Flores and Corvo islands
The Portuguese discovery of the islands that form the western group probably took place sometime in 1452. It is believed that Diogo de Teive was the navigator responsible for the finding of this “far away” land. The name Flores (Flowers) is believed to be associated to the abundance of natural flowers that the island showcased as soon as the 1470s.
The first efforts to settle Flores were also carried out by the Flemish, namely by Willem van der Haghen, who had initially settled on the island of São Jorge and then tried to settle on a land located further to the west around 1480.
In a similar fashion to the rest of the archipelago, the economy was based on cereals for about two centuries, as well as on sheep breeding, the production of cloth and fishing.
During the 16th and the 17th centuries, the island lived in tranquillity and isolation, a condition that was threatened by the frequent and unwelcomed visits of privateers. As Europe’s westernmost point, Flores had a highly relevant tactical position and functioned as a strategic location for the logistic support that the Crown provided to ships arriving from the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Consequently the island was closely watched by privateers and pirates, whilst they quietly awaited the passing of Spanish galleons filled with precious metals from the Americas and Portuguese carracks from the East.
By the mid 18th century, Flores became a safe harbour for the English and North-American whaling fleets, looking for supplies and sailors. This external influence required the construction of bases for the hunting of sperm whales at Lajes das Flores and Santa Cruz das Flores. There are still vestiges of these premises, which were then built for the extraction of oil from the whales.
The opening of the airport in 1972 and the construction of modern ports led to a greater integration of the Western Group in the Azores Archipelago. The services sector now supports the island’s economy, employing about 60% of the local workforce, with tourism playing an increasingly larger role.
The sighting of the island of Corvo by the Portuguese navigator Diogo de Teive might have occurred in 1452, at the same time as the discovery of the island of Flores. Given its small size, this island did not attract the attention of those who looked forward to settle in the Azores. Its natural, pure state was only broken during the 16th century, when the donatory-captain Gonçalo de Sousa sent a group of slaves, probably from Cape Verde, to Corvo to farm the land and breed cattle. In approximately 1580, some settlers who came from the island of Flores increased the local population.
Life in Corvo runs slowly and peacefully, guided by the rhythms of agriculture, fisheries and cattle breeding, to assure the survival of the community. But contrary to assumption, the geographical position of the island allows it to exceed its expected isolation. In fact, Corvo was the reference point where the Portuguese fleets came together to receive the ships coming from the various points of the Portuguese and Spanish Empires and, from there, to escort them safely to mainland Europe. Therefore, at the end of the 16th century and throughout the 17th century, this isolation was broken by the frequent arrival of privateers and pirates looking forward to pillage the land and to capture hostages. They faced a strong resistance in Corvo, and it is quite historic the defeat of the Barbary Corsairs from North Africa in 1632, with the locals throwing stones to repel the invasion. According to legend, in this hard and uneven battle, the local population was helped by the Saint Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Our Lady of the Rosary), who “deflected the bullets fired by the pirates and returned them, in multiple figures, back to the ships of the Moors, thus dispersing them.” Since then, this saint became known as Nossa Senhora dos Milagres (Our Lady of Miracles).
During the 18th and 19th centuries, American whaling boats arrived at the coasts of the islands of the Western Group. Some locals were recruited to hunt sperm whales, and they earned the reputation of being very courageous harpooners. In 1864, Corvo had almost 1,100 inhabitants, but this figure started decreasing from then on. Between 1900 and 1980, Corvo’s population decreased from 808 to only 370 inhabitants, with this reduction being mainly caused by emigration to the United States and Canada.
In 1983, the opening of the airport of Corvo was crucial to modernise the island’s infrastructure. Since 1991, the operation of scheduled flights from the islands of Flores, Faial and Terceira has contributed to the full integration of the island into the Archipelago. Agriculture, centred on cattle breeding, is the current mainstay of the local economy.