The history of Faial dates back to 1375 when the island first appeared on the Catalan Atlas, at the time named Ilha de Ventura. The first Portuguese settlers arrived around 1450, by that time the island was known as Ilha São Luiz. Interestingly they installed themselves in the area of Cedros on the north side of the island, on the top of high cliffs. Most probably, they deemed that location to be safer from pirate attacks then the more accessible coast around Horta. In 1466, the Flemish nobleman and adventurer Josse van Huerter arrived on Faial with a group of 15 to look for precious metals. van Huerter did not find any of the desired wealth, but nevertheless he became one of the personalities marking the history of Faial. Due to his relationship with the Portuguese court he was nominated Captain-Mayor of the island, now renamed Fayal after the Myrica faya trees, and soon the development of Faial started to take-off. The majority of the settlers were from the Portuguese mainland, but the influence of the Flemish settlers can be felt until today. Many family names in Faial have Flemish roots, van Huerter became Durtra, but also the Rosa, Silveira, Goulart or Brum families have their roots in the low lands.
A small town emerges
A small town started to grow around the bay of Horta, and in 1498, Horta was granted the statute of a “Vila” or town, by that time the population grew to about 1500 inhabitants. During the 16th century the bay of Horta started to become a preferred stop over for sailors on the way back from South America and Africa to Europe. As the port gained importance Faial became an attractive target for pirates from the Moroccan coast but also from England. The remainders of the city’s fortifications can still be seen nowadays, such as the walls in Porto Pim and the castle of Santa Cruz which is today a hotel.
Trade and diplomacy
In the 18th century, another chapter was opened in the history of Faial with the export of wine from Pico to the Americas an to Europe. Once more, the sheltered position of the port made it a perfect hub and gave the local economy a boost. Towards the end of the century, whaling ships from Nantucket on the East Coast of the US arrived to replenish their supplies, to recruit their crew and to hunt in the waters around the island. Not surprisingly Faial became more and more oriented towards Western Hemishpere and in 1808, the first American consulate in Europe was opened in Horta. The first consul, John Bass Dabney, and his family become another important significant dynasty in the history of Faial. It was also art a the Dabney family which was among the first to start the whaling industry in the Azores.
A major communication hub
During the second half of the 19th century, Horta’s importance as harbor is further increasing and it became one of the most important harbors in the Atlantic. The extension of the port 1876 allows the newly emerging steam ships to bunker coal, thus fuel supply replaces food and water supplies which were crucial for the sailing ships. A new era started at the very end of the century when the first underwater communication cables were laid across the Atlantic. Once more due to its favorable position Horta became the relay point for the communication between the two continents. It was not anymore sailors who influenced the history of Faial, but telecommunication experts from all major countries which settled in Horta. Luckily of the grandiose villas where the companies had their offices are preserved and serve nowadays the regional government.
Faial, a truly unique place
In Horta you can feel everyday the traces which were left by the foreigners throughout the centuries. Fayal Sport Club is the second oldest football club in Portugal, but this is not the only thing, the British left, the traditional Christmas cake in Horta suspiciously resembles to an English Christmas Pudding. During the short period when commercial transatlantic flights were done with hydroplanes, the bay of Horta was the major “airport” in-between Europe and America. The importance of Faial in international trade routes may be minimal nowadays, but Horta is still one of the most important ports of call for sailing ships crossing the Atlantic. The surge of tourism in the last decades again opened a new opportunity and it can be said that Faial is the best destination of the Azores. Or is there another place with a vibrant city where you nip a drink, lookout at the islands of the triangle, contemplate the natural beauty of the volcanic island and reminisce about the whales observed that same morning?