Crossing the Ocean Sea – Claiming the Azores

Claiming the Azores – The Flemish Connection to Newfoundland

By 1450, the Portuguese had claimed the two eastern groupings of the Azores archipelago. They did not yet know about the third grouping to the west of Flores and Corvo Islands. Henry the Navigator wanted to populate the islands as quickly as possible because occupation was ten-tenths of the rule.

On March 2, 1450, he issued a license, possibly the first of its kind, to Jácome de Bruges(1) of Flanders to lead a colony of seventeen Flemish families to Terceira to set up a plantation. Terceira seemed to be the most fertile of the islands. One of the first Flemings to whom he granted land was Fernão D’Ulmo.(2) D’Ulmo settled on the north side of the island at a place that became known as Quatro Ribeiras. Terceira’s first church would be built there [Santa Beatriz]. Since the harbor was insufficient, later settlers planted on the southern and eastern coasts of the island. [We will return to Fernão D’Ulmo in a later article when he is granted a patent to explore the North Atlantic.]

Jácome de Bruges was the son of a wealthy Flemish merchant family. Flanders was part of the Duchy of Burgundy. Jácome had been recommended to Henry by a member of the Burgundy royal court. As we mentioned earlier, Henry’s one and only surviving sister, Isabella, became the Duchess of Burgundy in 1430 when she married Philip the Duke of Burgundy. Henry probably learned from his sister that Flanders was over-populated, and that the Flemings were trying to escape the 100 years war between France and England. He recommended to Isabella that she encourage her Flemish subjects to populate the Azores. It turned out to be a very popular move. During the following decades, over two thousand Flemings moved there, mostly farmers. As a result, the Azores were nicknamed the Flemish Isles.

Jácome’s lieutenant, a sea captain named Diogo de Teive, helped govern the island. Always on the lookout for new islands and fishing grounds, in 1452 De Teive sailed northwest. His order stated that he was to search for the Island of Seven Cities. Maybe he was following up on the story reported earlier. The undocumented story is that “on his way back to Terceira from the Terra de Bacalhau, he came upon two previously unknown islands.”

Flores was named, obviously, after the beautiful flowers there. Corvo meant crow. It is believed the name came from the crow-like birds called sea-crows, which we now call cormorants.

The mystery is the reference in the legend to Terra de Bacalhau? Terra de Bacalhau meant Land of the Codfish. The Portuguese would use that term to mean Newfoundland. The reference hints that the Portuguese knew about the abundant fishing banks off Newfoundland long long before John Cabot officially discovered the island for the British in 1497, forty-five years [and two generations of sea captains] later.

If you are trying to determine if the Flemings who moved to Terceira in 1450 already knew about the fantastic fishing grounds offshore from Newfoundland, then consider the following factors:

  • Terceira Island lies only 1000 nautical miles from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
  • The Norwegian Vikings had planted colonies on Newfoundland 477 years earlier, and the colonies remained active for another 200 years. Through word of mouth, the Vikings [i.e. the Norwegians and Danes] most likely passed information about the Newfoundland Banks down to their descendants.
  • The shores of Flanders, England, Norway, and Denmark all faced the same North Sea.
  • There were hundreds, maybe thousands of European fishermen sailing around the North Atlantic during the 1300s and early 1400s. Norwegian, Flemish, Danish, and English seamen visiting the various ports around the North Sea communicated with each other.
  • As we learned earlier, Edward III of England sent a scout to survey Greenland and Iceland to see if he could annex the north Atlantic islands to England. At the same time, the Norwegians commissioned a survey of Greenland. To sail home to Norway or England from Greenland, a ship had to follow the Volta do Mar. The currents would have taken those surveyors past the Newfoundland Banks and past the Azores Archipelago.


  1. Known in Flanders as Jacob van Brugge.
  2. Known in Flanders as Ferdinand van Olm.

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