During its existence of several centuries, this was an island where episodes directly connected to the History of Portugal and the world were written. Two Portuguese kings had their main city here. And, already in present days, it was in Terceira Island that the future of the free world was decided. It is not just a piece of forgotten land in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is an island with stories related to the Great History.
When we say, as mentioned in the title, that we are going to talk about the one that is “The first island of Portugal”, that should not be understood literally by the reader as this being the major island of the Country or the one that geographically is considered the first of Portugal, or even the most populous. Our title is only a free poetic and historical justice which we can award to an island that was declared the capital of Portugal in several occasions of the History of the Nation and which, due to its name, we can say that should be promoted from Terceira (“Third”) to Primeira (“First”). Contrary to what many may think, Terceira Island doesn’t have this name because it was the third island to be discovered among the nine of the archipelago of the Azores. The island belonging to the “Central Group” was initially named Ilha do Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo das Terceiras, being the numeric denomination the indication that this was the third archipelago discovered by the navigators of the Atlantic. The archipelago of the Canary Islands was the “First”, the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo the “Second”, and the Azores were named the “Third”. As the years went by, the original name was refined until reaching a simpler name which is the current name, Terceira Island.
During our visit, we should remember that we are traveling through History. This started in a place dating back to 1450, when Prince Henry, known as “The Navigator”, son of King John I of Portugal and of the British Princess Philippa of Lancaster – sister of King Henry IV of England – after whom he was named after, awarded the first captaincy of Terceira to the Flemish noble Jácome de Bruges. The islands were inhabited, and it was the Flemish noble who was responsible for populating the island following the indication of the Portuguese Prince to do so with “catholic people”. The first settlements occupied the areas where today we have Porto Judeu and Praia da Vitória. The living conditions were developed through an agriculture-based economic activity in which cereal was valuable. As the years went by and with the development of the navigations through the Atlantic ocean due to the trips of the Portuguese navigators to India and also the discovery of America, Terceira Island witnessed and was part of these worldwide events, being strategically placed between the New World and the Old World. The island also experienced some negative results of ambitious corsairs of several nationalities, such as English, French, and Flemish, attacking its shore. When we stroll along the shore, we will certainly recall these years of the past.
It was at the end of the 15th Century that Terceira Island would end up playing for the first time in its History a key role in what would be the fate of Portugal. After the death of Sebastião I, in Morocco, at the Battle of Alcácer-Quibir (north of Africa), on August 4, 1578, there was a succession crisis. The king, a young man considered “reckless” and eager to repeat the achievements of his ancestors, became a “sad figure” when he miscalculated the dangers of what he thought to be an easy victory against the “unfaithful” in the North of Africa. The years after Alcácer-Quibir resulted in a succession crisis for the Portuguese throne and Philip II of Spain had a great interest in uniting the commercial possessions of Spain and Portugal, which had been previously divided by the Treaty of Tordesillas, dating back to Columbus’ travels to America. One of the Portuguese pretenders to the throne was D. António, Prior of Crato, descending from King Manuel I, who was even acclaimed King of Portugal, in Santarém, on July 24, 1580. However, the military forces of Philip II of Spain were stronger, and on August 25 of that same year of 1580, D. António lost the Battle of Alcântara to the Duke of Alba. After staying in several locations in Portugal, he then went to England and France until, in 1582, he stayed in Terceira Island, where he had many supporters. This support was due to the resistance of the inhabitants of the island to the Spanish, already tested at the Battle of Salga, on July 25 of the previous year. With the power of Lisbon in the hands of Philip II of Spain, who used to say that had inherited, conquered, and paid the throne, Terceira Island represents the main stronghold of resistance against the Spanish. The new king ordered the invasion of the island, and the fight of the Portuguese against the Spanish gave origin to a military strategy that is one of the most bizarre of the military history of the world: cows were used against the Spanish invaders. The cows were spread through the fields in large quantities, and, getting scared with the screams and harquebus shots, attacked the Spanish who had no alternative but to run. Many of the enemies died. Historical sources state that two great Spanish writers fought in this lost battle. One was the founder of the Spanish comedy, Félix Lope de Vega. The other one was Miguel de Cervantes and later, in 1605, when he published the book for which he would become universally famous, “Don Quixote”, he would almost certainly remember his fight against the cows in Terceira when his “knight of the sad figure” attacked windmills thinking they were giants. The location of the battle is still today one of the reference locations of Terceira Island. During the time D. António lived on the island, it was declared the free capital of Portugal, and coins were coined here. The Money House, located at S. João Baptista Fortress, is where the “malucos” coins (80 kings) were issued. It was also in this island that, on February 13, 1582, the Magistrate of the Azores, Ciprião de Figueiredo, sent to Philip II of Spain a letter in which it can be read “It is better to die free that in peace but subdued” – this is still today the motto of the Azores. D. António, who claimed to be the legitimate King of Portugal, lived in Terceira Island approximately one year, but was not in the island when in July 1583, two years after the Battle of Salga, the Spanish forces led by D. Álvaro de Bazán, the winner of the Battle of Lepanto, succeeded in controlling the island. The Battle of Terceira or the Bay of Mós Landing triggered the end of D. António I of Portugal’s reign, later declared on August 11, 1583.
The Spanish presence in Portugal only ended with the Restoration of Independence on December 1, 1640, in Lisbon. However, about 200 years later, another King of Portugal, also fighting for the throne, came to this island and declared the capital of his reign here. This happened when Pedro IV of Portugal, former Ruler of the Empire of Brazil, was at war against his brother, D. Miguel, an episode known as the Liberal Wars. The absolutist troops of D. Miguel were defeated at the Battle of Praia Bay on August 11, 1829, promoting once again the resistance of Terceira Island against a power considered illegitimate in Lisbon. In March 1832, Pedro IV of Portugal came to Terceira Island and transformed it into the base of his liberal troops and capital of one Portugal free of absolutists. Among his supporters was the writer Almeida Garrett, born in Porto in 1799, who would become an important name of the Portuguese Romantic Era. Garrett was the nephew of the Bishop of Angra, D. Frei Alexandre da Sagrada Família, and familiar with the island because he had spent part of his youth there when the troops of Napoleon invaded Portugal. He studied and experienced his first love on the island. The house where he lived still exists. The Liberation Army of Pedro IV of Portugal traveled from the Azores to Porto, where the former Ruler of Brazil resisted a siege for approximately one year. This episode originated the name for which the northern city is known, “Invicta”. But two cities of Terceira Island also received new names. It was Almeida Garret, as a deputy, who, in 1837, wrote the decrees in which the city and capital of the island would become Angra do Heroísmo and the city of Praia, Praia da Vitória.
The influence of Terceira Island doesn’t end with the Liberal Wars. About 100 years later, with the end of the Second World War, the island received a North American airbase in the village of Lajes, municipality of Praia da Vitória. This airbase, with many stories to tell, was essential in the help given by the North American to Israel, in October 1973, during the Yom Kippur War. More recently, it was at the airbase of Terceira Island that on March 17, 2003, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Azores Summit was held. George W. Bush, president of the USA, met the British prime minister, Tony Blair, as well as the prime ministers of Portugal and Spain, José Maria Aznar and Durão Barroso, to decide on the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Terceira Island is very present in the pages of History, and who knows what the future holds? Have a nice stay in this piece of the World’s History!
To read the edition 8 of our inflight magazine Azorean Spirit click here.