Ponta Delgada

Publication Date
The formal beginning of the history of Ponta Delgada happens in 1499, when it is granted the Foral(1) for small town, a privilege confirmed later, in 1507. According to the chronicle of Gaspar Frutuoso, the place with that name became autonomous possibly due to the discontent of "powerful noblemen" who, living in Ponta Delgada, were obliged to go to Vila Franca do Campo for solemn occasions, which for them was a lessening of their state and honour. From 1499 on, the novel small town began an expansion process that culminated with the declaration of Ponta Delgada as capital of the island, a consequence of the decline of the first capital, Vila Franca do Campo. The settling of one of the most important structures of the Crown's peripheral administration - the customs house - in Ponta Delgada in 1518 determined the end of Vila Franca do Campo's pretension (more than its devastation in 1522) to win back its former status as the capital of São Miguel.

Between July, 1523, and May, 1531, Ponta Delgada was violently struck by the plague and thus forced to quarantine. After the crisis, the grateful inhabitants decided to choose São Sebastião [Saint Sebastian] as their patron saint, enlarging and enriching the respective church. On 22nd August, 1532, King John III published an edict ordering that, from the profits obtained, the tenant of the Azorean islands would donate 400 cruzados(2) to help the construction works of that church during four years. The edict published on 29th August of the same year upheld the first one, further conceding the small town wine taxes for twelve years, so that works involving the church, the fountain and the sill could be financed.

In terms of urban growth, a famous passage by Gaspar Frutuoso mirrors what Ponta Delgada must have been like till the end of the 16th century:"that which is now a vast, rich, powerful and well-known town, was first a solitary waste, a wistful place and a poor hamlet, and then a small town". This demographic growth - a clear sign of urban development - as well as the importance of the harbour in support the carrack ships to and from India, were the basis for the privileges granted by King João III, who, by letter of 2nd April, 1546, elevated Ponta Delgada to town. The edict of 13th May of the same year added force to the new situation: the town clerks could, from that moment on, put a public signature on the town documents.

The design of the town in the 1500s defined the structure that has survived until nowadays; the urban nucleus developed along the shore between Calheta Pêro de Teve, at the eastern perimeter, and the place popularly known as Campo de São Francisco, at the western limit, where the monastery of Nossa Senhora de Esperança was built (it was instated in 1541, with nine sisters of the Order of Saint Clare). Connecting the town borderlines were two longitudinal axes, one of which can be considered an inner main street. The organisational pole of the urban nucleus was the L-shaped square which opened to the seafront, and where the main church, the town hall, the pillory, the double wharf, the customs house and, since 1783, the city gates were. If King João III did not concede to Ponta Delgada the privileges he had promised in the 1554 edict, the creation of the judgeship placed it at a unique level in the archipelago of the Azores; it became as important as the few districts that had as judicial magistrate a career officer. In the beginning of the 1550s, following several privateering raids to Ponta Delgada, King João III decided to build a fortress that could defend the town: between 1552-1553 and the beginning of 1580, the fortress of São Brás, star-shaped and Italian-styled, was built on the beach at one of the borderlines of town. But, in spite of the prestige of the local elite and the district's wealth, the dividends of the town hall were not high and the costs for building the fortress were felt by the population in general. Thus, in 1565, the town was granted another privilege: that, from that date on, the wine taxes, in force since 1532, would be diverted from their initial purpose in order to support the fortress's building expenses; the respective dividends could then be used for churches and fountains only. Notwithstanding some conflicts arising from the construction of the fortress, it became one of the town's main symbols. The foundation of the monastery of Santo André, belonging to the Order of St. Clare (1567), and the decision to build a bell tower at the church of São Sebastião (1575) - it was finally built in 1624 - date from the same period. Around 1580, Bishop Pedro de Castilho created the parish of Santa Clara at the western limit of Ponta Delgada; the parish church was the church of São Mateus, which belonged to the captains of the island. The creation of this new parish (still a suburban area during the second half of the 17th century) completed the set of parishes the town has been divided into since then.

During the Iberian Union, and maybe as a way of showing his appreciation for Ponta Delgada and the island of São Miguel joining his cause, King Filipe II, by letter of 12th December, 1582, granted Ponta Delgada the privileges and powers the citizens of Porto enjoyed. In the following year, a royal letter of 17th June bestowed the title of Count of Vila Franca to Rui Gonçalves da Câmara, donatory captain of São Miguel; the title not only benefited the household of the Câmaras but also ennobled the town itself; in 1591 the district had more than two thousand and seven hundred houses, a number corresponding to about ten thousand inhabitants.

At the turn of the 16th century, the market's conjuncture benefited largely from the trade of woad, which led to the settlement of several merchants in Ponta Delgada, some of them of English nationality. This dynamic also led to the replacement of the old town hall building by a new one - the current one -, which became the place for the council's meetings and centre of the local power until the 19th century (this building was severely damaged by the earthquake of 16th April, 1852); to the establishment of the convent of São João, in 1595; and the institution of two religious orders - the Jesuits in 1591, though their houses and church were inaugurated only in February, 1593; and the friars of the Order of Saint Augustine in 1606, who would move to the Convent of Nossa Senhora da Graça in 1618. The 17th century is remembered by the anti-fiscal mutinies of 1637-1638; the hunger mutinies of 1643, 1647 and 1695, which mobilized the population of the district's perimeter; the earthquakes of 1638, 1652 and 1682; and the plague outbreak of 1673.

The earthquakes and the plague outbreak didn't influence negatively the demographic growth and, by the end of the 1600s, the town and the perimeter would comprise about 45% of the island's population. The demographic growth corresponded to the creation of new ecclesiastic jurisdictions (curacies) and the organization of the military companies. In 1770, the district of Ponta Delgada, the most peopled of the island, had little less than 30.000 inhabitants (28.512, actually) and, within the modest frame of the urban geography of the island of São Miguel, Ponta Delgada was more visible than the remaining urban centres. As for symbols of power, on 12th February, 1724, the town council deliberated to build a tower close to the town hall building, for the bell tower belonging to the main church, where the clock was, was totally ruined and was going to be taken down. The urban dynamic of the period comprised the construction or adaptation of many noble houses in Ponta Delgada and surrounding farms, or in the district's rural hinterland; by the end of the century, the council's budget of 1799 and 1800 had a positive outcome, which suggests that the district's administration tried to fight off possible excesses committed in the past.

At the beginning of the 1800s, one of the more visible consequences of the Court's relocation to Rio de Janeiro was the undefined statute of the islands, a fact that remained true in following years. Yet, in Ponta Delgada, the shock waves don't seem to have had the same effect as in Angra, head of the General Captaincy, formed in 1766. Nonetheless, all would be different after the 1820 events. On 1st March, 1821, there was a rebellion in Ponta Delgada, the island's governor was arrested and, as a result of such outbreak, an interim government was created: the Junta Governativa. Ponta Delgada enters a new phase in history, which would gather speed in following years.

It's worth mentioning that during Liberalism the territorial demarcation inherited from the past was changed only during a period of about 12 years: on 23rd July, 1839, the place of Capelas was elevated to small town and become autonomous from Ponta Delgada. Yet, in 1854, the novel district was abolished, for its reduced dimension didn't allow for the necessary economical viability. An issue inherited from the past and that surfaced again during the 19th century was the one concerning the town's harbour, the island's main gateway for the entrance and exit of people and goods. Ponta Delgada lacked Angra's natural conditions, and thus the need for the construction of an artificial harbour, suitable for a large quantity of ships, was evident. Texts concerning this matter multiplied and even Antero de Quental wrote an article about it, called "Necessidade de uma Doca na Ilha de São Miguel" [The Need for a Harbour in the Island of São Miguel], published on 13th April, 1861, by the Aurora dos Açores. And it was in that same year, on 30th September, that the first stone was cast for the construction of the artificial harbour of Ponta Delgada, which works lasted until 1942.

1)A royal document that establishes and regulates the administration, borders, and privileges of a town or district. 2)A Portuguese currency in use from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

AAVV (1999), Actas do Colóquio Comemorativo dos 450 anos da Cidade de Ponta Delgada, Ponta Delgada, Universidade dos Açores-Câmara Municipal de Ponta Delgada. DIAS, Fátima Sequeira (1996), Ponta Delgada: 450 Anos de Cidade, Ponta Delgada, Câmara Municipal de Ponta Delgada. RODRIGUES, José Damião (1994), Poder Municipal e Oligarquias Urbanas: Ponta Delgada no Século XVII, Ponta Delgada. RODRIGUES, José Damião (2003), São Miguel no século XVIII: casa, elites e poder. Ponta Delgada, Instituto Cultural de Ponta Delgada, 2 vols. SOUSA, Nestor de (1986), A Arquitectura Religiosa de Ponta Delgada nos Séculos XVI a XVIII, Ponta Delgada, Universidade dos Açores.

Translated by: Maria das Mercês Pacheco
Ponta Delgada
Image credit
Alexandra Pelúcia