April 14, 2017

Flores: Fajãzinha

Since the last time I was here, I found what I believe to be the baptismal record for Caetano Freitas, my great-great grandfather who emigrated to the US.

It says he was born in Fajãzinha, a small village on the west coast of Flores between Lajes and Fajã Grande (closer to the latter). I had driven past it on my previous visit, but having this new information made me curious to check it out this time. It’s a beautiful village nestled down in a valley that ends at the ocean. Many years ago it had over 800 inhabitants, but today the population is only about 80 people. The fact that it has one of the largest churches on the island indicates that this was once a much more substantial community.

The place where we were staying in Lajes had a nice library, and I found a book I hadn’t seen before: Pierluigi Bragaglia’s Flores, Azores: Walking Through History – A Guide to the Island’s Paths and Past. Not only is it a good source for finding out where to hike, but it also puts the various walks in a deeply historical context. There were a few things in this book which have caused me to reconsider some of what I’ve previously imagined about Caetano’s life.

The family story is that Caetano arrived in the US in 1865 as a “stow-away” on a whaling ship. This is a common trope in Azorean genealogy circles, and is often viewed with a certain amount of suspicion as being a bit of romanticized drama that was likely used to embellish immigration narratives over the years of telling.

Bragaglia’s book gives some more detailed info about the history of whaling on Flores that I hadn’t known before:

“A short cruise through the history of the whaling era reveals that the Azores’ first coastal fleet was from Flores and started around 1856-57. The first two boats, ordered by José Constantine da Silveira e Almeida in the USA, were based in Fajã Grande for the first four years and finally captured Flores’ first whale in 1860...

...By December 1864, Flores had three whaling fleets and, from 1860, the island’s people were promoting this new method of fishing on Faial from where whaling spread to the other islands of the Azores... Flores’ early whaling supremacy is easy to understand: it is the closest island to North America and it was Americans who introduced whaling to the Azores, using Flores as a port of call from as early as the second half of the 18th century. Flores thus pioneered the industry in the archipelago, with this early pioneering period being known as the American phase.”

But what I found even more interesting and perhaps relevant to Caetano’s story is the section titled “The Paradise of Illegal Emigration”, which paints a much clearer picture of why and how he would have left. He quotes a letter sent by one Francisco Gomes from Rio de Janeiro and published in the weekly Iris newspaper of the island of Terceira:

...from the second half of the 19th century onwards the United States, in particular the state of California, replaced Brazil as the main destination for emigrants. And not even the patrols stationed in Santa Cruz, Lajes, Ponta Delgada and Fajã Grande or a corvette which, in the seas of the district of Horta, opens fire on any attempt at illegal emigration...seem to have been enough to deter the people of Flores from the lure of the new El Dorado. Apart from economic betterment, the other key factor which encouraged emigration was the fear of compulsory military service. In 1863, of the 75 youngsters registered for military service in the municipality of Lajes, 35 did not go before the military authorities, because they were absent in some unknown place – the majority would certainly already be on the other side of the Atlantic. Of the rest, 17 alleged various physical malformations, 14 argued that they measured less than the requisite 1.56 meters and only 9 were suitable for service.

Bragaglia then continues:

"On Flores, the most distant island from the government and the law, people only traveled on foot or by boat, as did the authorities who were unable to stop either the smuggling of goods on whaling ships or the trafficking of people – those without passports who, to avoid military service, escaped justice due to desperation or a desire for adventure, and took ship illegally. It is only natural that the west coast of Flores, the furthest limit of the archipelago, was the “paradise” of illegal emigration in the Azores, the coast most suited to escape “pelo alto”, a slang expression from Flores (meaning literally “by the high”). So it’s little surprise that Fajã Grande was the place sought out by people attempting to emigrate from other islands...

"Such intense emigration activity around Fajã Grande led the authorities to establish an armed counter-illegal emigration patrol which kept watch over the whole surrounding area. It could not, however, expect any support from the local population, most of whom had been subjected to centuries of repression under tenant farmer and state taxes and had developed a high degree of civil disobedience: they were not of a mood to assist the arm of authority whose purpose was to prevent escape from servitude.”

This lends a fair amount of credibility to the stow-away story if we tweak our definition of the term just slightly: Rather than thinking of it as someone who sneaks onto a ship without the captain’s knowledge, it probably makes more sense in this case to think of a stow-away as someone who sneaks onto a ship without going through the legal channels of obtaining a passport and emigrating. The captains of the whaling ships were likely well aware that Azorean men were coming aboard as crew, but the men still had to sneak onto the ships to avoid being caught by their own authorities and forced to serve in the military. I have previously imagined that the story of Caetano as stow-away was probably sketchy, and figured he may have left from the old port in Santa Cruz, Flores. But that would have been pretty blatant. Bragaglia’s book makes it seem entirely possible that he did leave pelo alto from Fajã Grande, not so far away from where he was born in Fajãzinha, in order to avoid military service.

In any case, it was very meaningful for me to walk around Fajãzinha and imagine Caetano here in the mid-19th century.