Some people find history fascinating; others find it completely boring. I used to be the latter, finding all those dates absolutely meaningless (stop scowling). Random dates and events seemed like completely useless knowledge. I wanted to know what was happening today! Not 500 years ago.
In high school, I hated history. Memorizing lists of pointless dates was excruciatingly dull, and I barely scraped through Grade 9, 10, and 11 History courses with marks like 51% and 53%. Then in Grade 12, the principal, Mr. Warick taught Grade 12 History. All he did was wander around the front of the class telling stories. Stories! Fascinating stories. No dates, just incredible stories about people and places. I was mesmerized. On the very first examination I got 100%. That blew me away. How could that happen? How could things change that dramatically from the previous years. Suddenly, I loved History. I relate this story only to help make the point that there is some value in knowing the history of a place.
Especially when you are a traveller, you come to realize that the process of understanding and appreciating a country is just plain difficult unless you have at least some basic knowledge of the history of that country. What I discovered was that if there is a timeline to the dates and events that makes some logical sequential sense, that is, an actual start and finish, then you might hold my attention for more than 10 seconds, but if you start in the middle and start babbling about some war in the middle of that country’s existence, it makes no sense to me at all.
So here is a brief history of the Azores. What got my attention, was that there was no date when the Azores were actually discovered. It gave them a kind of “lost in time” intrigue that caught my interest for a change. In fact, one of the nicknames for the islands is “The Lost Islands”.
The 9 islands of the Azores are almost in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Europe (Portugal) and North America. Few people even know they exist.
It’s unusual that the exact date of the discovery of the Azores Archipelago is not known. The factual history we do know of the Azores Islands dates back to the 15th century when Portuguese seafarers finally acknowledged the islands. For hundreds of years the islands were along a major navigational route for ships travelling between the Old and the New Worlds. In fact, Christopher Columbus supposedly stopped on the Azores Island of Santa Maria after his 1493 voyage to America, and after being mistaken for a pirate, was taken prisoner, being set free only after officials sufficiently justified his landing.
The islands were first populated by Portuguese and Flemish (Belgium) settlers, then by settlers from France, Belgium and North Africa. Traditional houses were built from the plentiful stone on the islands.
In 1580 the islanders strongly resisted occupation by Spain (Phillip II), who had absorbed the Portuguese throne, but the Azores were indeed occupied by Spain and began to prosper, despite attacks by raiders and pirates.
In the 1700’s whalers were attracted to the islands of Pico and Faial, whose hearty peasants were said to make the best whalemen, and in the 1800’s the island of Faial became the main link in the first transatlantic telegraph line.
In the 1830’s, the War of the Two Brothers, sons of the King of Portugal, resulted in a victory that the independent-minded Azoreans supported as they fell under the rule of Portugal. The successive governments of Portugal failed however, to invest in the islands, and a subsequent decline began, with high emigration to the United States and Canada. Even today, there are few Azoreans that do not speak of their relatives in North America. Strange, we thought, that so few North Americans have even heard of the Azores.
The Azores were also a fueling and rest stop for ships crossing the vast Atlantic Ocean during World War II.
It wasn’t until 1974 that democracy was returned to Portugal after years of dictatorship, and the vocal Azoreans believed that perhaps now they would not be seen simply as a supplier of dairy and meat products. They longed for independence.
Finally, in 1976 (only about 40 years ago), The Azores became an autonomous region of Portugal, meaning that although they belonged to Portugal, they were independent.
In 1986, when Portugal joined the Economic Community (EC), government incentive packages provided assistance to individuals and small business (there are no large businesses or megafactories in the Azores) for agriculture, new roads, building projects, and tourism. Some of the U.S. and Canadian emigrants then began returning to the Azores to engage in these new opportunities.
The Azores Motto: Antes morrer livres que em paz sujeitos. (Translation: Rather die free, than in peace subjugated.)
The Azoreans are eager to attract tourists; they hope that this will improve their economy. The Germans have known of these enchanted islands for some time, and have kept it their little secret, but even mainland Portugal had not made it a vacation spot until the last 15-20 years.
The world economic climate did not reach the islands until about two years after it had affected the mainland, so now they are seeing shops closed and owners frustrated, and the cost of living rising. Very little tourist promotion has been done in Canada or the U.S. because it is a concern that promotion could bring more than the islands are able to accommodate. Even their biggest hotels might have only sixty or seventy rooms, and there seems to be some resistance to large, skyscraper hotels defacing the landscape, much to their credit.
Although the people of the Azores are very interested in politics and industrial development to provide employment for young people, it’s amazing that poverty is simply not a problem because everyone can sustain themselves in terms of raising their own food and building their own houses, or helping each other. They have their own livestock for high quality beef, pork and eggs, milk, cheese, and butter. They have their own fruit trees, wine, and a vast array of fresh fish and they produce their own lumber. Imports of products such as, cereals, fuels, machinery, transportation materials and primary materials are required, but rather than importing products and manpower from the European mainland, the people of the islands would like to have their own factories employing their own people.
As we drove around Terceira island, we noted that it was made up of a few towns, many small villages, and tiny farms that were all scattered along the coastline, with most of the interior uninhabited. There were no houses in the countryside – even the farmers live in the villages. Often the interior of an island is made up of a few crater valleys with one or two roads across it, and cows are scattered over the hills. Most of the land is owned by two or three families.
It was not difficult to see that the Azores people are extremely proud of their islands, and demonstrate a sincere love for the pastoral islands and it’s history.
Learning about the basic history and background of the Azores helped us to understand not just the pride of independence that the Azores people demonstrate, but also the people themselves, the blend of cultures from their French, Portuguese and African ancestors, their fishermen backgrounds, their food, their music, their perceptions, and their accomplishments.
The Azores remain autonomous, but are still a protectorate of Portugal. They’re an important mid-ocean refueling and pit-stop for commercial airlines, cruise ships, international shipping, and private yachts.
Famous for deep sea fishing, local cheeses, red and white wine production, and many varieties of tropical fruit – the islands are a wonderful place to relax in a quiet, traditional rural atmosphere with warm-hearted people.
The lost islands have been found, though they still remain virtually unknown to most people.
Oh, and the most important thing about History? It needs to be told as a “story”!