Europe's Best Kept Secret
Records of the Azores go back to mid 14th century maps showing Corvo, Flores, and São Jorge, but it was the Portuguese explorer Prince Henry the Navigator who opened up the Azores for colonization, which began in 1439 with contingents from mainly the Portuguese regions of the Algarve and the Minho, but also a diverse group consisting of English, Scots, Jews, French, African slaves, Moors, Italians, Dutch and Spaniards. There is no record of previous habitation of the islands and there were no large animals, so sheep were let lose on Santa Maria before human settlement began in order to provide the settlers with a source of food. The aim of colonization was to make an outpost for Portugal and a way station for ships headed west to the New World as well as for farming. The second largest group of settlers came from Flanders, beginning in 1450, and though slave ships passed through, slavery itself never became common in the Azores. The islands were the site for two failed attempts to wrest the control from King Philip II of Spain, and were finally liberated in 1668 from the Iberian Union. The Azores were also the seat of a government in exile for the Liberals during the Portuguese Civil War of 1828-1834. During the Second World War, the Portuguese dictator Salazar leased bases in the Azores to the British, despite a previous alliance with Germany. This proved to be very helpful to the Allied forces. To this day the U.S. Army still operates a fleet of ships off of Praia da Vitória, on the Island of Terceira. Since 1976, the Azores have been an autonomous region of Portugal called Região Autónoma dos Açores.