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Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Brief History of the American Consulate in the Azores

The Consulate
Used with permission, ©Chong Farquhar, 2004

The American Consulate in the Azores
A Very Brief History

The ties between the Azores and the United States go back to the beginning of our country.  The Continental Congress maintained contact with the islands to coordinate the travel of our emissaries seeking to gain European support for our Revolution, and in 1777 Thomas Truxtun and the Continental Navy sloop “Independence” took three British “prizes” off the coast.  President George Washington appointed the first official U.S. Consul, John Street, in 1795, when Thomas Jefferson was our Secretary of State.  We've had representatives here ever since, and the U.S. Consulate in Ponta Delgada is the oldest continuously operating U.S. Consulate in the world.  At first, the main American Consulate was located on the island of Faial, and we had branch offices in Ponta Delgada and, for a short time, a Consular Agent on the island of Flores as well.  In 1917 all Consulate operations moved to Sao Miguel (St. Michael).
After John Street was named Consul in Horta, Thomas Hickling was appointed Vice Consul in Ponta Delgada, also in 1795.  Thomas Hickling was a young American businessman who moved to Sao Miguel in 1769, after a falling out with his conservative father over the younger Hickling's active support for the Revolution.  Hickling was an energetic entrepreneur and left mementos and stories that survive to this day.  One is a rock with his name carved into it and the date "1770" that is situated near one of the bubbling volcanic pools in the city of Furnas.  He also left other tangible reminders: a summer palace he called "Yankee Hall" in Furnas which became the genesis of the now world-class formal gardens of the Terra Nostra Hotel and the first U.S. Consulate building in Ponta Delgada, which is now the Hotel Sao Pedro, a school for hoteliers.  His principal residence, in severe disrepair, can still be seen in the city of Livramento, a suburb of Ponta Delgada.
Thanks to the efforts of former Consul William F. Doty (Principal Officer 1924-1928), the Consulate has a list of all Consuls and Vice Consuls who have served here since 1795.  This is a small Consulate and always has been; the list spans 200 years, but only three pages.  Nonetheless, the Azores and Azorean-Americans have figured prominently in American history, and stories and reports in Consulate files provide intriguing glimpses into the contributions they and the American diplomats posted here have made during great historical events.
During the 19th Century, representing the United States became a tradition for the Dabney family.  Three generations of Dabneys served the U.S. here, until the family departed in 1892.  In 1807 President Thomas Jefferson appointed John Bass Dabney American Consul on Faial Island.  During the war of 1812, he kept track of British naval movements through the archipelago.  Toward the end of that war, the Azores became a battleground for U.S. and British warships.
On September 26, 1814, an American privateer, the “General Armstrong,” was in Horta harbor on Faial Island to re-supply.Portugal was neutral, and the “General Armstrong” was given permission to stay for 24 hours. Suddenly, three British man-of-wars arrived at port, and Dabney sent his 21-year-old son to notify the “Armstrong’s” Captain, Samuel Reid. The British set upon the “General Armstrong,” but Reid and his men fought back tenaciously, inflicting over 200 casualties. In the end, Reid scuttled his ship to keep it from falling into British hands, but he caused so much damage to the British squadron that it delayed its mission to link up with the expeditionary force poised to attack New Orleans. Accordingly, the British were not able to land there until four days after Andrew Jackson took possession of the city. Meanwhile, Consul Dabney used his offices to help the surviving Armstrong crew get back home via a Portuguese merchant ship.
In 1826 Charles Dabney took over as Consul upon the passing away of his father and continued to protect American interests in the Azores for almost half a century. During his last years as Consul, he diligently kept track of Confederate naval activity in Azorean waters. The Confederate raider Alabama sank 10 Yankee whaling ships around the Azores, and its captain vowed to target Dabney's chandler enterprises because of his refusal to supply coal to Confederate ships. However, the rebel raider was not able to make good the threat before being sunk off the French coast in 1864 by the USS Kearsage.
The Dabneys were renown for their philanthropic work in the Azores, and Charles was called "Father of the Poor" by the local community. The family was also key in developing the New England whaling industry: six U.S. fishing vessels were recorded in 1827, peaking to several hundred toward the end of the century. In fact, the term "skeleton crew" has been linked to this era, wherein the hardnosed Yankee skippers would leave home with barely enough crew to sail in order to save on wages, picking up the bulk of the harpooners and crew in the Azores (particularly from the islands of Corvo and Flores). Herman Melville's masterpiece Moby Dick makes several references to the Azores (see in particular CH 27). It is no wonder, then, that the epicenter of the U.S.-Azorean community to this day is centered in New England. Other groups of the Azorean-American diaspora stretch to California, starting with the Gold Rush of the 1850's, and to Hawaii, bringing construction and cattle raising know-how when those islands were still an independent kingdom.
The Dabneys also remained linked with American social and intellectual life of the times. The Longfellows (poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's brother was a longtime tutor of the Dabney children), J.P. Morgan, artist William Morris Hunt and Samuel Clemens (aka "Mark Twain") were all guests at "Bagatelle," the whimsically named Dabney home in Horta, which still stands to this day.
Shortly after the U.S. entered World War I, the U.S. Navy set up what became known as the Mid-Atlantic Naval Base in Ponta Delgada. A young Assistant Secretary of the Navy named Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Ponta Delgada to inspect the facility. The base eventually hosted a squadron of American destroyers supported by submarines, a company of Marines, and some very early seaplanes to defend against the U-boat menace that attacked allied shipping around Azorean waters. U.S. military headquarters was set up in the building that had been Thomas Hickling's home.
The American presence in the Azores has also helped defend it on occasion. On the morning of July 4, 1917 a German submarine surfaced outside Ponta Delgada's breakwater and began firing on the city and our ships, killing a young girl in town. The American coal carrier "Orion" returned fire, and the U-boat fled. The captain of the Orion became a local hero, and they even named a brand of cigarettes for him. After the war, on December 10, 1918, the ship that carried Woodrow Wilson to Europe for the peace conference passed just beyond the city's seawall. The passing President was saluted by the town's residents and, most likely, by the American Consul.
The Azores again became hosts to American military forces during World War II when there was an urgent need to move massive amounts of men and materiel across the Atlantic. First on the island of Santa Maria, and later on Terceira, the U.S. established important air bases. During the Cold War, the base at Terceira played a key role in logistical planning for possible hostilities in Europe, in anti-submarine warfare operations, and in important actions in the Middle East.
Woodrow Wilson, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were not the only American presidents to visit the islands. President Nixon came to the Azores to speak with French President Georges Pompidou and Portuguese PM Marcelo Caetano about international monetary issues. More recently, in March 2003, Portuguese Prime Minister Durrao Barroso hosted a summit meeting on the Iraq crisis on Terceira Island. The meeting included American President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blaire and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. The summit was held at the Portuguese facility known as Airbase 4; we call it Lajes Field. Former President Jimmy Carter has also been a visitor to these islands during his peace missions to Africa. 
Today the U.S. Consulate continues to provide full consular services to the many American citizens on all of the islands that make up the archipelago. The autonomous Azorean regional government has its own elected president and legislature, and the Consulate in Ponta Delgada serves as the U.S. Government's main point of contact with the regional government and handles issues related to the U.S. presence at Lajes Field. Other essential missions include trade, cultural exchanges and immigrant and non-immigrant visas. During the summer of 2003, after almost forty years of operation in a waterfront building in downtown Ponta Delgada, the Consulate moved to a new building. Even though we are in a new facility, pictures of former employees and applications of former Azorean emigrants adorn office walls. We have not forgotten our past. We expect that the three-page list of officers assigned to the Consulate in Ponta Delgada to continue to grow as the Azores continue to play a role in world events. We will carry on the 200-year tradition of defending American interests and citizens in these nine islands, in the center of the Atlantic, where the American, European and African tectonic plates all come together.


Joe Abdo said...

I think you did a good job in covering the overall history of the US Consulate in the Azores. If you are interested in a more detailed history of the Dabney era on Faial, I would like to suggest my book "On the Edge of History." In addition to providing more information on this important period in Horta, it details the history of this interesting and important family, originally from Boston. As a San Diego resident you may be interested in knowing (if you don't already) that the last Dabney Consul, Samuel Wyllys Dabney, retired to California and died and is buried in the San Diego area.

Um Corisco said...

Thanks for the comment. I did not write it. It was done by a consulate employee. I have not seen your book,but will purchase it for my library.I did not know that the last Dabney Consul was buried in San Diego. I will research it. While president of the Portuguese Historical Center here in San Diego, we did several simposia on the Era of Discoveries, and one of the presentations was done by a friend of mine, that has since passed, on the Dabneys. Unfortunately, there is nor record of the presentation.
Thanks again for your input. Continue to visit. I will add items as time permits.