brad brace contemporary culture scrapbook

September 28, 2008

When land came up from the sea

Filed under: azores,global islands — admin @ 12:29 pm

It was not a way of life native-born Americans would recognize, though it is remembered by a number of people who lived in the Azores Islands in the days before the Internet, before television, in the days when there were not even that many radios in the village of Capelo, a farming and whaling community on the Azorean island of Faial.

The residents of Faial did many of the things we do. They worked in stores or for the government, but a number of them did things not too many in Massachusetts do. They kept cattle, driving them to market on foot.

They hunted whales, too, from open boats, the harpooner standing in the bow, ready to plunge his lance into the huge beast. In earlier times, sure-handed and sharp-eyed Faialense men found their way to New Bedford, where their harpoon skills were welcome. Faial is a small island, 107 square miles, but not unlovely. The Portuguese poet Raul Brandao called it Ilha Azul, the “blue island,” because of the hydrangeas that cover the island in the summer.

On Sept. 27, 1957, life on Faial changed in an eruption that would scatter Faial’s people across the globe. On that day an undersea volcano erupted, sending ash hundreds of feet into the sky, burying and collapsing houses in the village of Capelo and ruining farmland. The eruption lasted a year, from September 27, 1957 until October 24, 1958.

Volcanic activity was nothing new to the islanders. The Azores are a volcanic chain of islands. There are places in the islands where people lower clay pots full of food into cracks in the earth, where the food will be cooked by the escaping steam. There is an inactive volcano on Faial, its crater filled with water. There is a volcano on the Azorean island of Pico.

Miraculously, no one died in the 1957 eruption, even as the volcano rose from the sea, creating new land and obliterating the island’s port, forcing whalers to seek other work. The United States, already home to Portuguese Americans, stepped in with the 1958 Azorean Refugee Act. That law made more visas available for Azoreans. In the 20 years between 1960 and 1980, 175,000 Azoreans — a third of the islands’ population — left their islands for America. They flooded into Southeastern Massachusetts, taking factory work. They bought dairy farms in California, another destination for Azoreans.

Today, 50 years after land came up from the sea, the far-flung sons and daughters of Faial remember.

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