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Sao Miguel Island History

The first settlement in Sao Miguel was created in 1444 after Prince Henry the Navigator ordered that cattle be placed ashore on seven islands of the archipelago. Its captaincy was entrusted to Gonçalo Velho Cabral, knight and friar of the Order of Christ. The first inhabitants – from the Portuguese provinces of Estremadura, Upper Alentejo, and Algarve – were later joined by North Afrikaners, Madeirans, Jews, Moors, and possibly Frenchmen.

The fertility of the soil and the island’s geographic position on the cross-roads of Europe, Africa, and America contributed to rapid economic expansion based on the production of wheat (exported to the Portuguese garrisons of the North African strongholds), sugar cane, the dye-yielding plants called “woad” and “archil” (sold to Flanders), wine, and dairy products. One century later, sweet potatoes, maize, yams, flax, and oranges came to broaden the range of the island’s agricultural output. The island was victim of attacks by French, English, and Algerian corsairs in the late 16th and part of the 17th century. Sao Miguel was occupied by Spanish forces in 1582 after the defeat, off Vila Franca do Campo, of a French fleet which had Portuguese among its crews and which supported the claims of Dom Antonio Prior do Crato to the Portuguese throne.

With the Restoration of Portugal’s independence in 1640, Sao Miguel recovered its position as a trading center and developed contacts with Brazil to where it sent groups of settlers.

In 1831, during the Liberal Wars, after the landing of Liberal troops in Nordeste ordered by the future duke of Terceira, the resistance to the Absolutist regime on the Island was organized. In 1832, the Army, after declaring the Constitution and recognizing Maria II of Portugal as their queen, left Ponta Delgada. After the troubled period of the Liberal Wars, the previous economic expansion resumed, the port of Ponta Delgada was built, and also new crops such as tea, pineapple, and tobacco were introduced. The development of the fishing industry and the improvement of agricultural products helped to boost the economy until the present day.

The export of oranges to England brought Sao Miguel great prosperity from the end of the 18th century. The orange groves were destroyed by a blight starting in 1860 but the local capacity for enterprise soon led to the introduction of new crops – tobacco, tea, flag, chicory, sugar beet, and pineapples – which guaranteed economic survival. With the passing of the years, these crops were joined by several industries and a growth in fisheries and livestock raising.

The island became the seat of the Presidency of the Autonomous Region of the Azores and is the largest political-administrative center in the Azores.