The Real Atlantic Islands

In this article, we will give you the geographical descriptions of the principal archipelagos involved in our story. In later articles about Portuguese exploration of the African Coast, we will tell you how they were colonized. The islands served as convenient stepping stones for ships sailing long distances around and across the Ocean Sea.

The Azores

The Azores archipelago lies west of Portugal and consists of nine major islands grouped in three clusters. The islands began appearing on European maps as early as 1351. But the Portuguese did not officially claim them until 1424.

Geographically, the Azores are the tips of the highest peaks in a long mountain range that runs from north to south under the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Iceland is at the northern end of that range.

Map of the Ocean Floor, National Graphic Magazine, 1968.(1)

The easternmost island, Santa Maria, is due west of Portugal about 900 miles. Corvo Island [Corvo meant Crow(2), lies at the western extreme, and is about 2100 miles from the coast of North America. The distance between Santa Maria and Corvo is 370 miles.

As you might expect, Santa Maria was the first island to be discovered, then probably São Miguel. Terceira was the third, hence its name, the Third. Sometimes Terceira was known by the more romantic name Isla Lilás, for Island of Lilacs or Violet Island. Imagine sailing up to an island covered with lilacs.

Pico Island, in the middle cluster, is dominated by a pointed volcano [Pico for Peak] that is over 7000 feet high and easy to spot from out at sea.

The islands are about a third of the way from Europe to America. During the 1500s and 1600s, ships anchored in the sheltered harbor in Faial Island, which was just beyond Pico when sailing west. John Winthrop stated in his journal that the Arabella stopped at the Azores on her way to America after four weeks at sea. Theoretically, his fellow passengers could have debarked on solid ground, stretched their legs, and relaxed with a mug of ale at one of the inns in Faial Harbour, while the crew restocked the Arabella’s hold with water and wood.

As we explained, the Volto do Mar forced ships returning from India and the Spice Islands to sail west to the Azores after rounding the Cape of Good Hope before they could sail east to ports in Europe.

With so many ships filtering through the Azores, the surrounding waters became infested with pirates; the most coveted targets were the plate fleets [ships carrying silver and gold coins] that sailed from Mexico to Spain.

During World War I, airplanes on the way from America to Europe stopped at the Azores for gas.

The Madeira Archipelago

If you head south from Portugal and follow the west coast of Africa, the first island grouping you will reach is the Madeira Archipelago. The luscious and fertile Madeira Island is accompanied by tiny Porto Santo and a strip of islands known as the Desertas. Madeira could easily have been the paradise island of ancient legends, the same islands Pliny the Elder called the Purple Islands [for the lilacs] or the Islands of the Blessed [Fortunate Islands]. Historians suspect the Vikings visited them between 900 and 1300 CE.

Even though Madeira first appeared on European maps in 1339, history finds the Portuguese mariners unaware of the islands when they came upon Porto Santo in 1418 and then Madeira in 1419. The Portuguese developed Funchal Harbour on the southern coast of Madeira to serve as a layover for ships sailing south from Lisbon to Guinea during the slave trade and then later during the period of their Asian empire. Christopher Columbus’ father-in-law, Captain Bartolomeu Perestrello, helped settle Pôrto Santo. As a result, the king of Portugal awarded Captain Perestrello the captaincy [military governorship] of the island. We will tell you more about that when we discuss Columbus.

Rendering of Madeira Island by Luis Miguel P. Freitas.(3)

South of Madeira is another teensy archipelago called the Savage Islands. The Savage Islands are usually grouped with the Madeira archipelago, but sometimes with the Canaries farther south.

The Canary Islands

103 miles south of the Savage Islands, and 62 miles west of Morocco lie the Canary Islands. The archipelago consists of seven main islands. Crowning Tenerife Island – near the middle of the archipelago – is Mount Tiede, the third highest volcano in the world if measured from its base on the ocean floor. A ring of cumulus clouds surrounds the peak on clear days. 103 miles south of the Savage Islands, and 62 miles west of Morocco lie the Canary Islands. The archipelago consists of seven main islands. Crowning Tenerife– near the middle of the archipelago – is Mount Tiede, the third highest volcano in the world if measured from its base on the ocean floor. A ring of cumulus clouds surrounds the peak even on clear days. Like Pico in the Azores, Mount Tiede provided an easy-to-find landmark for mariners out at sea. The year Christopher Columbus visited the archipelago, Mount Tiede was active and erupted. He wrote in his journal that he “saw a great fire issuing from the peak of the island of Tenerife that was extremely high.”(3)

The Canary Islands were already inhabited when the Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks and then the Romans visited the islands. Greek documents referred to the indigenous people as the Guanche, and stated that the Guanche “worshiped dogs.” The reference may be to seals, which were sometimes called sea dogs.

The Romans claimed possession of the Canaries as part of the province of Mauritania. Roman historian Pliny the Elder (29 CE – 79 CE) wrote that King Juba II, who was the king of Mauritania from 25 CE to 23 CE, named the islands after the “vast multitudes of dogs of a very large size found there.” The Latin word for dogs is canes, hence Canaries. [In other words, the islands were not named after the small yellow canary bird.]

By 1375, the Canaries were well known in Europe, as you can see by the map below drawn by Abraham Cresques (1325-1387) of Majorca.

Abraham Cresques, Catalan Atlas, 1375.(5)

A close-up of Madeira and the Canary Islands on Abraham Cresques’ Catalan Atlas, Majorca, 1375.(6)

According to DNA studies, the Guanche were related to the Berbers who lived across the water channel on the mainland of North Africa. The Guanche were more primitive than the mainland Berbers. They used stone tools, not iron, and certainly not bronze. When the Castilians of today’s Spain began colonizing the islands in 1402 – under King Enrique III(Henry) –, they immediately tried to enslave the Guanche to work on the sugar and grape plantations. The Guanche fought back from their cave-like homes hidden in the hills. Not until 1495, three years after Christopher Columbus’ first voyage, were they beaten into submission by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand’s forces.

The Canaries were a stopping point for ships sailing from Europe to Africa and Central America during the Age of Discovery [1400s] and the resulting slave trade. Ships stopped in Santa Cruz on Tenerife, and at Las Palmas on Gran Canaria. From there they caught the “trade winds” heading west to America or south along West Africa.

The Cape Verde Archipelago [aka Cabo Verde]

The last major archipelago the Portuguese discovered lies 350 miles west of Cabo Verde [Cape Verde, verde translated to green] on Africa’s coast between 14 and 18 degrees north latitude. The Cabo Verde archipelago is comprised of ten principal volcanic islands with some little islands. They were the location of the first European settlements in the Tropic of Cancer and, for a short time, served as the customs for the Guinea slave trade. Author and reader José Carlos Horta adds that “People from Cabo Verde served in the crews of ships and as officers of the army. .. The rest of the Portuguese army and the garrisons of forts – more than 100 forts in India and 150 in Asia –  were armed slaves bought in African slave markets and trained in Santiago, Cabo Verde.”(7)


  1. Map of the Atlantic Ocean Floor, National Geographic Magazine, 1968. Image source url:
  2. Both Corvo and Flores were labeled Corvi Marini (Marine Crow) on early charts, which led to the name of the large black crow-like cormorant sea bird.
  3. Rendering of Madeira Island, by Luis Miguel P. Freitas [CC BY-SA 2.5 ( Image source: Wikimedia Commons
  4. Quote from David Hunter’s The Race to the New World, p. 48.
  5. Cresques, Abraham. Catalan Atlas, Majorcan Cartographic School, Majorca, 1375. The atlas has been housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France [formerly the French Royal Library] since the time of King Charles V. {{PD-old}} Public domain. Image source:
  6. Cresques, Abraham. Catalan Atlas. Close-up of Madeira and the Canary Islands. 1375. {{PD-Old}} Public Domain. Map housed in the Bibliotheque national de France. Image source:
  7. José Carlos Horta noted that when the Age of Discovery and the Portuguese Empire ended, “the slaves were liberated from the garrisons and Cabo Verde creole [a native language mixed with a foreign language to become a new stable language] became the lingua franca of India and Africa.” He also wrote that the population was diminished as a result of periodic droughts.
  8. For additional information on the Azores, check out this excellent resource:

Next article: Ancient Maps and Documents Resurface