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Santa Maria Island History

The first records of a group of islands in the Atlantic (aside from the legends of Atlantis) came from the voyages of Portuguese sailors during the reigns of King Dinis (1279–1325) and his successor King Afonso IV (1325–1357). These were unsubstantiated accounts and unofficial until 1427 when pilot Diogo de Silves found the island of Santa Maria (at that time referred to on nautical charts as “Ilha dos Lobos” or “Ilha do Ovo”) during his journey to Madeira. Myth tells that on the day of the islands discovery Goncalo Velho Cabral and his crew were celebrating mass, on the feast day of the Virgin Mary, when one of the lookouts spotted the distant island and declared “Santa Maria”. The name would become permanently associated to the island. Santa Maria was discovered in 1432 by Goncalo Velho Cabral (rather than the pilot Silves) since discoveries were not “recognized officially” until declared so by the Portuguese crown. The year previous, Goncalo Velho Cabral had discovered the small rock outcropping of Formigas northeast of Santa Maria.

With the support of Queen Isabel, the same Goncalo Velho was also nominated to be the first Captain-major of the island of Santa Maria and later Sao Miguel, where he arrived in 1439 with colonists, bringing their families and some cattle. By 1460, the chronicler Diogo Gomes de Sintra identified the island as “Ilha de Goncalo Velho”. Colonization progressed between 1443 and 1447, principally from the Portuguese Alentejo and Algarve, who populated the northern coast along the Baia dos Anjos (“Angels Bay”) and later in the area of Vila do Porto (in the southwest coast). Vila do Porto would become the larger municipality by 1470. By the end of the 16th century, Santa Maria was divided into three parishes: Nossa Senhora da Assuncao (Vila do Porto), Santa Barbara and Santo Espirito.

Similar to other islands of the archipelago, Santa Maria was a victim of repeated attacks by privateers and pirates. In 1480 a Castilian carrack with 40 men disembarked in the port of Vila do Porto were they were confronted by residents under the command of the Captain-Major Joao Soares de Albergaria who took to hurl rocks from the cliffs above Calhau da Roupa. Joao Soares was eventually captured by the Spaniards who took him in irons as a prisoner to Castillo. For this reason, the population was very hostile to the traveling Christopher Columbus who disembarked in the Baia dos Anjos in February 1493 returning from his famous “discovery” of the New World. Several of his crew members were captured and complex negotiations were undertaken to liberate them. A mass was celebrated by Columbus and his party in the old chapel before he returned to Spain. Although relatively far from the routes used by ships traveling to India, the island was repeatedly attacked by French pirates (1553), by French troops (1576), by the English (1589), and by the Moors (1616 and 1675). By the 17th century a series of fortifications were constructed along the coast to defend the population from these attacks including the Fort de Sao Bras (Vila do Porto) and the (ruined) Fort of Sao Joao Baptista (Praia Formosa).

When the 1580 crisis of succession ushered in the Iberian Union in Portugal, the island initially supported D. Antonio I of Portugal. However with pressure from Philipe I in the Azores, Antonio declined even to disembark in Santa Maria. During this period, the island came to depend on the Governor General of the Azores. After the restoration of 1640 the news was greeted with celebrations and excesses by the Captain-Major Bras de Sousa.

During the Portuguese Civil War (1828–1834) the citizens supported the rights of Maria II to the throne of Portugal which differed immensely from the Governor General of the Azores (on the island of São Miguel) who supported Miguel. The Captain-Major even attempted to raise arms from Terceira by sending a carrack to collect the weapons. In the interim the São Miguel administration changed sides in the conflict. By the following year several Marienses joined the expeditionary force disembarking on the continent along Arnosa de Pampelido beach (near Mindelo, Vila do Conde) during one of the crucial battles of the Civil War.