The Azores -June 2007

Green and lush volcanic islands with connections to Nantucket’s whaling and cultural history

by: Jim Powers

The Azores? Go to Sconset. Keep going. About 2,000 miles east of Nantucket. If your navigation is good, you’ll bump into a green and lush group of volcanic islands with many connections to Nantucket’s whaling and cultural history.

Otherwise, you’ll travel almost another 1,000 miles and maybe hit a somewhat bigger target, Portugal, the seafaring nation to which the Azores belong, and which settled the islands long before European emigration to America began.

Those without the means or inclination to take the direct ocean route can fly a mere four hours from Boston and land in a place that has largely escaped the attention of most Americans and Europeans, but has touched the history of both continents for centuries, serving as a crossroads for many seeking conquest, cash and adventure.

This has been true for over 500 years, from 1493, when Christopher Columbus stopped at Santa Maria on the way home from his first trip to the New World, to 2003, when U.S. President George Bush met world leaders on Terceira to discuss impending war with Iraq.

For Nantucketers, the place is a time capsule, where whaling from little boats with harpoon and lance persisted until only 20 years ago, and where many Nantucketers of today have family roots.

Mark Twain wrote in “Innocents Abroad,” the 1869 narrative of his travels to Europe and the Middle East, “I think the Azores must be very little known in America. Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them. Some of the party, well read concerning most other lands, had no other information about the Azores than that they were a group of nine or ten small islands far out in the Atlantic, something more than halfway between New York and Gibraltar. That was all.”

By the time Twain arrived, Nantucketers, however, who really did head east from Sconset, were quite familiar with the islands. Starting around 1765, Nantucket and New Bedford whaleships were stopping in the islands regularly, as the industry expanded across the Atlantic and, ultimately, to the Pacific and Indian oceans.

In the late 18th century, Nantucket whalemen began rounding Cape Horn to hunt in the Pacific. It may not seem logical to go east to get to the Pacific Ocean, but look at how far Brazil protrudes into the Atlantic and it becomes more clear. A route that takes advantage of the prevailing winds and gets you around easternmost South America brings you two-thirds of the way to Europe. The Azores, placed as they are, and called the Western Islands by the whalers, were a good place to resupply with food and water, to make repairs, and to fill out crews with local men eager for new opportunities. Over time, many of these men rose in the New England whaling industry, some becoming masters of their own vessels.

“No small number of these whaling seamen belong to the Azores, where the outbound Nantucket whalers frequently touch to augment their crews from the hardy peasants of those rocky shores… How it is, there is no telling, but Islanders seem to make the best whalemen,” Herman Melville wrote in “Moby-Dick.”

The Azores islands the whaleships found have a maritime climate similar to that of Nantucket, at least sometimes. For three seasons of the year, the temperatures can be very similar in the two places. Gusty winds blow off the surrounding ocean and many areas will go from bright sunshine to fog, mist and occasional rain, all in the same day, which is never too hot or too cold.

Flowers are everywhere, particularly the blue hydrangeas that line seemingly every road. (Nantucket’s hydrangeas are said to have been originally brought from the Azores).

As Nantucket heads into the harshness of winter, however, the Azores stay pretty much the same. Temperatures in January and February usually top out in the 60s and don’t generally head much below 50. The landscape remains green and lush. Nonetheless, in keeping with the lack of widespread knowledge of the islands, Azoreans in the travel industry are often confronted with disgruntled tourists from Britain or mainland Europe who thought they had booked a vacation in the sunny tropics, only to find much less sun and heat than they had expected.

Tourists from far northern countries such as Finland and Norway, however, return consistently. Filomena Cardoso, a native of Pico and tour guide, says, “For people from the north, it’s not a problem, because they’re used to a little bad weather.”

Still, the islands are warm enough that a major 17th to 19th century crop, eventually done in by a blight and changing market conditions, was oranges, usually exported to England, where Victorian society proudly displayed “St. Michael’s” oranges from Sao Miguel on their holiday tables.

The Azores, with a population today of just under 250,000 and a total land area of about 900 square miles, had been settled for over 200 years by the time Europeans first took up residence on Nantucket. Unlike most other sites of colonization, there were no indigenous people in the Azores when the first settlers arrived from Portugal and, to a lesser extent, Flanders, in the 1430s and 1440s. Santa Maria was likely settled first, with settlements established on the other islands through the course of the 15th century. (The islands, counting roughly from west to east, are Flores, Corvo, Faial, Pico, Sao Jorge, Graciosa, Terceira, Sao Miguel and Santa Maria).

Agriculture, still the economic mainstay, developed slowly, as the settlers cleared the thick vegetation of the previously-uninhabited islands, probably by using fire. Like the oranges, various agricultural enterprises have come and gone over the centuries, created and then destroyed by natural and economic factors. For example, Pico wine was internationally famous in the 19th century, but the grapevines were wiped out by phylloxera in 1853 and many of the winemakers took up whaling. Winemaking has started again, but only on a small scale. One venture that has lasted is tea. The only tea grown in Europe comes from Sao Miguel. Also on Sao Miguel, and unique to the Azores, is the commercial growing of pineapples in greenhouses.

Everywhere, the islands show evidence of their volcanic origins. The cone of Pico, inactive since 1720, is the tallest mountain in Portugal, at 7,713 feet. Across the island, the jagged, irregular lava rock is used to build houses. Walls of it protect the island’s vineyards from the wind. On Terceira, visitors to the Algar do Carvao volcanic pit descend stone stairs several hundred feet into a lava tube with a lake at the bottom, while in the small town of Biscoitos, on the north shore, sheltered pools for swimming have been carved out of the surf-pounded, jagged lava shore. In aptly-named Furnas, in the center of Sao Miguel, tightly-sealed containers of meat, potatoes and vegetables, such as cabbage and kale, are buried for hours in the mud adjacent to bubbling steam vents, producing a one-pot meal not unlike a New England boiled dinner with linguica. Nearby, at the Terra Nostra Hotel, a large thermal swimming pool is situated within an extensive Victorian-era formal garden.

Eruptions and earthquakes have been a regular part of the island’s history since the beginning. At Vila Franca do Campo, the first capital of Sao Miguel, a 1522 earthquake and mudslide killed most of the 5,000 residents, and many others have followed over the years, varying greatly in intensity and the amount of damage.

In September 1957, the sea began to boil near Ponta do Capelinhos at the western end of Faial. Over the next few months, as earthquakes shook the island, ash and, eventually, lava, were thrown high into the air. A new island of black ash grew offshore and nearby villages and fields were buried. The lighthouse there was buried halfway up its height. About 2,000 people had to be relocated and crops were destroyed. John F. Kennedy, then a Massachusetts senator, made it possible for victims to come to the United States and a wave of emigration was started.

By about 1850, two developments that would mesh the histories of Nantucket and the Azores were well underway: the Azores had taken up shore-whaling and Azoreans were moving to Nantucket.

The proximity of sperm whales in the deep waters around the islands and the whaling technology that had been passing through for decades made shore-whaling a natural local industry. Originally it was run largely by American entrepreneurs such as the Dabney family of Massachusetts, who had three generations of U.S. consuls in Faial, and who brought whaleboats and equipment from New Bedford.

By the end of the 19th century, however, Azores whaling was largely run by Azoreans, who would keep it going by traditional means long after it had died out in most other places. Except that the whales were brought back to shore stations instead of a ship to be processed, the procedure was almost exactly the same as that practiced by New England whalers, in terms of the boats and equipment used and procedures followed. The only modern touches, added in the 20th century, were the use of motor launches to tow the killed whale back to shore and radios to communicate with the lookout posts high on the rocky cliffs.

Azorean whaling, particularly from Faial and Pico, continued in a small way until Portugal signed onto the International Whaling Commission moratorium in 1986, though it was in steep decline in the 1960s and 1970s. There had been a burst of prosperity in the 1930s and 1940s, as new uses, such as meal and ground bone, were developed, leading to the building of several actual factories for processing. But, in the post-war era, synthetic products replaced many remaining uses for whale oil, such as in automatic transmission fluid. By the end, it was more tradition and lack of viable opportunities that kept the men of the Azores whaling.

“They had no other choice, it was the only work, says Filomena Cardoso, 46, of Pico, whose uncles worked as whalemen, one driving the motor launch bringing the whales to shore. “It was a very old style of living. They were very badly paid. They had to wait until the end of the season for their money.” Most of Cardoso’s family moved to Canada, where she lived for seven years before returning. She says that Portugal’s entry into the European community has spurred some economic opportunity in the Azores in recent years.

Several former shore-whaling stations can be found around the islands. The conversion of a couple of them to museums is relatively recent, given their also recent retirement from active use. Here, the nuts and bolts of whaling are displayed in a way that can only be imagined of New England’s long-gone ship-based industry. The long cement ramps leading to the water for hauling the whale’s carcass into the factory, the tall chimney and giant hearths with huge black iron trypots, leave no doubt about the grisly and messy nature of the business.

“How interesting it is to think that if Nantucket had been close to the population of sperm whales, we might have had shore-whaling, with all the physical relics of the industry, showing how raw and elemental whaling was. Nantucket was able to take the immense profits of whaling and build a classic New England town. It was in some ways separated from the seamier side of whaling, which took place at sea,” says Nantucket Historical Association chief curator Ben Simons.

In film, too, the “recentness” of the Azores’ whaling history is driven home. The Museu dos Baleeiros on Pico shows a 1970 film called “The Hunt” that documents Azorean whaling in what would prove to be its final years. Unlike the monochrome visual record of Nantucket whaling, here Pico whaling is presented in living, and dying, color. With the shouts of the whalers as they approach a pod of sperm whales, the bright red gunwales of the boats, the bright red froth as the lances find the whale’s arteries, “The Hunt” presents, as the narrator says, “an eerie combination of past and present.”

The film concludes, “Here whaling is an escape. Here whaling is a challenge. Here whaling is an art that will soon be dead.”

Today, the same lookout posts used to spot whales for hunting are used to guide tourists in whale-watching boats.

A Nantucketer traveling around the Azores will recognize the familiar surnames, seen on homes and businesses. Cabral. Madeiros. Sylvia. Visco. Reminders that the Azores has been and remains a place from which many leave and only a few return.

“The islands would have been paradisiacal were it not for the spewing volcanoes, marauding pirates, surplus population and attendant poverty. Sharing a mild maritime climate with the Azores, Nantucket eventually proved to be a hospitable place for hydrangeas to take root. Despite differences in language, culture and religion, it was also an attractive destination for transplanted Azoreans,” says Frances Ruley Karttunen, author of “The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars.”

Like the better-known diaspora of the Irish, Azoreans have also left their green Atlantic island to find better lives in a variety of far-flung places. (In fact, the potato blight that struck Ireland in the 1850s also hit the Azores). Southeastern Massachusetts has been a favorite destination and, while much of the immigration, as numbers go, has taken place in the last half-century, they have been coming to Nantucket for a long time.

At first, it was single Azorean men who came to Nantucket, stepping off the whaleships and leaving their old lives behind, marrying Nantucket women and raising children who would grow up in English-speaking households while the husbands were at sea. Without a Catholic Church on the island, even their traditional religion went unpracticed, Karttunen notes. Records show a number of such men as early as the late 1700s.

Later, as agricultural disasters involving potatoes, grapes and oranges hurt the Azores in the mid-19th century, entire families showed up, and it was then that the culture of the islands came to Nantucket.

“The Nantucket kitchens of Azorean wives were rich with the aromas of baking sweet bread, kale soup on the back burner, linguica sausage sizzling in frying pans. Azorean kitchen gardens grew garlic and tomatoes in abundance. Hydrangeas, roses and geraniums appeared in yards. The most widely-accepted and emulated Portuguese gift to Nantucket has been flower gardens,” says Karttunen.

By 1910, before World War I-era immigration restrictions took hold, more than 160 of Nantucket’s approximately 3,000 residents had been born in the Azores. With whaling gone, many were involved in fishing, or, in line with the Azorean penchant for working the earth, farming or gardening. The Old Mill, still grinding corn on Mill Hill after 260 years, was owned by a succession of Azoreans before going to the Nantucket Historical Association in 1897. The last miller was John Francis Sylvia of Faial, where similar mills can still be seen today.

“Over the years the Azores had enriched Nantucket. In their home harbors, the Azores Islands had provisioned Nantucket ships with fresh water and food. From the islands Nantucket had received expert boatsmen, husbands, hydrangeas, morcela and linguica, music and dancing, and more. Nantucket had reciprocated with employment, land, wives, free public education and more. In the early days of all-male immigration, Nantucket had simply absorbed Azoreans. In the later days of mass immigration, Portuguese ethnic solidarity had been tolerated, sometimes celebrated, on Nantucket,” says Karttunen.

This celebration stood out in the 1895 dedication of Nantucket’s Alfonso Hall, named after the king of Portugal. Fireworks and a procession featuring the Board of Selectmen and Portuguese leaders were followed by singing and dancing and speeches in Portuguese and English expressing affection between the Portuguese and “native Nantucket” communities.

On Faial today, native Tony Carvelho, 54, drives a taxi and is a modern Azorean emigrant. He mostly lives in San Jose, California, working as a machine operator in a cheese factory, and returns to Faial, where he owns his mother’s house, for the three-month tourist season. He spent three years in the Portuguese army and traveled to California in 1976 with his mother and brothers because there was more opportunity for work. It was difficult at first.

“When you don’t speak the language, it’s hard,” he says, but he had Portuguese bosses and worked five years at a dairy farm in Sacramento.

“There’s more Azoreans there than anywhere in the Azores,” he says of California, a major enclave for immigrants from the islands, noting, “There’s not too many jobs here. They have to go somewhere to work.”

Work aside, Carvelho loves the atmosphere in his native land, saying, “It’s more calm, people don’t rush to work. If I don’t finish today, I finish tomorrow.”

As it was before the New England whalers came, the Azores continues to be a crossroads of the Atlantic long after they left. Only the technologies have changed.

In 1893, the first telegraph cable to go through the Azores, with a relay station in Horta, was installed. Others followed, and, in the years when transatlantic cables needed an intermediate stopping point, Horta was, for a time, one of the world’s busiest cable terminuses.

In 1919, the first transatlantic flight by a U.S. seaplane landed in the harbor at Horta. Twenty years later, the Pan Am Clipper used Horta as a refueling stop for the first commercial transatlantic air service.

Early in World War II, the Allies negotiated a treaty with ostensibly-neutral Portugal, allowing them to build airstrips for heavy bombers en route to Europe from North America, as well as those hunting German U-boats in the mid-Atlantic. With a fixed base in the Azores, the Allies were able to dramatically cut losses to merchant shipping from submarines. But an Azores landing was not without its risks from the Atlantic weather.

David Eagles of Eastham was a tail-gunner and flight engineer on a B-24 bomber when he flew into Lajes on Terceira during the war, headed for Italy.

“We flew down from Gander, Newfoundland, 11 1/2 hours, through the worst weather I’ve ever seen,” Eagles says today. “There were times I didn’t anticipate setting foot on land again.” As they approached the islands, Terceira was “totally socked in.” Circling, Eagles’ plane only had about 15 minutes worth of fuel left when “we broke through the clouds and saw the field.” They touched down successfully, but, as they came in, the burning wreckage of two B-17 bombers that had been ahead of them, but missed the runway, could be seen on the adjacent hillsides.

The field continues to be a stop-over for aviators in need. In 2001 an Air Transat flight from Toronto to Lisbon with 300 people on board ran out of fuel over the ocean and glided the final 65 miles to a safe landing.

The Azores are also still a key stop for sailing vessels. Today’s transatlantic sailors, however, are more often in search of adventure rather than commerce, though some may be getting paid to transport yachts for owners who have no taste for the rigors of an ocean crossing.

About 1,400 yachts a year stop in the most popular port, Horta, on the island of Faial, where Capt. Joshua Slocum put in while making the first single-handed circumnavigation in 1895. He said in his account of the voyage, “Early on the morning of July 20, I saw Pico looming above the clouds on the starboard bow. Lower lands burst forth as the sun burned away the morning fog, and island after island came into view. As I approached nearer, cultivated fields appeared, ‘and oh, how green the corn!’ Only those who have seen the Azores from the deck of a vessel realize the beauty of the mid-ocean picture.”

In recent times, crews follow a tradition of painting a mural commemorating their boat’s visit on a square of wall or walkway at the large marina there. Waterfront bars and eateries do a brisk trade. Whale-watching companies sell tickets here. Upstairs at the popular Peter Sport Cafe, a small, but stuffed scrimshaw museum displays hundreds of carved ivory pieces. As shore-whalers, Azoreans never adopted scrimshaw to fill the shipboard hours, but they did have plenty of the raw materials.

Products made from whale teeth and bone can no longer be imported into the United States, but transplanted Dutch artist John Van Opstal, who carves teeth from his home high above the harbor, says this hasn’t hurt the American market much, noting, “They’re more interested in Bin Laden than in the little teeth of a whale.”

Aspects of life in the Azores today seem more modern than the views of the craggy, empty cliffs and patchwork fields one sees from airplane windows might indicate. Shop windows in Ponta Delgada, capital of Sao Miguel for almost 500 years, show off high-tech electronics and the latest appliances. In Horta, on Faial, the municipality has installed free wireless Internet service available in the downtown area. During World Cup soccer play last June, there were plenty of opportunities to watch the games on flat-screen TV in local bars. Following a Portugal victory, crowds of cheering young fans roamed the streets of Angra do Heroismo waving Portuguese flags while cars honking their horns circled the city square.

Yet, old traditions remain. Festivals, often religious, follow traditions going back hundreds of years. The biggest one, that of the Espirito Santo, or Holy Ghost, held in late spring, has medieval European roots, but is practiced most enthusiastically in the Azores, and by Azorean emigrants elsewhere. The central point for the Espirito Santo festival is the imperio, a small chapel, often a century or more old, containing religious relics, in the center of most villages. The imperios, carefully maintained, are used only once a year for the festival. Larger towns may have several. The festival usually includes a procession through town and a band that plays outside the imperio. A banquet is generally held and food is distributed to the poor.

Another tradition is bullfighting. From May to September, “touradas a corda,” a particularly Azorean form of bullfighting, is practiced around the islands, particularly Terceira. Essentially “bull on a rope,” the activity takes place about 200 times a season in various residential neighborhoods. At the appointed time, residents barricade their gates and walkways along the street with wooden panels kept for the purpose. Locals and a few tourists gather anywhere protected from the street, in yards and on overlooking walls, as a bull tied to a very long rope is released into the street. The bull is allowed to run down the street for much of the rope’s slack until a group of men holding the other end try to stop him. As the bull runs, other men step into the street to taunt the bull and wave capes, umbrellas and the like at him, to goad the bull into chasing them. Upon reaching the rope’s end, the bull is urged back in the other direction and the action repeats itself until the bull grows tired. Then a break is taken, after which a fresh bull is brought out and the process begins again.

In Angra do Heroismo, on Terceira, a plaque commemorates the city’s sister relationship with Taunton, Mass. and the idea that an Azorean explorer was the first European to settle southeastern Massachusetts in 1511, over a century before the Pilgrims came to Plymouth. The proof is said to be carved on Dighton Rock, a 40-ton boulder in the Taunton River, with complex markings that have baffled observers for centuries, including renowned author and theologian Cotton Mather in 1690. According to the theory, first raised by Brown University psychology professor Edmund Delabarre in 1918, inscriptions on Dighton Rock show that Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte Real was there in 1511, possibly living as “chief of the Indians,” and leaving behind Portuguese crosses and coats of arms on the rock.

Miguel Corte Real had, in fact, set out for North America in 1502 to look for his missing brother Gaspar, who had not returned from his second voyage to Newfoundland the year before. Both men were from Angra do Heroismo and both were never heard from again. To be sure, there are various other interpretations of the marks on Dighton Rock, attributing them to Egyptians or Vikings or Native Americans with too much time on their hands.

The Corte Real view, however, has held the top position for most of the last century and Delabarre was decorated by the Portuguese government for his work. If true, it would further show that the islands of the Azores and the people they have produced have had far-reaching influence beyond the small specks of real estate they occupy in the middle of the Atlantic.


Jim Powers is a photographer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. In June 2006 he travelled to the Azores with a group from the Nantucket Historical Association.






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