Stepping Stones in the Atlantic

Since their discovery during the 1400s, the Atlantic Islands served as stepping stones for ships traveling from Europe to the Far East and then the West. In 1580, the Spanish monarchy took control of Portugal and all her possessions, including the Cape Verde Islands, Madeira, and the Azores archipelago. Spain already controlled the Canary Islands. When King Charles I of England warred with Spain between 1625 and 1629, English ships were unwelcome at the Atlantic Islands, leaving them no place to restock their water and wood while crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

But by 1630, the wars had ended and the Arabella, the Talbot, and other English ships were welcome in the Azores once again. [Dutch ships were still excluded because the Dutch had been harder on the Spanish during the wars than the English had been.]

Most ships sailing from England reached the Azores by the fifth week. The easternmost island, Santa Maria, was/is about 930 miles from Lisbon, Portugal. Theoretically, passengers could debark on solid ground, stretch their legs, and relax with a mug of ale at one of the inns, while the crew restocked their ship. From Santa Maria to Corvo, the westernmost island, was/is 370 miles. And the final stretch from Corvo to North America was/is about 2100 miles. Depending on the wind and tides, the trip across the Atlantic took from two to five months.

Pico Island in the middle cluster of the Azores archipelago was easy to find from out at sea. It is dominated by a pointed volcano that is over seven thousand feet high. For obvious reasons, the mountain was referred to by the Spanish as Pico [Peak].


Pico Island, Azores, Portugal.

Many ships sought refuge in the sheltered harbor at Faial Island, which is about four miles from Pico Island and half the size. [During World War I, airplanes on the way from America to Europe stopped on Faial Island for gas.]

The waters around the Azores archipelago became a haven for pirates, since so many ships passed through them. You will read about Captain John Smith’s capture by French pirates near Flores Island in 1616. [The island in the western group was named after the beautiful flowers found there.]

You will also read about the capture of the Madre de Dios as she stopped at the Azores. As we mentioned, English pirates were some of the naughtiest of all. They most coveted the plate fleets that sailed from Mexico to Spain, and the merchant ships that sailed from India and the Spice Islands to Spain. As we illustrated for you earlier, ships rounding the southern tip of Africa sailed west to catch the currents in a circular pattern before they turned east to Europe. The booty stolen by Sir Walter Ralegh’s fleet from the Madre de Dios was the most valuable heist captured during Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

Next article: The Difference Between Pirating and Privateering