep cliffs or ravines. Farming slowly spread across the islands as the vegetation was cleared and by the next century there was a surplus of production for export: wheat for the Portuguese garrison in north Africa, sugar and woad for dyeing to Flanders. Each island grew more of the crops that best suited its climate and terrain.

However, by the end of the 17th century, the peasants were eating the introduced American corn (maize) and yams, so freeing the wheat crop for export for townspeople and cash export.

During the middle of the 16th century, vessels returning from India using the westerly trade winds passed through the Azores, but it was at the beginning of the Portuguese colonisation of Brazil and the discovery of America when the islands began their great development, mainly in the coastal village of Angra on Terceira because it offered sheltered anchorage. It became a principal port for exporting Azorean produce, and significantly an assembly port for ships returning from Brazil laden with valuable cargoes. Here they would form convoys for the journey to Lisbon, protected by warships against the marauding pirates.

In 1580, Spanish Castile annexed Portugal and the Azores supported Dom António, the next in line to the throne, who, with French help, held out on Terceira, becoming the last Portuguese resistance to Castilian power. The Spaniards defeated the French fleet off Terceira in July 1582 and the following year overran the islands.

In 1591, the Spanish were attacked by the English, giving rise to the famous Tennyson poem The Revenge. Liberated in 1640, the islands became an important staging post for British trade and for British naval strategy, until the opening of the Suez Canal over 200 years later.

Although so distant from the Portuguese mainland, the Azores nevertheless have often played an important part in Portuguese history. They contributed to the conquest, defence and supply of the Portuguese strongholds on the north African coast, caravels stopped in the Azores on their return from India, they supported the ships sailing to the Americas, and they strongly resisted Spanish domination between 1580 and 1640.

Two centuries later the islands featured in the Liberals’ struggle with the Absolutists; two presidents in the First Republic came from the Azores and, most recently, the islands provided important bases for the Allies in the two world wars, and in the Gulf War.

Natural history

It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the first studies of the flora, fauna and oceanographics took place, when the Azores were frequently visited by scientists. In 1841 and 1845, the British war vessel HMS Styx, led by Captain Vidal, undertook hydrographic studies of the Azores, drawing up the first map where the islands appear correctly surveyed and with their positions correctly given. HMS Beagle stopped in Terceira and São Miguel on its return from voyaging round the world, enabling Charles Darwin to make shore excursions. In 1850, HMS Rattlesnake, on the way home from a four-year voyage surveying the Coral Sea and the New Guinea coast, sailed into Horta for six days’ recuperation.

It had taken almost nine weeks to travel from the Falkland Islands, their last landfall, and the islands’ plentiful supplies were much needed for the health of the crew and passengers. The ship’s assistant surgeon and naturalist was Thomas Huxley, who later famously defended Darwin and his theory of evolution; during their week in port, he made the ascent of Pico. Prince Albert I of Monaco (1848–1922) stayed several times on the islands making oceanographic studies, then a new scientific discipline, and exploring the caldera on Graciosa. There are references to these studies in the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco.

Many of the remaining patches of native vegetation are now in protected zones and you might see notices to this effect. The vegetation of the islands, particularly on Pico, Terceira and São Miguel, is interesting not only because it represents communities that were once widespread in parts of Europe millions of years ago, but also because very few aspects of its ecology and biology have been studied and the opportunities for simple observation and research are considerable. There is a desire to know what is happening in amongst the evergreens.

Many stretches of coastal cliff are protected zones, mostly for seabirds; again you might see the signs. The marine environment is similarly protected.

People and culture


The total population of the Azores is just over 246,000 (2011 census), an increase of 1.79% over the past decade. Movement within the islands varies, with some islands or towns losing populations while others increased. For centuries emigration has played a major part in the life of the islands. Overpopulation and economic hardship have been the underlying cause.

Since the early days numerous initiatives were tried to find crops that could be exported to give a cash income to the islands. Many succeeded, only to be dashed by changing world markets, war in Europe or America, or pest and disease, leaving thriving communities destitute. Other natural disasters like earthquakes and eruptions drove islanders away after their homes and fields had been destroyed, even up until the 1980s. As a result there are large populations of Azoreans in Canada, the US, Brazil and many elsewhere. Emigration ceased with the entry of Portugal to the EEC.

Architecture and art

Secular architecture

Architecture in the Azores is an offshoot of the designs known in continental Portugal, sharing the simplicity of form common to the Mediterranean. It does, however, have its own characteristics. The most obvious are the easy integration of the buildings in the landscape and the structure of the settlements, in which streets tend to converge in small irregular squares where stand the most imposing buildings, the church and town hall. Until very recently most houses were modest in size and appearance and had distinctive features: they were built of stone, with a characteristic contrast between whitewash and black basalt.

As you go around the different islands variations emerge: Santa Maria has white houses with coloured bars marking the shapes and windows and Algarve-style prismatic chimneys, while on Pico, houses are black with no plaster on the walls and balconies running along the upper floors are accessed via outside staircases. On Terceira a long house is common, with its row of windows and doors with the kitchen at one end indicated by the presence of the broad chimneys called de mãos postas (‘with joined hands’).

On São Miguel low window–door–window-style houses are more frequent, similar to those in the Alentejo or, in some areas, houses with their gable end directly on the street. Variations can also be seen in the generally very simple decorative elements, focused around the windows and doors: mouldings of curved lines; the aventais (aprons) of the windows outlined in black; the characteristic staircase eye-windows decorated with geometric motifs, possibly Arabic in influence; or the windows with wrought-iron balconies, with a more cultivated influence. Another very common element, especially in the islands of the Central Group, is the bands of basalt that cut vertically and horizontally across the façades, as a form of proof against earthquakes.

Religious architecture

Church on Terceira by Anibal Trejo ShutterstockOn approaching any Azorean village from the sea, the most prominent feature is always the more or less imposing façade of a church. The most notable in this respect is the view of Horta on Faial, with the façades of the parish church, the Convent of São Francisco and the beautiful façade of the Carmelite monastery dominating the group of houses and ‘gazing out to sea’.

Hills near the villages are often topped by little pilgrimage chapels; of the many that are to be found scattered through the islands is the group of chapels and pilgrimage houses of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda above the small town of Santa Cruz da Graciosa, among which is also what is perhaps the best example of a fortified church with huge buttresses, decorative battlements and ribbed vaults inside.

(Photo: Imperio of São Sebastião on Terceira © Anibal Trejo, Shutterstock)

In spite of limited resources, religious art in the Azores always had the benefit of fine talents and this enabled the islands to keep up with the artistic developments of mainland Portugal. The initial period, characterised by Gothic-Manueline architecture which lasted until the mid 16th century, is represented by almost all the surviving early parish churches of the main towns; for example the parish churches of São Sebastião in Ponta Delgada and of São Sebastião on Terceira.

Then followed a long period of Portuguese classicism, known as estilo chão (plain architecture) because of its bare, austere and purely functional style exemplified by the Cathedral of Angra, and the Parish Church of Santa Cruz on Graciosa. The majority of monastic buildings in the Azores belong to this group, in spite of the decorative alterations many of them underwent during the Baroque period, of which examples include Nossa Senhora da Graça in Ponta Delgada and São Boaventura in Santa Cruz on Flores.

Military architecture

Because of their strategic location between Europe and the New World the Azores were important for shipping, especially the returning treasure ships, but the islands were constantly threatened by corsairs. During the reigns of Dom João III and Dom Sebastião in the mid 16th century, a series of fortifications were begun 3km apart around the coast, with São Miguel, Terceira and Flores the most fortified. Construction was inspired by Renaissance technology and supervised by Italian military engineers and examples are São Brás in Ponta Delgada and Santa Cruz in Horta.

In Angra on Terceira the castle of São Filipe, later renamed São João Baptista, was built during Philippine sovereignty (1580–1640), again as part of a general defence plan; construction was supervised by the Portuguese military engineer João de Vilhena and the Italian fortification specialist Tiburzio Spanochi, and was only completed after the Restoration.

Practically impregnable, the castle benefited from the natural situation of Monte Brasil and included, on the landward side of the isthmus, a defensive platform with bulwarks and powerful curtain walls with deep moats. By this device the forces loyal to the Spanish crown were able to resist for long months after the King of Portugal took power.

Surprisingly few vestiges of this vast military effort are left to us. This is probably due to two factors. First, the quality of the constructions varied since often, with an attack imminent, the work was organised by the town hall and executed by the population using the materials and technology immediately to hand. Second, advances in warfare made many buildings obsolete, so that they were abandoned and left to the mercy of the elements and vandalism.

Only more recently has the historical and architectural value of this heritage been recognised and efforts are slowly being made to save it from total ruin.

Painting and decorative arts

Most paintings, carvings, glazed tiles, furniture and gold artefacts in the Azores come from studios abroad following commissions made in a religious context. Only in a few cases is the artist or school, those who commissioned the item and the iconographic association known to us. On the whole, however, the quality of the work is comparable to the rest of Portugal, with the obvious exception of the royal court.

As with the architecture, genuinely Gothic artefacts are extremely rare. One of them is the triptych of the Virgin Mary in the Church of Dos Anjos (on Santa Maria), a portable altarpiece that according to tradition belonged to Christopher Columbus, on which Gothic designs can be distinguished. Another example is the murals of the Church of São Sebastião on Terceira.

Later 16th-century Flemish art is much more visible in the archipelago, both in works imported from the workshops of Antwerp, Brussels and Mechelen, and in works of local artists who succumbed to a veritable passion for the Flemish style.

This fashion spread throughout the Portuguese territory, largely because of the privileged relationship Iberia had with this northern European region in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the Azores the Flemish influence was exercised directly by Flemish settlers and through a significant trade in woad and urzela, two dye plants used in the textile industry.

Imported Flemish art includes numerous small sculptures such as the Virgin and Child (Horta Museum), St Sebastian tied to a dry tree trunk (Ponta Delgada Museum), or the larger sculpture Our Lady of the Miracles in the Church of Vila do Corvo, all from Mechelen. More elaborate and emotionally charged is the Crucifixion and Saint Mary Magdalen (Horta Museum), a delicate work that must have come from the hands of a Brussels artist around 1520. Another theatrical composition is the Christ being taken down from the Cross, probably also from the 15th century, now exhibited in the Church of the Altares on Terceira.

A moving group presents the scene of Our Lady, St John and the Holy Women, with Roman soldiers and citizens; at the bottom you can see skulls, the bones of Adam and some souls from purgatory. Probably also of Flemish influence, but from the first half of the 17th century, is the magnificent sculpture of Our Lady of the Tears (Church of São Pedro, Ponta Delgada), a powerfully modelled work of great expressiveness.

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