Santa Maria Island, History

Santa Maria, Portuguese for Saint Mary, is an island located in the eastern group of the Azores archipelago (south of the island of São Miguel) and the southernmost island in the Azores. The island is primarily known for its white sand beaches, distinctive chimneys, and dry warm weather.

The first records of a group of islands in the Atlantic (aside from the legends of Atlantis) came from the voyages of Portuguese sailors during the reigns of King Denis(1279–1325) and his successor King Afonso IV (1325–1357). These were unsubstantiated accounts and unofficial, until 1427 when navigator Diogo de Silves found the island of Santa Maria (at that time referred to on nautical charts as Ilha dos Lobos or Ilha do Ovo) during his journey to Madeira. Myth tells that on the day of the islands discovery, Gonçalo Velho Cabral and his crew were celebrating mass (on the feast day of the Virgin Mary), when one of the lookouts spotted the distant island, declaring “Santa Maria”: this name would become linked permanently to the island. Santa Maria’s discovery was attributed to Gonçalo Velho Cabral in 1432 (rather than the pilot Silves), since discoveries were not “recognized officially” until they declared so by the Portuguese Crown, who registered them in Cabral’s name, as commander of the voyage (he had already commanded two voyages of exploration in 1431-1432).

According to legend Cabral’s crew disembarked on a small beach in the northwestern Ponte dos Canestrantes, where he encountered a population of Eared seals, proclaiming the beach Praia dos Lobos (from the generic Portuguese lobos-marinhos, or monk seals ). The Captain and his crew explored the island, collecting various examples of the native and unfamiliar plants, as well as canisters of earth and water to give to the Infante as proofs to their discovery. The Infante received these “gifts” in 1432, and immediately ordered that herds be sent to the island, while he organized a plan for its colonization. In settling the Azores, the crown applied a system that was successful on the island of Madeira in 1425: the new lands would be administered by title grants (donatário) to a noblemen and men of confidence (donatary-captains) that would oversee security and colonization, while enforcing the King’s law. The master or Donatário for the Azores was the Infante Henry the Navigator (in his role as governor of the Order of Christ and Duke of Viseu), who was granted carte blanche to enforce the King’s dominion (except to coin money and some judicial authority). The donatário also had the responsibility of selecting or sub-contracting local administrators to represent him, as some historians referred to as captains of the donatary; for his part, Gonçalo Velho, with the support of D. Isabella, was nominated the first captain of the island of Santa Maria and (later) São Miguel, where he arrived in 1439 with colonists, bringing their families and some cattle. By 1460, the chronicler Diogo Gomes de Sintra identified the island as Ilha de Gonçalo Velho, with the choicest lands in the hands of their commander.

Colonization progressed between 1443 and 1447, principally from settlers from the Portuguese Alentejo and Algarve, who populated the northern coast along the Baía dos Anjos (English: Bay of the Angels) and later in the area of Vila do Porto (in the southwest coast). This area would attain the title of Vila do Porto for the nestled anchorage that developed there, and the municipality would also adopt the name, by 1470 (as indicated on their floral). By the end of the 16th century, Santa Maria was divided into three parishes: Nossa Senhora da Assunção (Vila do Porto), Santa Bárbara and Santo Espírito. The governing classes, the families which controlled the politico-administrative organs of the municipality and parishes were all intermingled by marriage and class, and after the Iberian Union this concentration increased.

Similar to other islands of the archipelago, Santa Maria was a victim of repeated attacks by privateers and pirates. In one of the principal engagements, a Castiliancarrack with 40 men disembarked in the port of Vila do Porto (in 1480), where they were confronted by residents under the command of the Captain-Major João Soares(nephew of Gonçalo Velho and heir to the Captaincy of Santa Maria and São Miguel), who took to hurl rocks from the cliffs above Calhau da Roupa at the invaders. João Soares was eventually captured by the Spaniards, who took him in irons as a prisoner to Castile. After successive pirate attacks, the population was very hostile to travellers: the travelling Christopher Columbuswas greeted harshly by its residents, when he and his crew disembarked in the Baía dos Anjos (in February 1493) on their return from their famous “discovery” of the New World. Several of his crew were captured, and complex negotiations were undertaken to liberate the same. Thankful for their liberation, a mass was celebrated by him and his party in the old chapel before he returned to Spain. Although relatively far from the routes used by ships traveling to India, the island was repeatedly attacked by French pirates (1553), the island assaulted by French troops (1576), the English (1589) and Moors (1616 and 1675). By the 17th Century, a series of fortifications were constructed along the coast to defend the populace from these attacks, including the Fort of São Brás (Vila do Porto) and the (ruined) Fort of São João Baptista in Praia Formosa.

When the 1580 crisis of succession ushered in the Iberian Union in Portugal, the island initially supported António of Crato, but with pressure from Philip II of Spain in the Azores, António declined even to disembark in Santa Maria. During this period, the island came to depend on the Governor General of the Azores. After the Portuguese Restoration War (1640), the news was greeted with celebrations and excesses by the Captain-Major Brás de Sousa.

During the Portuguese Civil War (1828–1834) the citizens supported the rights of Maria II to the throne of Portugal, which differed immensely from the Governor General of the Azores (on the island of São Miguel) who supported Miguel. The Captain-major even attempted to raise arms from Terceira, insofar as sending a carrack to collect the weapons. In the interim, the São Miguel administration changed sides in the conflict. By the following year, several Marienses joined the expeditionary force disembarking on the continent along Arnosa de Pampelido beach (near Mindelo, Vila do Conde) during one of the crucial battles of the Civil War.

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