Flores Island is an island of the Western group (Grupo Ocidental) of the Azores. It has an area of 143 km², a population of approximately 3907 inhabitants, and, together with Corvo Island of the western archipelago, lies within the North American Plate. It has been referred to as the Ilha Amarelo Torrado (English: Yellow/Auburn Island) by marketing and due to the association with poet Raul Brandão, but it is well known for its abundance of flowers, hence its Portuguese name of Flores.
Some early accounts existed of the “(seven) islands of the Azores and two islands of Flores” (referring to the islands of Flores and Corvo), but no “official discovery” occurred until the mid-15th century. The island of Flores was discovered in the late summer of 1452 by the navigator Diogo de Teive and his son João de Teive, and first noted by the pilot Pêro Velasco to Christopher Columbus during his voyages. For his reward, Teive received the concession of the sugar monopoly on Madeira.
The earlier names of the island were São Tomás (after Thomas Becket of Canterbury, not to be confused with Saint Thomas, which in Portuguese is spelled Tomé) and Santa Iria (English: Saint Iria). The island’s charter passed to Fernão Telles de Meneses when little was accomplished in populating the islands, except for disembarking some sheep (1475). The death of Fernão Telles (1477) was to initiate exploration and settlement on the island, as his widow (Dona Maria de Vilhena) would contract the Flemish nobleman Willem van der Haegen to explore Flores and Corvo.
After meeting with Dona Maria Vilhena (who administered the island in the name of her young son, Rui de Teles), Van der Haegen came to an agreement and moved to the island between 1480 and 1490. Van der Haegen had arrived in the Azores in 1469, and lived for a time on Faial Island by invitation of the first Captain of Faial, Josse van Huerter. Following disagreements with van Huerter over land holdings, Van de Haegen settled in Quatro Ribeiras, Terceira until journeying to Ribeira da Cruz on Flores during the reign of King John II. The historians Gaspar Frutuoso and Diogo das Chagas noted that Van der Haegen cultivated lands (primarily for wheat export) and was involved in the indigo/woad industry, as well as exploring for mineral deposits (likely silver). Due to its isolated location outside shipping lanes, its intemperate climate and infertile lands he left Flores 10 years later to resettle in Terceira, by way of São Jorge Island. At the time, the name of the island was Corvo.
According to Bartolomé de las Casas, two dead bodies that looked like those of Amerindians were found on Flores. He said he found that fact in Columbus’ notes, and it was one reason why Columbus presumed that India was on the other side of the ocean.
By 1504 the island’s charter passed to João Fonseca and settlers streamed through the port of Armoeira to the small hamlets. The island became permanently populated during the reign of King Manuel I, in the year 1510, by people from various regions of continental Portugal, but mainly from the northern provinces. The island became arable, and grain and vegetables were cultivated. Over the next centuries, the inhabitants lived in isolated parts of the island and were visited by vessels from Faial and Terceira came infrequently to tradewhale oil, butter and honey for other products, or those caravels that stopped en route to Europe. Several of the main communities and local sites were named for settlers of this mid-century period, including Santa Cruz, Lajes and Ponta Delgada.
The name of the island of Flores has been made familiar to generations of English readers by the quotation: “At Flores in the Azores Sir Richard Grenville lay…”, which is the opening line of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s epic poem, “The Revenge, A Ballad of the Fleet”. On 9 September 1591, a small English fleet of six ships under Lord Thomas Howard was anchored in the bay of Ribeira da Cruz in Flores, and was surprised by 53 ships under Alfonso de Bazán. The English ships were part of a naval patrol intended to intercept Spanish ships from the Americas, and were under repair and re-provisioning when the Spanish ships appeared. Five of the English ships slipped out to sea to the west of Corvo, but the Revenge (under Sir Richard Grenville) waited for her sick crew, many of whom had an epidemic of fever, to be returned from the shore, then decided to go straight through the approaching Spanish lines from the east. Revenge fought the Spanish ships for fifteen hours, resisting multiple attempts to board her. Her fatally wounded captain eventually ordered her to be scuttled, (“Sink me the ship, Master Gunner — sink her, split her in twain! / Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!”) but her crew instead negotiated an honourable surrender. (“And the stately Spanish men to their flagship bore him then,/ Where they laid him by the mast, old Sir Richard caught at last,/ And they praised him to his face with their courtly foreign grace…”). The “Battle of Flores” as it was known culminated in the death of Grenville two days later, and the Revenge became the only English ship to be captured during the Elizabethan conflict. But the ship never reached Spain; it foundered during a storm near Terceira and went down with 200 Spaniards, along with several other Spanish ships.
Despite the isolation, the waters of Flores were frequently raided by pirates. Sir Walter Raleigh the English privateer was one of the early profiteers; he captured, after a bitter battle, the Portuguese carrack Madre de Deus laden with tonnes of spices, precious gems and pearls, equivalent to half the public finances of the English court. Unusual for its time, the Madre de Deus was three times the capacity of a normal English brig, and the pirates towed it to the port of Dartmouth rather than destroying the ship. The pirate Peter Easton, who commanded a fleet of 40 privateers, made Flores a regular port-of-call, provisioning meat, water and kindling for his travels and supposedly getting married to a daughter of the Captaincy of Flores. Doubly inconvenienced with the damages caused by this pirate’s ships and with the complicity of local Florentines, Philip II of Portugal (Philip III of Spain) ordered, on July 30, 1611, the necessary means taken to capture Pirate Admiral Peter Easton. He was never captured, although the local Florentine magistrate and Captain were arrested.
From the 1760s to the early 20th century, American whalers hunted sperm whales in the waters of the Azores, and many of the islands’ inhabitants were recruited as whalers. The American whaler, Wanderer, operated off the coast of Flores between 1878 and 1924.
The CSS Alabama, an American Confederate States Navy ship, was the most prolific privateer in the waters off Flores, responsible for 69 sinkings in the course of two years beginning in the summer of 1862. Between 5 and 18 September of 1862 it was responsible for capturing and setting ablaze the schooner Starlight, along with whalers off the coast of Flores.
The island’s isolation has been remedied during the 20th century, first with the installation of telegraph services, then the establishment of Radio-Flores (1909), and later with point-to-point telephone communication (1925). Service between the island and the rest of the archipelago was handled by small sailing ships until the beginning of the century, with ships such as the 36 ton yacht Santa Cruz or 80 ton yacht Flores, until the latter was lost in the bay of Porto Pim, Horta, Faial during a storm.
In July 1962, the French laid the foundations for a missile tracking installation on the island, which was inaugurated in October 1966. In the following years, a hospital, a power station and an airport were established, which brought a financial upswing to the entire island. After the French left the island in 1994, tourism became the island’s dominant industry.