Some say that Diogo de Silves was the first Portuguese who had contact with this island, probably in 1427. Others defend the name of Gonçalo Velho Cabral, navigator and a friar of the Order of Christ, as the first to see this island in 1431. What is almost certain is that Santa Maria was the first point of contact with the Azores Archipelago, and the first effort to settle it in approximately 1439, at a time when the Donatory Captain Gonçalo Velho and a group of colonisers moored their boats at Praia dos Lobos. The arrival of new families from mainland Portugal, mainly from the Algarve and Alentejo, largely contributed for its development. Actually, they did it in such a manner that the locality of Porto was the first to receive a town charter. The local economy was then based on the woad, a dye plant from which is extracted a blue dye used to color textiles in the distant Flanders; on the production of wheat, a staple food at the time; and on the extraction of clay, used for the production of pottery and roof tiles.
In 1493, the ships of Christopher Colombo arrived in Santa Maria, on the return trip of their first voyage to discover America. During the 16th and 17th centuries, there were more ferocious landings, since the island was successively pillaged by privateers from England, France, Turkey and by Arabs from North Africa. In 1616, the island was occupied by the Moors for almost a week. According to the legend, part of the population took refuge in the Santana Cave to escape the pillage, fires, kidnappings and torture. In 1675, Moorish pirates returned in force to the Bay of Anjos. And when they left, they took prisoners to be sold as slaves.
After the peak of exports for the textile industry, the 18th and 19th centuries were marked by the spread of the culture of vineyards, wheat, corn, fruit orchards, potatoes and taro root, simultaneously with cattle breeding and dairies. Although this was a calmer period, part of the population decided to emigrate. The 20th century brought another progress and dynamism due to the construction of the airport. The work began in 1944, and it required thousands of American and Azorean labouring hands. The infrastructure was considered strategic for anti-submarine strategy during World War II, by the United States. After the war, the airport was no longer a military but a civil airport crucial for airplanes crossing the Atlantic Ocean. At the end of the sixties, jet planes, now with more range, stopped landing at Santa Maria. However, the airport has kept its role as the main centre of air traffic control over the Atlantic. Nowadays, the service sector is the basis of the economy, followed by agricultural, cattle breeding and fishing activities.
With 16.6 km of length, 9.1 km at its maximum width and a total area of 97 km2, the island of Santa Maria has 5,552 inhabitants (2011 data). Together with the island of São Miguel, it forms the Eastern Group of the Azores Archipelago, with the two islands distancing 81 km from each other. Pico Alto, the island’s highest point, reaches an altitude of 587 m and is located at 36º58’59’’ latitude north and 25º05’26’’ longitude west.
FOOD AND DRINKS
The land provides for one of the tastier dishes of Santa Maria. The Turnip Broth is made with a local kind of turnip, small and dark in colour. Besides the turnip, some pork meat, farmhouse bacon, the local sausage called chouriço and sweet potatoes are also added to the water. The broth is poured into a dish containing slices of bread, and the rest of the ingredients are served in a separate tray.
As for sweets, there are many local recipes. Tigeladas are often served in restaurants; however, light crisp cakes (cavacas), meringues, honey-cakes and cinnamon-based pastries are more typical, along with the biscoitos de orelha (ear biscuits), so called due to their shape.
Rockmelons grown on the island have attained fame and a gourmet status over time. As for the handmade sausages, the highlight goes to the Alheira of Santa Maria.
This is an island with a wine tradition, although poorly practiced now, but there are still some families who produce local wine, mainly for domestic use, from the vineyards that grow in plots of land confined by grey stones. Other beverages, such as the aguardente and some liqueurs made from fruit, have also attained fame and tradition.
As on the other islands, the Holy Ghost Festivals entertain Santa Maria from April until the summer. But it is in August that the island is more colourful and animated. All starts with the Rally of Santa Maria, a traditional round in the regional championship.
By mid month August, there is the Nossa Senhora da Assunção Festival, the patron saint of the island. There are various activities in Vila do Porto, with religious events being held hand in hand with dancing, concerts and handicraft and gastronomic fairs.
The arrival of the Maré de Agosto Music Festival is the peak of this entertaining month. With an international prominence, this festival is dedicated to world music and attracts visitors from various locations, who come to listen to music during the night and to rest on the beach during the day.