Historical Background



Azores Islands chart, early 17th century


Azores Islands chart, early 17th century


   The Azores archipelago is located about 1,500 km to the west of the Iberian peninsula, roughly between latitudes 37º and 39º north, to the west of Lisbon. 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 semicircle along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.


    The climate is Atlantic temperate, heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream, with the prevailing wind from the west, sometimes changing to the south and south east. This wind pattern permitted sailing ships to depart Europe via the north, towards Canada; via the centre, heading towards the Caribbean; and via south, heading towards Africa and
Asia. There is only one way back from all those locations, however, and that is via the Azores.

    It is not known when the islands were first discovered, although one knows that they were first inhabited in the first half of the XVth century. During the remaining part of that century, the Azores islands were gradually colonised, with Portugal obtaining in them the much needed wheat, always scarce for the ever expanding maritime empire.
    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 favourable winds for their return to Europe, did the archipelago's role switch from granary to watchful and protective mid-Atlantic trading post.

    Forecasting what would happen years latter, Christopher Columbus passed through Santa Maria island, where he fought a little skirmish with the local islanders, on his way back from the Caribbean. Five years latter, Vasco da Gama, returning from India, stopped over in Angra where he buried his brother, Paulo da Gama.  Since that event, almost all of the Portuguese ships carrying goods from Africa and Asia began using Angra bay, on Terceira island, for supplies, repairs and protection against piracy. From the middle of the XVIth century onward, as a result of an Iberian treaty of cooperation, they were joined by Spanish ships with goods from the West Indies.

    The resulting development of the Azores and mainly of Terceira island, led to the creation, in Angra, of several institutions that supported the transatlantic navigations, most notably a hospital built to cure wounded and ill sailors and a Purveyor´s Office for the Armadas from India, to support the ships and protect the passing wealth from the many French corsairs and pirates who had begun to appear in the area, at the beginning of the XVIth century.  On August 21, 1534, the town of Angra was given its charter by King John III, becoming the oldest city in the Azores. In the same year, the Azores became a diocese with a bishop, also with its seat at Angra.

A nautical chart of Monte Brasil and Angra bay, in the 19th century     After that, one of the main engines of the island’s economy was the provision of services to ships and travellers, with the archipelago reaching the peak of its development in 1583, when Philip II of Spain became King of Portugal. All the Iberian ships coming from overseas passed then through the Azores, making the islands a very attractive target for the northern European privateers, that went rampant on the two last decades of the XVIth century. The end of the Iberian union in 1641 significantly reduced the Azores islands´s role as a trading post. That event, together with the fierce competition from the Dutch and English East Indies companies, which had been growing since 1600, spelled the end of the role of the Azores as a trading post.

    Ultimately, the Azores were explored and settled, and its commerce was conducted solely by ships. Inevitably, there were losses of ships to storms and coastlines, to war and accident. Each wreck became a time capsule, and each added itself and sometimes its contents to the accumulating history of mankind buried by sand and water.


 A nautical chart of Monte Brasil

and Angra bay, in the 19th century


    These features lay largely unattended and forgotten, until new technologies permitted access to them and brought renewed awareness of what exists beneath the waves. This new accessibility also brought the curious and the treasure seekers, and inevitably, a loss of knowledge about the island's past.