Have you ever passed by something, many times, without ever really giving it a second thought?

Of course you have.

Everyone has.

I take the same route to work every single day. At this point, I could probably do it in my sleep. Though I don't intend to try that.

I've had my job for almost five years (my "job-iversary" is right around Thanksgiving, which is quite nice), and I have a reasonably good idea of the different places and things that are on my commute. But one person can't notice everything.

It's not until someone else is in the car with me and they point something out that I've never noticed before, when I think, "How in the world can I drive this way five days a week, and never have noticed that?"

Well, apparently those blind spots carry right over into vacations.

I've been to Santa Maria four times. It's not a huge island. I think I've seen a good amount of it. I have certainly spent a decent amount of time in Vila do Porto.

You would think I would have noticed the fort on top of the hill.

Somehow, I managed, over the course of years, to completely overlook Forte de S. Bras.

I suppose at least, as it waited until the evening Manny took us to visit that little beach at Calhau da Roupa, we got to see the fort at its prettiest, when the moon was rising in the sky. We had passed it earlier after driving down to the marina, and collectively realized we had never stopped there.

The Forte de S. Bras was built in the 17th century, to defend Vila do Porto from maritime threats. Most interestingly, perhaps, from pirates and privateers. The Age of Exploration had also given rise to the Age of Piracy, and when you're on an island you have nowhere to run.

Vila do Porto is one of the oldest settlements in the region, dating back to around 1439, and it's a good spot for defense. According to information provided at the fort, the Vila offered the best spot for protecting the island from threats because it has "a good mooring place and a solid defense position."

Of course, the fort came along after a couple of centuries' worth of pirate attacks. It's difficult to know a precise number, but the major ones were recorded.

The first one came not long after Vila do Porto had been settled.

According to visitor information provided by the fort, in 1480, a ship of 40 privateers from Castile tried to climb the hill from the bay and attack the village. Taken by surprise but rallying, the Captain-Donatary Joao Soares led half a dozen of his men in a rush against the invaders.

They forced two of the privateers off the side of a cliff by throwing stones at them. The rest were forced to retreat back down to Calhau da Roupa (they didn't have time to look for sea glass, I bet). They gave up the effort and retreated to their ship, soon leaving the island behind them.

Another attack came in August 1576, this time from the French. Hundreds of privateers stormed the island, forcing people living in the Vila to retreat. Some men organized a resistance effort in a local church and held them off as best they could until help could arrive from Sao Miguel. Between that, and the villagers finding their courage and fighting back, the French were eventually forced to retreat.

The British attacked in 1589, but quickly retreated when Captain Bras de Sousa's gunmen opened fire on them.

One of the worst attacks came in June 1616. Algerian privateers stormed on shore and wreaked havoc for eight days. Locals tried to flee into the cliffs or wooded areas, but many were captured and held in a local church as prisoners. They were later taken to Algiers and sold into slavery.

These days, the fort is a picnic spot, a place to get the best view of the bay and take some great pictures. That's exactly what we did, minus the picnic.

But I'm also glad we took notice of it, and the time to realize what the Forte de S. Bras is really doing there.

The watch tower might be empty now, the guns long silent, but when you're standing at the top, looking out into ocean as far as the eye can see, you can imagine that the people who used to live on Santa Maria were glad that the fort was there, and that they didn't take it for granted.

 

Next time: Night cafe in Anjos.