São Jorge Island, History

São Jorge Island is a Portuguese island in the central Azorean archipelago of Portugal. It is separated from its nearest neighbors (Pico and Faial islands) by a 15 km strait (consequently, the three islands are sometimes referred to colloquially as the “Triangulo” (Triangle) group or just “The Triangle”). São Jorge is a relatively long thin island with tall cliffs, and where the population (9500 inhabitants.) is concentrated on various deltas along the north and south coasts (its east to west length is 53 km and its north to south width is 8 km and its area is 237.59 km² 95 sq. miles).

It is unclear when the first explorers discovered the island of São Jorge; as part of the politics of human occupation, the Azores were populated after 1430 (probably 1439) through the initiative of Prince Henry the Navigator. The 23 April, known as the feast day of Saint George, has been cited by historians as the reason for the island’s name, although this is likely conjecture. Genovese and Catalan maps of the 14th century originally designated the long, slender island “São Jorge”, a designation that was maintained by Infante D. Henrique when settlers from northern Europe began to colonize the island (around 1460, or twenty years after it was first sighted).

Although unclear, Azorean chroniclers believe that settlement on the island concentrated around the two communities of Velas and Calheta, and developed into the interior. It was in 1460 that the construction of the first church dedicated to São Jorge occurred in the area of Velas, from the testaments of Infante D. Henrique. What is certain is that the island was populated by the time that João Vaz Corte Real, the Donatary-Captain of Angra do Heroísmo (Terceira) obtained the captaincy of the island, by contract on 4 May 1483. By 1500, the settlement of Velas was elevated from villa to municipality (giving rise to the supposition that Velas was the first center on the island). By 1659, the parochial church had already undergon public restoration, that gave origin the present church in that municipality.

After an unsuccessful adventure to the island of Flores, the Flemish nobleman Willem van der Haegen (later known as Guilherme da Silveira) moved to the area of Topo where he established and founded a local community, in 1480. After living there for several years he died and was buried in the chapel of the Casa dos Tiagos. Topo was eventually elevated to capital of the municipality by 1510, but lost this title to Calheta on June 3, 1534. During this period, the island was wild and many of the roads difficult or non-existent between the communities, resulting in isolated villages located along the coast. Connections between these communities developed by sea, and the better provisioned ports were likely to develop economically. This was the case with Calheta, Urzelina and Velas; the sites, although farther from the Terceira (the towns are located on the opposite coast), were preferred way-points due to secure and sheltered ports, with good anchorage and providing many goods and services. The growth of the population was rapid, and by the mid-17th century, São Jorge had approximately 3000 inhabitants and three towns: Velas, Topo and Calheta. The island demonstrated a strong economic vitality: in addition to wine, corn, and yam, it was also an important exporter of woad to Flanders and other countries in Europe.

The dynastic crisis (1580), caused by the ascension of King Philip II of Spain (King Philip I of Portugal) had consequences on the island, since gentry supported (along with those on Terceira) the pretender to the throne, D. António, Prior of Crato. King D. António reigned on the continent for about twenty days, until he was defeated at the Battle of Alcântra, whereupon he moved his court to Terceira Island and governed in opposition until 1583. The Habsburg-supported King Phillip finally defeated his forces at sea at the Battle of Ponta Delgada between July 25–26, 1582, and the garrisons in São Jorge only capitulated to the forces of Castillo after the fall of Terceira in 1583.

Following 1583, the island experienced a period of relative isolation, partially due to the poor quality of its ports and its limited economic importance. After the Spanish occupation, it was largely abandoned and its inhabitants were left to survive a meager existence. The island did not escape Atlantic piracy: the islanders were subject to attacks by English and French privateers in 1589 and 1590, raiders after 1590 (from theBarbary coast and lands occupied by the Turks) and during the 17th and 18th century (mostly around Calheta). In 1625, the inhabitants of Fajã de São João were captured by pirates and likely sold into slavery. The tranquillity around the island was also broken on September 20, 1708 when the town of Velas was attacked by French pirates under the command of René Duguay-Trouin. The population of the community resisted for twenty-four hours, but eventually the pirates made shore where they disembarked. The resistance, commanded by Sergeant-major Amaro Soares de Sousa, occurred around the village of Banquetas saving the other villages from occupation and pillaging.

Periods of local prosperity or misery occurred in the following years; there were several bad growing seasons and natural catastrophes (such as the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tornados in 1580, 1757, 1808 and 1899) that created famines and hardships. The most famous of these eruptions began in the early morning of May 1, 1808 (Urzelina eruption). Suffocating gases, as well as carboxylic acid, were emitted from a vent along the Manadas ridge and thick greenish vaporous clouds (of chloric and sulfuric acids) rapidly spread to the plants. Eight major tremors were recorded per hour that caused widespread panic. Many of the homes, buildings and cultivatable lands were destroyed. Between 1580 and 1907, at least six significant eruptions occurred; ten people were killed during the 1580 eruption and eight in 1808. In 1850, the island’s vineyards were devastated by the phylloxera plague, which had a terrible affect on the economy until the development of the orange industry (about 1860). The island’s isolation ended after the completion of the ports of Velas and Calheta.

During the Portuguese Civil War, Liberalist forces were stationed on the island after May 10, 1831. Generally, the island’s residents have lived for many years in isolation, interrupted by rare visits from the authorities, commercial boats from the local islands, and the occasional nobleman who has come to contemplate the local scenery.

With the inauguration of its ports, and the airport/aerodrome (April 23, 1982) commercial ventures have grown (especially the export of the local cheese), the expansion of animal husbandry, the fisheries and a small crafts industry.

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