Sao Jorge Island History
The history and settlement of Sao Jorge is shrouded in mystery. The first reference to Sao Jorge dates from 1439 and it is known that in about 1470, when there were already small groups of settlers on the western and southern coasts, and the settlement at Velas had already been founded. The Flemish nobleman, Wihelm van der Haegen, arrived in Sao Jorge where he established a settlement at “Topo”. It was there that he was to die, famous for his virtues and with his name already translated as Guilherme da Silveira.
Sao Jorge must have been settled with people from Northern Portugal and prosperity must have come quickly since its captaincy was given to Joao Corte Real, captain “donee” of Angra do Heroismo on Terceira island in 1483, with Velas receiving its town charter by the end of the 15th century. Topo became the seat of a municipality in 1510 and the same happened to Calheta in 1534, demonstrating the vitality of the economy. The mainstays of the economy of Sao Jorge were the production of grapes, wheat, woad, and lichen. The two latter products were exported to Flanders and other European countries where they were used in dyeing.
The dynastic crisis brought about when Philip II of Spain took the Portuguese throne had its repercussions in Sao Jorge which, like Terceira, sided with the pretender Dom Antonio, Prior do Crato. In fact, Sao Jorge capitulated to the Spaniards only after the fall of Terceira in 1583. This was followed by a centuries-long near isolation, attributed to the precarious shelter that its ports offered to ships and to its limited economic importance. Even so it was subjected to attacks by English and French privateers during the 16th and 17th centuries and devastating raids by Turkish and Algerian corsairs. At the end of the 16th century, a part of the fleet commanded by the Earl of Essex landed at Calheta inlet. To repel the invaders, the inhabitants threw heavy stones, the only weapons they possessed. A soldier called Simao Gato rushed at the commanding officer of the enemy force, knocked him down, and seized the flag from his hands. In the 16th century the French privateer, Du-Guay-Trouin, pillaged Sao Jorge and in the year 1816 an Algerian pirate, who was trying to take a merchant ship, was driven off by shots fired from the fortress of Calheta. But other calamities also affected Sao Jorge including food shortages, hunger in bad crop years from the 16th to the 19th centuries, as well as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions of 1580, 1757 and 1808.
The period of isolation isolation was overcome by the works carried out in the two main ports of Velas and Calheta as well as by the building of an airport. These public works have opened new horizons of prosperity and progress for Sao Jorge which is counting on a more efficient use of its natural resources and the expansion of livestock, the dairy industry, fisheries, and the canning industry.