A History Of The Azores Islands, by James H. Guill
This book is one which remains interesting to read even if its comments are not likely to correspond to the present-day thoughts and feelings about European colonialism. That this does not bother me is indicated by the fact that I appreciated this book, and found the history of the Azores as a region to be a great deal more interesting than I would have supposed to be the case from its somewhat peripheral position within contemporary Europe. As it happens, the Azores were among the first island groups to be found by the intrepid Portuguese explorers of the 15th century (along with the Madeira Islands), and the consequences of this continue to reverberate with regards to the history of the islands, which remain today as an autonomous territory that remains within the Portuguese empire, and one that has at times held an important role that far overwhelms its own modest size and population, largely for its geography. If the Azores are an obscure region to most people within the Western world today, the importance that they and the Maderia islands were the first test cases of European settlement outside of the continent holds immense importance for the world as a whole. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine the success of European efforts further afield had their efforts not been successful here as important logistical bases for later efforts.
The book itself is organized quite straightforwardly, as this is a work of competent middlebrow history that does not aim for striking originality as much as telling a solid narrative. The book as a whole is about 200 pages, of which about 160 pages are made up of the main text. The book begins with information about the author, a dedication, and a historical prologue that provides the context for the Azores themselves. This is followed by color illustrations. After this comes the main text of the book. The author begins his story, sensibly enough, by discussing the geography of the Azores Islands (1), heavily marked by volcanism and its consequences. A short chapter about the fearful ocean follows (2) that points out the hazards the islands have faced with regards to navigation. The author then talks about how the islands have served as a mid-ocean refuge for European sailing (3), a key aspect of its historical importance. This is followed by a discussion of the hard work of the Azorean settlers that allowed them after considerable effort to make a great deal of money from their settlement (4), as well as a chapter about the local autonomy gained by the settlers in the forms of local councils (5) that were integrated with the larger appointed officers and hereditary rulers over them from the beginning of settlement. A chapter about the establishment of the Catholic church over the islands, a story full of drama between different figures within the Catholic church (6) comes after this. A further chapter discusses the island fortress of Terceira (7) before the rest of the chapters of the book cover the period between 1580 and 1640 known as the Babylonian captivity of Spanish rule over Portugal and its possessions (8), the great emigration of people from the overpopulated islands to other Portuguese colonies in the late 17th and 18th centuries (9), the civil war of the 19th century in the aftermath of the Napoleonic invasion (10), and the “new state” of Salazar (11), where the book ends before the restoration of democracy and the change of status that the Azores now enjoys to the present day.
What is the importance of reading about the Azores? As someone who has been fond of listening to and watching weather news, the Azores have always been important as a geographical location from which to judge the movement of storms from the coast of Africa towards North America and the Caribbean. Historically speaking, it was from there that the Europeans acquired forward bases to explore both West Africa and the Americas and beyond, and the settlers of those areas provided a ready base of foot soldiers for further Portuguese colonial efforts in Brazil especially. The islands themselves not only offer an interesting geographical phenomenon as volcanic islands of strikingly different ages if in the same area and subject to the same forces of magma and ocean and wind, but also provide the site of some of the more obscure military drama of the last few centuries, as a place where European and American leaders can summit together peacefully and also as a launching base for political efforts to or from Portugal within the lusophone world. If these seem like modest achievements, they nonetheless make an area worth knowing for a traveler such as myself. This book provides worthy information, though it is clearly a sign of the age it was written in–the early 1970’s, and is not a book that corresponds to contemporary historical perspectives, which is all the better for it.