11 August 2015

Great Explorations: Portuguese Discovery of the Azores

Vasco da Gama in India
My debut novel, El Rey: A Novel of Renaissance Iberia, is set during the height of the Age of Exploration. The title character is a sea captain working under aegis of the Portuguese Crown. He is associated with Vasco da Gama, who was the first European to circumnavigate the continent of Africa and arrive in India. This expedition established trade relations and opened the door for expansion into the orient, but it would not have been possible without earlier ventures into the unknown.

The Portuguese have a longstanding tradition of exploration. As early as the 14th century, King Dinis of Portugal was keenly interested in the idea of foreign trade. He elevated Manuel Pessanha, a merchant sailor from Genoa, to the first Admiralty of the Portuguese Navy. A few years later, Afonso IV ordered Portugal’s first official explorations, but the most enthusiastic campaigns came under the advocacy of the first Duke of Viseu, Infante Enrique of Portugal, better known as Henry the Navigator. He was the third son of João I and Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt.

At twenty-one years of age, Henry accompanied his father and brothers on a mission to capture the Moroccan port of Ceuta. The main objective of the Portuguese invasion was to curtail piracy. The port’s strategic location on the tip of the African continent—just a short distance across the Strait of Gibraltar from Southern Iberia—made it a favorite spot for pirates to ambush victims and launch frequent raids. After securing the port, claiming it as a Portuguese territory, and opening up this avenue into Africa, Henry was inspired to go deeper, even developing the caravel–a smaller, faster, and lighter ship–for the purpose. He pushed south down the African coast leaving Portuguese fortifications along the way and finding abundant stores of gold and silver to fill the royal coffers. He and his adherents laid the groundwork for future journeys into India then later into China, Macau, and eventually Japan.

Henry the Navigator
Henry also expanded westward into previously uncharted territory of the Atlantic Ocean. One of his most important discoveries was a small chain of nine islands 930 miles west of Lisbon: the Azores. After the archipelago was officially discovered by Gonçalo Velho Cabral, a captain in Henry’s service, the Navigator passed a decree in 1450 naming Jacome de Bruges as administrator of Terceira, the most promising of the islands. De Bruges, a Flemish nobleman, returned to Flanders and recruited fishermen, farmers, and merchants to follow him to the newly founded province of Portugal. He also brought with him animals and provisions necessary to their task. The original settlers landed in the north and erected the first church, but few of them remained there because of the difficult access.

Eventually the island was divided into two administrative seats, and Angra became the capital in the south. The site was chosen as a port because of its advantageous geographical location and many topographical attributes. The word ‘angra’ means cove, and this particular cove was deep enough to provide anchorage for larger vessels. It had the further benefit of being sheltered from strong winds by the ridgeline of Monte Brasil, an extinct volcano directly to the west.

The favorable conditions of its physical location and the changing circumstances of the time contributed to Angra’s rapid growth and development of the surrounding areas. New commercial ventures, such as the exportation of wheat and woad to the mainland, added to the importance of the island and thus increased the worth of the port. With the advent of trade relations with India and the major role played by the Portuguese during the Age of Exploration, Angra quickly became indispensable as an official port of call with worldwide significance.

The port of Angra
Because of the thriving trade industry the Portuguese had built up in the East Indies, the bay at Angra was constantly filled with traders coming and going, officially checking their wares, picking up loads for transport to the mainland, or resupplying their vessels for subsequent runs to the East. The trade was so vigorous that it necessitated the formation of a special office: “Purveyor to the Armada of the Islands and the merchant vessels of the East India trade in all of the islands of the Azores“. The creation of the position was necessary to protect the large emporiums at Angra, which housed a bounty of precious metals, gems, and exotic spices, presenting a major temptation to pirates. The holders of this esteemed title were charged with the safety of the residents and the visiting merchant fleet once the ships entered Portuguese territory in the North Atlantic. They were also in charge of overseeing customs, resolving disputes, and maintaining military preparedness.

By 1534, Angra was as important to Portugal as any town on the mainland and was the first settlement in the Azores to be granted the official title of city. By that time, comparable numbers of private dwellings, military bases, convents, and churches had been formed, and later that year, it was named by Pope Paul III as the ecclesiastical seat with authority over all nine of the Azorean islands. It also provided the jumping off point for further Portuguese exploration into the west and their colonization of the New World.

Ginger Myrick was born and raised in Southern California. She is a self-described wife, mother, animal lover, and avid reader. Along with the promotion for BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD, WORK OF ART, THE WELSH HEALEREL REY, and INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCEshe is currently working on novel #6. A Christian who writes historical fiction with a ‘clean’ love story at the core, she hopes to show the reading community that a romance need not include graphic details to convey deep love and passion.