The citrus trade in the Azores.
And almost 200 years later, an English couple have returned to the Azores to re-grow and return the citrus orchards to their former glory. For a citrus inspired tour by Mr B please click here.
Even today there is evidence of the great orange-growing industry that dominated several of the islands in the 19th century; look in the numerous small gardens with their tall enclosing hedges of banksias and pittosporum. Grand townhouses also reflect the wealth this crop generated, and the development of the countryside by land purchased for rural estates is significant history. Far less known are the implications all these oranges had for transportation between the Azores and England, the major export customer. Citrus was a luxury fruit, available in season from November to May only, and its peak of desirability for the Victorians was Christmas when oranges and lemons were the fruit to have displayed on the table. And most of these came from the Azores. ‘Buy my fresh St Michael’s’ was a common streetseller’s cry, although it is doubtful that, like today, many customers would have known where ‘St Michael’s’ was. Oranges were grown in the Azores already by the 16th century, brought in from Lisbon, in turn, introduced by Portugal’s Indian viceroys. From 1600 to 1800, the citrus trade steadily increased, with most oranges coming from Valencia and lemons from Sicily, but it was the ending of the Napoleonic Wars that accelerated exports from the Azores so that by the mid-1800s, several hundred ships and several thousand seamen were employed in the trade.
At first English, merchants came out to the Azores at the start of the season to supervise purchase and loading, but by the mid 19th century many, along with their families, lived permanently on São Miguel in their large houses. Each fruit was picked as it turned from green to yellow and was wrapped in a dry sheathing leaf of the Indian corn cob. Loading was done with small boats from the shore taking the boxes out to the waiting ships. Speed in loading was vital, for should bad weather suddenly blow in, the vessel would have to stand out to sea only part-loaded, and several days might pass before loading could be completed. In 1854, 60 million oranges and 15 million lemons were exported to London alone, using at least 70 vessels
It is recorded that the first ship home sold all its cargo within six hours at three guineas a box (£ 3.15). When others arrived, 47 ships within 40 hours, the price fell to 4/ 6d (22 ½ p). These schooners flourished until about 1860; steam was already transporting lemons from Sicily by the early 1850s, but there was no harbour suitable in Ponta Delgada for steamships, a real problem in bad weather if they had to stand off burning coal, with no bunkering facilities onshore. About ten years later, harbour construction began and the schooners’ days were numbered, with an ever-decreasing number being chartered up until about 1870. Then, in the 1880s, disease struck the orange trees and harvests plummeted, by which time supplies from other countries, including California and Florida, became available, from orchards established with parent trees taken from the Azores.