Azores - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


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

Horto by Dinozzaver, ShutterstockAround 1,400 yachts visit Horta annually © Dinozzaver, Shutterstock

Colonisation of the islands was undertaken in a typically medieval way. King Afonso V granted them to his nephew, the Infante Dom Henrique (Henry the Navigator) as Master of the Military Order of Odem, of Crusades origin. It was this Order of Odem 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, though cattle also played their part. 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; their creation had nothing to do with marking territorial boundaries. 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

Whales and other cetaceans

Whale Azores Portugal by SunvilThe Azores are one of the world's best whale-watching destinations © Sunvil

Cetaceans, from the Greek meaning ‘sea monster’, are members of the order Cetaceae, commonly known as whales and dolphins. Altogether there are a little over 80 species worldwide, and some 27 species have been sighted off the Azores: the islands are now recognised as being one of the world’s best whale-watching destinations. Cetaceans are mammals, have lungs and nostrils (blowholes), suckle their young and have front flippers evolved from forelegs. Within the Cetaceae are two subgroups: toothed whales and baleen whales. The former have teeth and a single blowhole while the latter have, instead of teeth, a horny baleen or plate descending from the upper jaw and paired blowholes. This difference is important when feeding; the toothed whales eat larger prey such as cephalopods and fish and the baleen whales use their comb-like plates to filter very small fish and the shrimp-like krill. Many of these filter-feeding whales often undertake long migrations because they need warm waters for the growth and development of their young, but they also need the food resources that concentrate in colder waters.


Once given little attention as a birdwatching destination, the Azores are now seen as an excellent choice for the observation of avian species. For keen birdwatchers, the starting point in the archipelago are two of Europe’s rarest birds, the Azorean bullfinch, endemic to a small area of São Miguel island, and Monteiro’s storm petrel, which breeds only on two tiny islets lying off the south of Graciosa. May and the end of August/beginning of September are the best times to join a pelagic tour to search for this elusive storm petrel, with opportunities to sight other seabirds like the Macaronesian shearwater, band-rumped storm petrel, Bulwer’s petrel, Zino’s petrel and Fea’s petrel. 

People and culture


The total population of the Azores is around 247,000 (2011 census), an increase of 1.79% over the preceding decade. Movement within the islands varies, with some islands or towns losing populations while others increase.

For centuries emigration has played a major part in the life of the islands. Overpopulation and economic hardship have been the underlying causes. 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 as recently as the 1980s. As a result there are large populations of Azoreans in Canada, the US, Brazil and elsewhere, still preserving their culture and heritage and returning regularly to the archipelago, particularly at festival times. Mass emigration largely ceased with the entry of Portugal to the EEC. Attracted by the peace and beauty of the islands, and the relative lack of stress, a small number of Europeans from France, Italy, Germany, mainland Portugal and elsewhere have settled in the Azores, creating small businesses mainly in the tourism sector.

Architecture and art

Cathedral Angro do Herosimo Azores by Oliver Hoffman, ShutterstockOn approaching any Azorean village from the sea, the most prominent feature is always the more or less imposing façade of a church © Oliver Hoffman, Shutterstock

Secular architecture

Architecture in the Azores is an off shoot 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 the most imposing buildings stand, the church and town hall. In past times, 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.

Religious architecture

On 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.

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.

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 the 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 directlyby Flemish settlers and through a significant trade in woad and urzela, two dyeplants 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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