The History Of Portugal And Terceira

December 13, 2022
Blog | Culture | History

Portugal and Terceira: Rich with History

Start with a great book: “The First Global Village”

My globe-traveling niece found this book, The First Global Village, How Portugal Changed the World, by Martin Page. When we became completely enamored of the Azores, my brother unearthed and allowed us to borrow it from the treasures she leaves with them. It’s a history of Europe, world exploration, migration and wars from a Portuguese perspective.

Martin Page was an English journalist, who spent years as a foreign correspondent covering wars, and then was posted to Moscow, Paris and Rome. In the late 80’s he and his family chose to move, to live in Portugal, until 2002. He died in 2003. He, like us, fell in love with the special character of Portuguese people, which draws one to want to understand their history.

His first encounter was being rescued, badly hurt in the middle of a civil war in the Congo, by a couple of Portuguese smugglers. As he put it: “It was the first time I had met Portuguese knowingly – and my first encounter, not only with their extraordinary reaching-out to a stranger in need, but with their blend of bravado, honour, ingenuity and poise.”

With a strong background in anthropology, he’s written a great book, fun to read (but missing maps and pictures) covering Portugal’s history from Old Testament, Hannibal’s march, and Julius Caesar’s time to post-Salazar and Portugal’s early entry into the European Union. We appreciated his knowledgeable perspective and analysis, and the descriptions of unique historic places that we can go find when we visit the mainland.

We also appreciated the way he points out, say, the influence of the Moors on the Portuguese language (any words that begin with “al”, such as álcool or alcatra), and equally the influence of ancient Portuguese world travelers on other languages, such as the Japanese “orrigato” derived from “obrigado”, meaning “thank you”.

He notes that his version differs from much of what’s available elsewhere because, for all but 50 years between the Middle Ages and Portugal’s rise as a democracy at the end of the 20th century, the country lived under censorship, with many documents suppressed and altered by censors. Or destroyed – much history was destroyed or lost in the Lisbon earthquake, the Napoleonic years and during British occupation.

Portugal’s history has also been re-written, re-invented to suit new leaders. Mr. Page used sources outside Portugal, from the Middle Ages, to understand and document its creation as a nation. That progress has been much influenced by the Romans, the Moors, the Spanish and more – to create a rich blend of people.

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One thread in the book is Portugal’s appreciation for and fostering of their Jewish community,
which provided much of its diplomatic, banking, mercantile and boat-building expertise, and
launched Lisbon to global heights of wealth and fashion during the age of discovery and the
spice trade. But then Portugal, the only European nation to have welcomed rather than
persecuted Jews, finally came under the Spanish Inquisition.

The Jews who managed to escape, brought their expertise – with tulips, banking, chocolate, diamonds and tobacco – to the Netherlands, and then on to England. It was a major loss for Portugal! Not too many years later, the Dutch took over Portugal’s Asian empire, and the Dutch and British became the masters of the seas. 

When Mr. Page moved to Portugal in the late 80’s, he viewed it as a country that “had largely lost out on the 20th century”. At the beginning of the century, they had an “ineffectual” monarchy, then anarchy. Salazar was a brilliant economist, who rose to power as a dictator and pulled the country out of bankruptcy, but then didn’t want to give up that power and stayed too long. 

The “Carnation Revolution” – the transfer from dictatorship to democracy in 1974 – was a uniquely polite coup d’etat, but by then the country was “back to the plight where it had started the 20th century, bankrupt and in chaos.”

Over the next 15 years the country went from having the highest rates of illiteracy and tuberculosis in Europe to having goals legislated that are among the most socially enlightened. Portugal transformed, from being Europe’s “Banana Republic” to having a “tiger economy” that overtook the rest of Europe. 

Joining the European Union in 1986 has added to Portugal’s economic benefits, from the flow of investment, grants and loans. The support and subsidy for tourism is one example, as Portugal and the Azorean islands have been “discovered”.

Terceira Island Is Full Of Surprises

The Portuguese “discovered” Terceira (meaning “third”) in the mid-1400’s, after the islands of São Miguel and Santa Maria. The third-discovered is the origin of its name. There’s been remnants of earlier human habitation found, as old as 2000 years ago, and legends persist of the connection between the Azores and Atlantis. The Portuguese, however, have the primary and current cultural imprint. The first Portuguese settlement on Terceira was established at Quatro Ribeiros.

Any reading of history of the Iberian peninsula provides an understanding for why the Spanish cannot understand why they don’t control the entire geographic area, and why the Portuguese have so little appreciation for the Spanish. Plenty of history there. During the height of Portugal’s mastery of the seas through discovery, international trade and colonization, the city of Angra do Heroísmo (City of Heroes) played a major role as the port entry and exit to Europe. Much of the best architecture from those times has been protected and actively re-used.

For a short period of time, from 1580-1583, Terceira was the only vestige of the Portuguese empire. The Spanish had conquered the rest. They offered the population of the Azores amnesty if they would surrender peacefully, but Terceira greeted that royal messenger with hostility. He escaped back to São Miguel, which had already surrendered to Spain.  

The Spanish then tried to attack Terceira but were deterred as they tried to make land in 1580. The story has it that, with most of their men fighting elsewhere, one of the local peasant women decided the women should herd their bulls directly into the sea, at the Spanish soldiers, as the soldiers tried to land in awkward armor. The counterattack worked and the women won! In 2018, Terceira gained its first craft beer, Brianda, which commemorates that heroine on its label! 

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Being all that was left of his kingdom, the Portuguese king moved his residence to Angra…but for only a couple of years. The large yellow monument at the height of the public garden commemorates his residency.  The Spanish returned to the less guarded beach at the Ponta das Contendas in the summer of 1583, with an overwhelming force, variously described in different sources but in the neighborhood of 100 ships and 15,000 soldiers. It took them only a day’s battle to finally conquer the rest of Portugal. The Pousada hotel in Angra is a Spanish fort from that era. 

There was a wild attempt to regain the throne by an illegitimate son of the former king in 1589. Working with the British fleet, they did manage to capture or sink a handful of ships at Angra, and worked their way into the mainland. In some cases the Portuguese joined and helped his cause but disease and desertion ended that campaign.

The sovereignty of Spain only lasted another 57 years before Portugal once again gained its independence in 1640. A difficult time for the Spanish settlers who had become the “elite” and now had to leave.

The same with the Jesuits, who came and built beautiful buildings in Angra. Powerfully connected to royalty and the dominant force in providing education, the Jesuits went through some rough years in the 18th century. Portugal expelled The Society of the Jesuits from the country and all its colonies in 1759, France did the same in 1764, and Spain exiled them from all of the Spanish empire in 1767. It would be almost a century before they would begin to recover. In the meantime, attacks by the British and French resulted in ransacking important Portuguese libraries and art collections.

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Aside from political history, and the lucrative international trade, Terceira shares whaling, piracy, fishing and farming history with the other Azorean islands. Its strategic mid-Atlantic location has made it the site of a number of historic meetings between world powers.  Lajes Air Force Base, and the ports of Angra and Praia, served key roles in world wars. 

Locals claim 50-60 U-boats were sunk by pilots out of that base during WWII. The Americans located at the Base provided key assistance in re-building after the earthquake in 1981. Americans are held in warm affection.

The Portuguese fort on Mont Brasil is one of the oldest active forts in the world, built on independence from Spain in 1580! If you ask the soldier on guard for a tour, he’ll ask you to wait while he finds someone available who can best speak your language, you’ll get security badges, and a great tour of the dungeons, secret passages into the city, the old castle and partially-destroyed church. It’s free and well worth a trip.

The museum in the Convent of São Francisco, (built in the mid-1600’s and located in Angra just uphill of the Angra Garden Hotel and the public garden) takes hours to absorb, and covers much of this history. We’ve stopped there during rainy days three times, and still haven’t completed our tour of its exhibits. 

The “blue church” that dominates Angra’s harbor is the Igreja da Misericordia. This was not so much a church,  but rather  built to serve as a hospital for the sick and infirm coming in on ships

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