Capelinhos - The Volcano
The landscape of the western tip of Faial Island was marked by the magnificent building of the Capelinhos Lighthouse and by the hustle and bustle of rural life. On one side, the cultivation of the fields, and on the other, the importance of the ocean, not only for fishing, but also for whaling. In the mid-18th century, whaling was introduced to the islands by American whalers and became an important source of income for the Azores. During the 19th century, the island of Faial experienced a substantial cultural, social and economic stimulus with the arrival of the Dabney family. This American family held the role of consular representation of the United States to the Azores for many years and distinguished themselves with their contribution to the whaling industry and the production and export of oranges.
There were three whaling posts on the island of Faial – Porto Pim, Porto do Salão and Porto do Comprido – the last in the parish of Capelo. According to the witness Francisco Medeiros “(…) it was the biggest whaling station and the most productive in whale hunting in the archipelago of the Azores (…)”. This site, next to Ponta dos Capelinhos, hosted a small seasonal village, consisting of 12 thatched-roof huts, inhabited exclusively during the whaling season by whalers from Faial and Pico. When the weather conditions were unfavourable to go to sea, some of the whalers from Pico would fish off the coast and sell their catch around Capelo or salt it and trade it for cereal with the local population. Others would help local farmers as a means of subsistence. The whaling station at Porto do Comprido was closed in 1957, due to the eruption of the Capelinhos volcano, and was transferred to Varadouro, where it remained until the beginning of the 1980s.
The Capelinhos Lighthouse marked the coastline and shallows in that area to passing ships and from it, daily observations of the ocean conditions were made. On September 27th, 1957, around 6:45 am, “while observing the condition of the ocean, it was found that, about 1km west-northwest of the lighthouse, a light-blue blot, elongated in shape, contrasting with the darker shade of the sea, had formed; After a few minutes, inside the blot, the water began to bubble, then rose in a jet and left a circle of steaming stones, which for a moment floated, and then disappeared.” This was the first record of the start of the eruption of the Capelinhos volcano, which emerged approximately 1km from the lighthouse and would become the first submarine volcano to be duly studied and documented throughout its entire eruption.
This phenomenon arose in the ocean, from a depth of between 20 and 60 meters, with the emission of volcanic ash and water vapour. Its natural evolution caused a change in its behaviour, taking on subaerial (terrestrial) characteristics that alternated between explosive and effusive periods. At the beginning of October 1957, there was intense explosive activity, which produced large quantities of ash. Due to a change in the prevailing winds, this emission of ashes greatly affected the areas of Canto and Norte Pequeno, which caused their subsequent evacuations. However, the evacuated people would often return daily to care for the vineyards, harvest the corn, and visit their houses, but almost no one would spend the night in these areas. Life in this area became impossible; houses were damaged, fields could not be worked, and the water in cisterns became unfit for consumption for both people and cattle.
This abundant ash fall in the above-mentioned areas created serious problems, but which received the undivided attention of the Civil Governor, Dr. Freitas Pimentel. Some of these problems included arranging housing for the affected populations, the reestablishment of damaged communication routes and the lack of economic activity for those who experienced the complete destruction of their properties.
In May 1958, an intense seismic crisis almost completely destroyed the parishes of Capelo and Praia do Norte, resulting in the evacuation of these areas. Fractures, measuring almost 1 meter in width, opened along the ground, around 1,037 houses were damaged, and approximately 5,000 people were displaced. This intense seismic crisis led to the reactivation of a fault system, which resulted in phreatic volcanic activity in the caldeira of the island’s central volcano, with the appearance of fumaroles and the projection of hot, white mud. Following this episode, an evacuation plan for the entire island was elaborated, in case this central volcano became active, but which fortunately did not happen.
In September of 1958, the eruption began losing force and the activity decreased considerably. On October 24th of that same year, the last emission of lava was observed. After thirteen months of activity, the volcano became dormant. This eruption caused considerable material damage to dwellings in the surrounding parishes, such as Capelo, Praia do Norte and Cedros, as well as destruction to agricultural fields, which were covered by a thick layer of ash, but however, did not cause any fatalities.
The Capelinhos volcano was an unprecedented experience for scientists, allowing for a better understanding of the different processes that lead to the formation of volcanic islands, which is the case of the islands of the Azores. While its role in science was significant, the demographic impact caused by the eruption was no less important. By destroying a vast area of agricultural land and countless structures, this volcano led the affected populations to the much desired “American dream”.
The Azorean immigrant community already in the USA put strong pressure on local senators to aid the Azoreans affected by the eruption, which was fundamental in the creation of the Azorean Refugee Act (or Pastore Kennedy Act of 1958 or Public Law 85-892). This extraordinary piece of legislation altered the existing immigration quota to the USA, allowing for the concession of 1,500 visas issued to heads of families, and later increased to 2,000 visas until 1962. The process of petition letters amplified this migratory phenomenon. In the pages of the newspaper Diário Insular at the time (Terceira Island), it was reported that “the island of Faial experienced, in about three years” the emigration of more than 4,500 inhabitants, under the facilities granted by the US government as a consequence of the catastrophic eruption of 1957/1958.
It is extraordinary how a small, submarine volcano next to an island in the middle of the Atlantic was able to completely alter the geomorphology of an island, alter the laws of immigration of a country like the United States of America and become the motive for the completion of hundreds of scientific works on this type of volcanic activity. Sixty years later, its memory resides in the Capelinhos Volcano Interpretation Centre and in the remembrance of all those who witnesses it.