Pico Island, History

Pico Island is an island in the Central Group of the Portuguese Azores noted for its eponymous volcanoPonta do Pico, which is the highest mountain in Portugal, the Azores, and the highest elevation of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. In the tradition of the Portuguese poet, Raul Brandão, Pico is referred to as the Ilha Preta (“Black Island”), for its black volcanic earth, responsible for its UNESCO-designated historical vineyards that allowed the development of the island.

After depositing herds on the island in the first half of the 15th Century, the first colonies were formed around 1460 from settlers from the north of Portugal (by way of Terceira and Graciosa). Its first Captain-Donatário was Álvaro de Ornelas, but who never took up his role on the island, as it was incorporated into Captaincy of Faial. Lajes was its first entitled village, closely followed by São Roque in 1542. Its settlers were initially occupied with wheat cultivation in addition to the exploration of the woad industry (based on lichens that were exported to Flanders to produce commercial dyes), and heavily influenced by export industries of its island neighbor, Faial.

Quickly, the viticulture industry, helped by the rich soils and micro-climates had allowed to expand the lands cultivating grapes. Its development would occur uninterrupted along the margins of history except for volcanic eruptions during the 18th Century; the viticulture and “orange cycle” would expand the activities on the island throughout the period. In 1723 Madalena is elevated to the status of “town”, confirming its economic importance to the island, and its commercial links to Faial (Horta had been the residence of many of the island’s property-owners and winemakers). Pico’s famous verdelho, for more than two centuries, was appreciated in many countries (including England and in the Americas and even reached the palaces of the Russian czars). But, the spread of powdery mildew and phylloxera during the middle of the 19th Century destroyed many of the vineyards creating a crisis on the island that lasted until the 20th Century.

The presence of American whalers in the waters of the Azores introduced a new economy at the end of the 18th Century that would serve to stabilize the economy, until new casts were introduced on the island. Whaling became the primary industry around the island until the 1970s.

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