A small number of alleged hypogea, earthen structures carved into rocks that were used for burials, have been identified on the islands of Corvo, Santa Maria and Terceira by Portuguese archaeologist Nuno Ribeiro, who speculated that they might date back 2000 years, implying a human presence on the island before the Portuguese. These kinds of structures have been used in the Azores to store cereals, however, and suggestions by Ribeiro that they might be burial sites are unconfirmed. Detailed examination and dating to authenticate the validity of these speculations is lacking. It is unclear whether these structures are natural or man-made and whether they predate the 15th-century Portuguese colonization of the Azores. Therefore, clear confirmation of a pre-Portuguese human presence in the archipelago has not yet been published.
The islands were known in the fourteenth century, and parts of them appear in the Catalan Atlas. In 1427, a captain sailing for Prince Henry the Navigator, possibly Gonçalo Velho, may have rediscovered the Azores, but this is not certain. In Thomas Ashe's 1813 work, A History of the Azores, the author identified a Fleming, Joshua Vander Berg of Bruges, who made landfall in the archipelago during a storm on his way to Lisbon. He stated that the Portuguese explored the area and claimed it for Portugal. Other stories note the discovery of the first islands (São Miguel Island, Santa Maria Island and Terceira Island) by sailors in the service of Henry the Navigator, although there are few documents to support the claims.
Although it is commonly said that the archipelago received its name from the goshawk (açor in Portuguese), a common bird at the time of discovery, it is unlikely that the bird nested or hunted on the islands.
Angra do Heroísmo
, the oldest continuously settled town in the archipelago of the Azores and UNESCO World Heritage Site
There were no large animals on Santa Maria, so after its discovery and before settlement began, sheep were let loose on the island to supply future settlers with food. Settlement did not take place right away, however. There was not much interest among the Portuguese people to live in an isolated archipelago so far from civilization. Gonçalo Velho Cabral patiently gathered resources and settlers for the next three years (1433–1436), however, and sailed to establish colonies first on Santa Maria and then on São Miguel.
Settlers cleared bush and rocks to plant crops—grain, grape vines, sugar cane, and other plants suitable for local use and of commercial value. They brought domesticated animals, such as chickens, rabbits, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs and built houses and established villages.
The archipelago was largely settled from mainland Portugal. Portuguese settlers came from the provinces of Algarve, Minho, Alentejo and Ribatejo as well as Madeira. São Miguel was first settled in 1449, the settlers – mainly from the Estremadura, Alto Alentejo and Algarve areas of mainland Portugal, under the command of Gonçalo Velho Cabral – landed at the site of modern-day Povoação. Many early settlers were Portuguese Sephardic Jews who fled the pressures of inquisition in mainland Portugal. In 1522, Vila Franca do Campo, then the capital of the island, was devastated by an earthquake and landslide that killed about 5,000 people, and the capital was moved to Ponta Delgada. The town of Vila Franca do Campo was rebuilt on the original site and today is a thriving fishing and yachting port. Ponta Delgada received its city status in 1546. From the first settlement, the pioneers applied themselves to agriculture and by the 15th century Graciosa exported wheat, barley, wine and brandy. The goods were sent to Terceira largely because of the proximity of the island.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Graciosa was host to many prominent figures, including Chateaubriand, the French writer who passed through upon his escape to America during the French revolution; Almeida Garrett, the Portuguese poet who visited an uncle and wrote some poetry while there; and Prince Albert of Monaco, the 19th century oceanographer who led several expeditions in the waters of the Azores. He arrived on his yacht Hirondelle, and visited the furna da caldeira, the noted hot springs grotto. In 1869, the author Mark Twain published The Innocents Abroad, a travel book, where he described his time in the Azores.
The first reference to the island of São Jorge was made in 1439 but the actual date of discovery is unknown. In 1443 the island was already inhabited but active settlement only began with the arrival of the noble Flemish native Wilhelm Van der Haegen. Arriving at Topo, where he lived and died, he became known as Guilherme da Silveira to the islanders. João Vaz Corte-Real received the captaincy of the island in 1483. Velas became a town before the end of the 15th century. By 1490, there were 2,000 Flemings living in the islands of Terceira, Pico, Faial, São Jorge and Flores. Because there was such a large Flemish settlement, the Azores became known as the Flemish Islands or the Isles of Flanders. Prince Henry the Navigator was responsible for this settlement. His sister, Isabel, was married to Duke Philip of Burgundy of which Flanders was a part. There was a revolt against Philip's rule and disease and hunger became rampant. Isabel appealed to Henry to allow some of the unruly Flemings to settle in the Azores. He granted this and supplied them with the necessary transportation and goods.
The settlement of the then-unoccupied islands started in 1439 with people mainly from the continental provinces of Algarve and Alentejo. In 1583, Philip II of Spain, as king of Portugal, sent his fleet to clear the Azores of a combined multinational force of adventurers, mercenaries, volunteers and soldiers who were attempting to establish the Azores as a staging post for a rival pretender to the Portuguese throne. Following the success of his fleet at the Battle of Ponta Delgada captured enemies were hanged from yardarms, as they were considered pirates by Philip II. Opponents receiving the news variously portrayed Philip II as a despot or "Black Legend"; the sort of insult widely made against contemporary monarchs engaged in aggressive empire building and the European Wars of Religion. An English raid of the Azores in 1589 successfully plundered some harbouring ships and islands; a repeat eight years later, the Islands Voyage, failed. Spain held the Azores under the "Babylonian captivity" of 1580–1642. In the late 16th century, the Azores and Madeira began to face problems of overpopulation. Spawning from that particular economic problem, some of the people began to emigrate to Brazil.
Following the death of Henry, the Cardinal-King of Portugal the nation fell into a dynastic crisis with various pretenders to the Crown of Portugal. Following his proclamation in Santarém, António, Prior of Crato was acclaimed in the Azores in 1580 (through his envoy António da Costa), but was expelled from the continent following the Battle of Alcântara. Yet, through the administration of Cipriano de Figueiredo, governor of Terceira (who continued to govern Terceira in the name of ill-fated, former-king Sebastian of Portugal), the Azoreans resisted attempts to conquer the islands (including specifically at the Battle of Salga). It was Figueiredo and Violante do Canto who helped organize a resistance on Terceira that influenced some of the response of the other islands, even as internal politics and support for Philip's faction increased on the other islands (including specifically on São Miguel, where the Gonçalvez da Câmara family supported the Spanish pretender).
The Azores were the last part of the Portuguese Empire to resist Philip's reign over Portugal (Macau resisted any official recognition) and were returned to Portuguese control with the end of the Iberian Union in 1640, not by the professional military, who were used in the Restoration War in the mainland, but by local people attacking a fortified Castilian garrison.
The Portuguese Civil War (1828–1834) had strong repercussions in the Azores. In 1829, in Praia da Vitória, the Liberals won over the absolutists, making Terceira Island the main headquarters of the new Portuguese regime and also where the Council of Regency (Conselho de Regência) of Maria II of Portugal was established.
Beginning in 1868, Portugal issued its stamps overprinted with "AÇORES" for use in the islands. Between 1892 and 1906, it also issued separate stamps for the three administrative districts of the time.
From 1836 to 1976, the archipelago was divided into three districts, equivalent (except in area) to those in the Portuguese mainland. The division was arbitrary, and did not follow the natural island groups, rather reflecting the location of each district capital on the three main cities (none of which were on the western group).
- Angra do Heroísmo consisted of Terceira, São Jorge, and Graciosa, with the capital at Angra do Heroísmo on Terceira.
- Horta consisted of Pico, Faial, Flores, and Corvo, with the capital at Horta on Faial.
- Ponta Delgada consisted of São Miguel and Santa Maria, with the capital at Ponta Delgada on São Miguel.
In 1931 the Azores (together with Madeira and Portuguese Guinea) revolted against the Ditadura Nacional and were held briefly by military rebels.
In 1943, during World War II, the Portuguese ruler António de Oliveira Salazar leased air and naval bases in the Azores to Great Britain. The occupation of these facilities in October 1943 was codenamed Operation Alacrity by the British.
This was a key turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic, enabling the Royal Air Force, the U.S. Army Air Forces, and the U.S. Navy to provide aerial coverage in the Mid-Atlantic gap. This helped them to protect convoys and to hunt hostile German U-boats.
In 1944, the U.S. constructed a small and short-lived air base on the island of Santa Maria. In 1945, a new base was constructed on the island of Terceira, and it is named Lajes Field. This air base is in an area called Lajes, a broad, flat sea terrace that had been a large farm. Lajes Field is a plateau rising out of the sea on the northeast corner of the island. This air base is a joint American and Portuguese venture. Lajes Field continues to support the American and Portuguese Armed Forces. During the Cold War, U.S. Navy P-3 Orion antisubmarine warfare squadrons patrolled the North Atlantic Ocean for Soviet Navy submarines and surface warships. Since its opening, Lajes Field has been used for refuelling American cargo planes bound for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The U.S. Navy keeps a small squadron of its ships at the harbor of Praia da Vitória, three kilometres (1.9 miles) southeast of Lajes Field.
The airfield also has a small commercial terminal handling scheduled and chartered passenger flights from the other islands in the Azores, Europe, Africa, and North America.
In 1976, the Azores became the Autonomous Region of the Azores (Região Autónoma dos Açores), one of the autonomous regions of Portugal, and the subdistricts of the Azores were eliminated.
In 2003, the Azores saw international attention when United States President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar and Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Durão Barroso held a summit there days before the commencement of the Iraq War.