The Autonomous Region of the Azores (Região Autónoma dos Açores), is one of the two autonomous regions of Portugal, composed of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean about 850 miles (1,360 kilometers) west of continental Portugal. The nine major Azorean islands and an islet cluster, are in three main groups: Flores and Corvo, to the west; Graciosa, Terceira, São Jorge, Pico, and Faial in the centre; and São Miguel, Santa Maria, and the Formigas Reef to the east. They extend for more than 370 miles (600 kilometers) and lie in a northwest-southeast direction. All of the islands have volcanic origins, although some, such as Santa Maria, have had no recorded activity since the islands were settled. Mount Pico, on the island of Pico, is the highest point in Portugal, at 7,713 feet (2,351 meters). The Azores are actually some of the tallest mountains on the planet, measured from their base at the bottom of the ocean to their peaks, which thrust high above the surface of the Atlantic. The climate is generally wet and cloudy.
The islands were known in the fourteenth century and parts of them appear in the Atlas Catalan. In 1427, a captain sailing for Henry the Navigator, possibly Gonçalo Velho, rediscovered the Azores, but this is not certain. In Thomas Ashe’s 1813 work, A History of the Azores, the author identified a Fleming, Joshua Vander Berg of Bruges, who made landfall in the archipelago during a storm on his way to Lisbon. He stated that the Portuguese explored the area and claimed it for Portugal. Other stories note the discovery of the first islands (São Miguel Island, Santa Maria Island and Terceira Island) by sailors in the service of Henry the Navigator, although there are few documents to support these claims. Although it is commonly said that the archipelago received its name from the goshawk (açor in Portuguese), a common bird at the time of discovery, it is unlikely that the bird nested or hunted in the islands.
The archipelago was settled over the centuries largely from mainland Portugal. São Miguel was first settled in 1444, the settlers landing at the site of modern-day Povoação. Many of the early settlers were also Portuguese Sephardic Jews who fled the pressures of inquisition in mainland Portugal. In 1522 Vila Franca do Campo, then the capital of the island, was devastated by an earthquake and landslide that killed about 5,000 people, and the capital was moved to Ponta Delgada. Since the first settlement, the pioneers applied themselves to the area of agriculture. By the 15th century Graciosa exported wheat, barley, wine and brandy. The goods were sent to Terceira largely because of the proximity of the island.
The first reference to the island of São Jorge was made in 1439 but the actual date of discovery is unknown. In 1443 the island was already inhabited but active settlement only began with the arrival of the noble Flemish native Wilhelm Van der Haegen. By 1490, there were 2,000 Flemings living in the islands of Terceira, Pico, Faial, São Jorge and Flores. Because there was such a large Flemish settlement, the Azores became known as the Flemish Islands or the Isles of Flanders.
The first stamps used in the Azores were those of Portugal which began circulating on 1 July 1853 and had the effigy of Queen D. Maria II designed by Francisco de Borja Freire and printed by the Casa da Moeda. The stamps were inspired by English stamps issued between 1840 and 1848, presenting a bust of the Queen and printed one-by-one in sheets of 24 examples, without perforations and arranged irregularly. These had face values of 5 and 25 réis. The following day (2 July 1853), issues of 100 réis, and on 22 July 1853, 50 réis were available. This process allowed Portugal to become the 45th nation to adopt the postal stamp.
Between 1853 and 1869, the primitive stamps were stamped with a circular postmark (known as the First Postal Reform) that included numerical bar registers corresponding to the locality. The Azores, then referred to as the Ilhas Adjacentes (Adjacent Islands) and the Direcção do Correio (Postal Directorate) stamped them as:
48 – Angra do Heroísmo (Terceira)
49 – Horta (Fayal)
50 – Ponta Delgada (São Miguel)
Between 1869 and 1878, oval postmarks began being used (the Second Postal Reform), with new postal designators:
42 – Angra do Heroísmo (Terceira)
43 – Horta (Faial)
44 – Ponta Delgada (São Miguel)
In 1868 Portugal issued a set of six stamps overprinted with AÇORES in either black or carmine for use in the islands. Until 1906, all Azores stamps were similarly overprinted. Between 1892 and 1906, Portugal also issued separate stamps for the three administrative districts of the time. These districts were equivalent (except in area) to those in the Portuguese mainland. The division was arbitrary, and did not follow the natural island groups, rather reflecting the location of each district capital on the three main cities (none of which were on the western group). Angra do Heroísmo consisted of Terceira, São Jorge, and Graciosa, with the capital at Angra do Heroísmo on Terceira. Horta consisted of Pico, Faial, Flores, and Corvo, with the capital at Horta on Faial. Ponta Delgada consisted of São Miguel and Santa Maria, with the capital at Ponta Delgada on São Miguel.
A set of fourteen stamps were released on 1 April 1910 with the word AÇORES inscribed upon the stamp itself but these were overprinted REPUBLICA in carmine or green later the same year. Stamps issued in 1911 also received the REPUBLICA overprint (in black) on Portuguese stamps but all stamps issued between 1912 and 1930 once again utilized the AÇORES overprint on Portuguese stamp issues. In addition to 307 general issue stamps released for the Azores between 1868 and 1930, there were 40 postage due stamps, five newspaper stamps, seventeen stamps for parcel post, eleven for postal tax which represented a special fee for the delivery of postal matter on certain days of the year (this money went to charitable causes), and four issues for postal tax due.
After 1930, the postage stamps of Portugal were used in the Azores. In 1931 the Azores (together with Madeira and Portuguese Guinea) revolted against the Ditadura Nacional and were held briefly by military rebels. During World War II, the Portuguese ruler António de Oliveira Salazar leased air and naval bases in the Azores to the British Empire. The occupation of these facilities in October 1943 was codenamed Operation Alacrity by the British. This was a key turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic, enabling the Royal Air Force, the U.S. Army Air Forces, and the U.S. Navy to provide aerial coverage in the Mid-Atlantic gap. This helped them to protect convoys and to hunt hostile Kriegsmarine U-boats.
In 1944, the American armed forces constructed a small and short-lived air base on the island of Santa Maria. In 1945, a new base was constructed on the island of Terceira named Lajes Field and continues to support the American and Portuguese Armed Forces. During the Cold War, U.S. Navy P-3 Orion antisubmarine warfare squadrons patrolled the North Atlantic Ocean for Soviet Navy submarines and surface warships. It has been used for refueling American cargo planes bound for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The U.S. Navy keeps a small squadron of its ships at the harbor of Praia da Vitória, a short distance southeast of Lajes Field.
In 1976, the Azores became the Autonomous Region of the Azores and the subdistricts of the Azores were eliminated. On 2 January 1980, the use of separate stamps for the Azores (and Madeira) were revived. The modern stamps were inscribed both PORTUGAL and AÇORES. These are valid for use throughout Portugal as well as on the islands (where they can also use Portuguese issues). These stamps have no special purpose beyond the expression of local pride. Only five or ten are issued each year, generally with themes relating to the Azores. The Scott catalogue lists the first period of Azores stamps (1868-1930) in volume 1 while the current period issues are listed in volume 5, following Portugal. The numbering for the 1980-date issues begins at 314.
I love stamps on stamps so I couldn’t resist including the full souvenir sheet catalogued as Scott #315a, a single number thus I could call it “a” stamp despite it containing two (Scott numbers 314 and 315). This was the first release upon the resumption of Azores-inscribed stamps. Printed in lithography and perforated 12, it was released on 2 January 1980. The 6.50 escudo value depicts Scott #2 of the Azores while the 19,50 escudo denomination reproduces Scott #6. These were both originally issued in 1868; Scott #2 — 10 reis yellow — is valued at US $13,750 unused in my 2009 edition of the Scott catalog while Scott #6 — 100 reis lilac — is a mere $200. By contrast, I purchased the souvenir sheet from a dealer in Portugal for around US $3.50, including shipping, in mid-2016. The background of the sheet portrays an engraving of the view looking from Terceira to Mount Pico. The sheet was reissued in 1987 bearing an overprint for the CAPEX 87 stamp exhibition held in Canada.