Azorean Life: Part One

The people

Centuries of wringing a livelihood from the islands’ limited resources made the Azorean people as rugged as the landscape. Azoreans established a reputation as a diligent, humble, intensely independent, and highly competent people. The hardships of their history — limited agricultural terrain, crop disease, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, violent storms, pirate raids, plus exploitation by mainland Portugal — endowed them with great resilience, which served them well in surviving not only in on the islands, but in their adopted homelands around the world.

These traits also helped them to overcome the prejudices of those in their new homelands. Azoreans in America faced much of the same discrimination that other immigrants groups faced: prejudices against their peasant origins, their lack of education, their rudimentary English skills, and their religion. But they chipped away at these biases over time with their capacity for hard work; their modesty and self-reliance; their ability to assimilate enough to be unobtrusive while holding on to their culture and way of life; and by virtue of the fact that they did not ask for charity or public assistance and always took care of their own.

In an autobiography titled Never Backward published in 1973, an Azorean immigrant named Lawrence Oliver (né Oliveira), who became a prominent figure in San Diego, described his people this way:

 The Portuguese have always been a liberty-loving race…. They are adventurous, courageous, natural pioneers. They are home lovers and home builders. Of a deeply religious nature, they support their community and its needs. Although thrifty, they recognize the good things of life and when acquired, use them with moderation and good judgment. Seldom will their names be found on relief rolls and even less often on the records of our criminal courts.

Visitors to the Azores were, depending on their own backgrounds and mindsets, inclined to see Azoreans in one of two ways: as noble, hard-working, simple people, or as slovenly peasants. The latter perspective usually reflected the biases of well-to-do tourists who had little empathy for the peasant classes of far-off lands. Others were more empathetic but no more inclined to learn about Azoreans and their way of life before making pronouncements about them, holding Azorean culture, religion, and ways of living to the standards of their own more privileged lifestyles.

Alice Charlotte Baker, an American writer and New England historian, published a book called A Summer in the Azores, with a Glimpse of Madeira in 1882. She wrote this about the people she encountered on the islands:

The Portuguese peasant class is poor and often poverty-stricken though living under fairly favorable climate conditions; that they have a very low standard of living, dwelling in humble cottages which are sometimes uncleanly and usually devoid of the barest necessities, and eating the plainest of food; that they lack knowledge of hygiene and sanitation; that they are devout though somewhat less in parts of the mainland than on the islands; that their religious ideas are somewhat vague and associated with many superstitions; that their recreation is limited and semi-religious in some of its aspects; and that they are grossly ignorant, illiterate, often lacking in a desire for education, though not unintelligent…. Quick intelligence, the dreamy melancholy, the slyness and love of intrigue, the wit and imagination are here and the power of expression in words…. They are devoted to music, flowers, dance, and song.

In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain alternated between thoughtful appreciations of the Azores and the sort of satirical descriptions for which he was known. It should be noted that Twain was writing this book for Americans, specifically Americans who had not traveled much, so his stories are colorful, sarcastic, and full of exaggeration. The following description followed an account of Twain’s experience riding a donkey during a long, difficult day of travel:

The community is eminently Portuguese — that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy, and  lazy…. The people lie, and cheat the stranger, and are desperately ignorant, and have hardly any reverence for their dead. The latter trait shows how little better they are than the donkeys they eat and sleep with…. The donkeys and the men, women, and children of a family, all eat and sleep in the same room, and are unclean, are ravaged by vermin, and are truly happy.


Azorean homes were humble, minimalist structures. They were made of black lava rock and often cemented with limestone, then plastered and whitewashed, with roofs either thatched or made of red tile. The exteriors were sometimes decorated with white porcelain tiles adorned with blue, green, brown, and yellow designs, an influence from Moorish and Fleming ancestors.

These were one-story, one-room homes, with earthen floors. They were poorly lit, usually with no windows. If there were windows, they did not have glass. Sometimes homes had lofts or separate cooking areas. Most homes did not have a stove but rather a fireplace and a stone oven. There was very little furniture. Beds consisted of mattresses stuffed with corn husks or homespun fibers. Home were often decorated with religious pictures and images of patron saints.

Mark Twain’s comment about donkeys sharing the living space may have seemed an exaggeration, but it was not far off the mark; families allowed donkeys, pigs, sheep, and chickens, as well as cats and dogs, into the home at night. Yet Twain made no effort to put this remark in context. Peasant agricultural communities, in the Azores and elsewhere in the world, often provided shelter for domesticated animals in the home, especially amid inclement weather. It may be an exaggeration to say that these animals were like family, but at the very least they were valuable pieces of property, often the family’s most valuable possessions. To give them shelter from storms, from cold nights, or from predators was to protect the family’s investment and to ensure the family’s livelihood.  One nineteenth-century visitor described the home of the Azorean farmer this way:

The morning light is sure to discover all the animals nestling in and about his bed, from the hugh black pig and the tiny donkey, down to cats, dogs, sheep, and calves, half-starved hens, clean fat rats and cosmopolitan fleas.

Food, farming, and village life

The Azorean shoreline generally consists of steep cliffs and headlands that project out over the water. The land slopes toward peaks in the center of the islands, leaving the lower, flatter perimeters as the most suitable for habitation. That is where the villages are located — small clusters of white buildings surrounding a steepled church. Villages were busy in the 1800s, serving as the hub of social activity and business. Farmers tended to livestock and worked the fields during the day, returning to their homes in the villages at night. Days of rest were spent at church, lazily socializing with neighbors, playing and singing songs in homes, in the streets, and in the small plazas.

The streets were paved with small squares of black basalt inlaid with white granite in the form of many designs, from human figures and animals to boats and crops. There were many shops: clothing stores, grocery and liquor stores, butcher shops, blacksmiths, boot and shoe makers, tailors, and apothecaries. Most of these shops did not post signs outside or do anything to draw attention to themselves. The larger towns had hospitals.

Every street is handsomely paved…and the surface is neat and true as a floor…. Everywhere are walls, walls, walls — and all of them are tasteful and handsome — eternally substantial…. The town and the island are miracles of cleanliness.

— Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad


There were no wells on the islands. In the villages, cisterns were used to collect rainwater. When rain was scarce, villagers, usually the women, had to walk several miles to find spring water, which they collected in wooden pots, balancing them on their heads to carry them back home.

The villages were separated by broad fields that sloped down to the sea. Many of these fields were crisscrossed by rows of bamboo, which farmers used to divide the land among each other, among different crops, and between cultivation and pasture. On some islands, the volcanic rock that littered the land was gathered and used to construct walls, known as currais, that served as windbreaks for crops — especially wine grapes — giving the fields and hillsides, to this day, the appearance of a checkerboard.

Each morning farmers trekked from their homes out to the fields and returned in the evening. Dairy men rose well before dawn to ride horses or donkeys several miles to tend to their stock in the higher altitudes. After milking the cows, the dairy man might return home about noon, rest an hour, then work in the fields for the rest of the day. Carts drawn by horses or donkeys were used to get produce from the farm to the village, town, or port.

Fish and thick soups were the staples of the Azorean diet. Fish was a common lunch among the peasant class, eaten fried with garlic or lemon sauce or hot pepper sauce, olive oil, and onions. Soups were thick and came in many varieties — vegetable, potato, chicken, fish— and were usually served with bread. Other common foods were yams, potatoes, cabbage, melons, squash, beans, grains, corn, cornbread, cheese, and spicy pork sausages. Special dishes were prepared for religious festivals, including meat broths and sugary fried dough. Wine has been abundant on the islands since the sixteenth century.

The Azores were mostly a subsistence agrarian community in the 1800s. The smaller and more remote islands, like Flores and Corvo, were almost exclusively so, aside from providing food, supplies, and repairs for passing ships. But the larger islands did produce a few cash crops, notably oranges. Azoreans began growing them along with other citrus fruits in the sixteenth century, and by the nineteenth century they’d become the primary cash crop—and England the primary market. By 1854, about the time Frank Freitas probably left the Azores, the islands were shipping sixty million oranges and fifteen million lemons to the city of London alone.

Oranges were delicate; they could bruise or spoil quickly, so production and shipping was a sensitive operation. Smaller, faster ships were needed used to get them to England as quickly as possible. But smaller ships also meant smaller holds that could carry less cargo. Plus oranges couldn’t be stacked very high, lest the fruit at the bottom spoil. E ventually, English merchants came to the islands to oversee the process. In time many of these them built summer homes, which in turn became permanent homes, and many of these grand townhouses still stand, in stark contrast to the humble homes of the natives. In the 1880s, disease struck Azorean orange trees and the crop was decimated. Meanwhile, the market collapsed as England sought oranges from competing producers, including California and Florida.


Education was not important in the Azores of the nineteenth century. The primary concern, as with many peasant societieis, was survival. Every able-bodied member of the household was required to do their part, including children, for whom schooling would have meant abrogating essential household duties. Many if not most Azoreans in the nineteenth century were illiterate. The illiteracy rate was higher for men than for women.




  • A History of the Azores, Volume V, James H. Guill, Golden Shield Publications, Tulare, Calif., 1993.
  • And Yet They Come: Portuguese Immigration from the Azores to the United States, Jerry R. Williams, Center for Migration Studies, New York, 1982.
  • Azoreans to California: A History of Migration and Settlement, Robert L. Santos, Alley-Cass Publications, Denair, Calif., 1995.
  • Azores, David Sayers, Bradt, 2010.