With a coastline cut by deep bays, the island of Santa Maria has an area of
97.42 km2, with a length of 17 km and a maximum width of 9.5 km. A low-lying
plateau is followed by a hilly area that has its highest point at Pico Alto,
with an altitude of 590 metres. The island, the southernmost of the Azores Archipelago, is situated at 28?08' West longitude and 37?43' North latitude
in the Atlantic Ocean, and have about 6,000 inhabitants.
The main town is
Vila do Porto.
The date of the discovery of Santa Maria is unknown. What we can be sure of
is that Portuguese caravels reconnoitred its coast in 1427 and that Gon?lo Velho
Cabral, a navigator in the service of Prince Henry and a knight of the Order of
Christ, brought cattle to Santa Maria and was later its captain-donee.
The first island of the Azores to be peopled, a handful of pioneers went
ashore from caravels and settled at Praia dos Lobos, along the stream called
Ribeira do Capit?. Jo? Soares de Albergaria, a nephew of the first captain-donee
and his heir, gave a new impulse to the settlement of Santa Maria, bringing over
families from mainland Portugal, mainly from the Algarve.
Development was rapid until the end of the 15th century, and led to the fact
that the first town charter in the Azores was granted to the place called Porto,
which since then has been known as Vila do Porto. Until the end of the 17th
century, the prosperity of the island was based on woad, which was considered
the best in the archipelago and existed in abundance, and on archil, both
exported to the dyeing shops of Flanders, and on the growing of wheat, which was
in demand in continental Portugal and which supplied the Portuguese strongholds
in North Africa.
The true pirates were to come in the 16th and 17th centuries, with attacks by
English, French, Turkish and Algerian corsairs who, in spite of the
fortifications that had been built, burnt and pillaged the island and carried
off prisoners as slaves and hostages. In 1616 Santa Mane was occupied for five
days by Moroccan pirates who returned in 1675 and practised numberless
atrocities, including even beating the inhabitants with an iron bar.
Devoting its energies to agriculture, in which the predominant crops were
grapes, wheat, maize, potatoes, yams and fruit, and also to livestock raising
and dairy products, Santa Maria passed through the 18th and 19th centuries
without any upsets, if we exclude the presence of a small number of young men
among the troops that took part in the landing at Mindelo and the siege of
Oporto in 1832, during the struggle between liberals and absolutists. The
construction in 1944 of the airport, of great strategic value during the 2nd
World War and a compulsory point in Atlantic crossings until the end of the 60s,
brought it new dynamism and progress.
The introduction of new types of aircraft with a greater range has gradually
reduced traffic at the airport, but the future of the island is viewed with hope
on the basis of the adequate use of its natural resources and geographical
Woad and archil.
Woad is a plant that grows wild along the banks of the River Douro in
Continental Portugal, although its commercial exploitation started only in the
middle of the 15th century. Brought to the Azores, where there were excellent
natural conditions for its development, it was soon being grown on all the
islands and came to be one of the main props of the regional economy.
The intensive growing of the plant led to the best lands being devoted to it,
which even brought about a shortage of wheat for flour and bread. Exported
mainly to the dyeing shops of Flanders, it also found a market in England and
Spain until the 17th century, when it was replaced by indigo from the Indies and
Brazil. Sown every year, the woad leaves were gathered from spring to autumn and
then steeped in mills to obtain a pasty mass which later produced a dark blue
Archil was gathered for the same purpose. Archil is a kind of wild lichen
that is often found on rocks next to the sea, mainly on the islands of Santa
Maria and S? Jorge, and which was used to make a good quality brown dye. Exports
of this plant were of great economic value and continued until the middle of the
19th century, when it was replaced by the chemical dyes that then made their
Archil picking was a risky task, since the picker had to descend the high
rocks by means of ropes. Rocha dos Dependurados (literally, Danglers' Rock) is a
place name that recalls this hard work.
In the heavy seas of a North Atlantic tempest, a little ship ran before the
howling gale force winds. Aboard the vessel, the crew were totally exhausted.
They had been imprisoned in the grip of foul weather for days and as was the
custom of the times, they prayed for heavenly intervention. The men sought
salvation from the storm and beseeched the Almighty to allow them to complete
their voyage. The ship carried extraordinary news. Its name was the 'Nina'. Its
captain was Christopher Colum-bus and following in the tradition of Prince Henry
it had discovered a New World on the other side of the Atlantic!
On February 15 after a greyish dawn, whose faint light barely pierced the
morn-ing gloom, a seamen called Ruy Garcia spied a dark peak above the raging
waves Amidst the wildest speculation of what the sighted land could be, it was
only the cap-tain, Christopher Columbus, who knew his position. He stated firmly
that the island must be one of the Azores and he was correct. It was the
southernmost land of the archipelago, the island called Santa Maria.
Because of the wind's direction, it took three days before the 'Nina' reached
Santa Maria and was able to anchor. Although Columbus had never had any
intention to stop in the Azores, now that he was there, it seemed practical to
go ashore and repro-vision fresh food and water. He sent a boat-load of men to
the beach and they were met by some of the island's inhabitants.
The locals seemed astonished when they heard of the 'Nina's' exploits. But
some of them believed that the mariners were out-rageous liars.
The next day, to carry out the solemn vow that had been sworn to during the
height of the storm, Columbus sent half his crew ashore to thank the Lord for
their deliverance. The men entered the tiny church of Anjos, the settlement
sited on the bay where the 'Nina' was anchored. As the sailors celebrated mass,
a force of villagers surrounded the church. When the worship-pers exited, they
were seized and arrested. Incredibly, the seamen were accused of sail-ing from
Guinea instead of coming from the West. Voyaging under a Spanish flag, the ship
was considered to be illegally in Portuguese waters. When Columbus heard that
his sailors had been incarcerated, he weighed anchor and fled toward the
neighboring island of Sao Miguel. However, fierce weather obliged him to return.
What followed was one of those tragic comic incidents of history. Columbus,
carrying documents from the King of Spain which gave him titles of 'admiral of
the Ocean Seas and Viceroy of the Indies', was com-pelled to negotiate for the
release of his men with those citizens of Anjos who con-sidered he had broken
Portuguese laws. After two days, the dispute was resolved and the 'Nina' sailed
for home. Columbus had dealt successfully with the first of the many trials he
was to endure after his voyage of discovery. Today, the church at Anjos has been
completely rebuilt but some of the original ruins within which the crew of the
'Nina' prayed are still standing.