Windmills of The Azores


When you are isolated by hundreds of miles from the next nearest landfall, it stands to reason that you may develop a few idiosyncrasies of your own. Similarly, when you are stuck in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, in a windswept location, with limited fuel resources on land, it also stands to reason that you will look to the wind as an energy source.

With these two situations combined, it's therefore not surprising that the Azores archipelago has a rich and unique windmilling heritage.

The Azores is a group of 9 islands, which make up a semi-autonomous region of Portugal, and windmills can still be found on 7 of those. The islands split into 3 groups - the western islands of Flores and Corvo, the central group of Faial, Pico, São Jorge, Graciosa, and Terceira, and the eastern pairing of São Miguel and Santa Maria.

One of the problems that arises with the Azores windmills is how to describe them - many simply do not fit the simple post/smock/tower categories that tend to be used for English windmills. There are certainly some tower mills to be seen, but there are also a very large number of mills that defy simple categorization - some look almost like a smock mill perched on top of a squat tower, but on closer inspection the "tower" turns out to be solid, and the closest description would actually be as a post mill! Added to that, the individual islands tended to make their own specialized adaptations, giving rise to distinctive island specific traits.

Fortunately, in terms of locating the windmills, there are a number of existing surveys that can be consulted, though as these are mostly in Portuguese, some effort is required to make full use of them. The most informative such survey is Luís Bettencourt's "Inventário dos Moinhos de Vento dos Açores" from 2008, which covers the central group of islands. This survey has brief details of each mill, plus a photo, and a map. The fieldwork for this considerable effort obviously took place over a number of years, so the photos may predate the publication date by quite some time - and it is interesting (and sometimes very disheartening) to see the change in condition that has occurred in the years since this survey. The maps are also invaluable in pinpointing the exact locations of the mills - though the maps used for this are Portuguese military maps from (I believe) the 1960's, and in places the road system and buildings have changed quite a lot since those days.

As well as the wind, milling on the islands also used water power, animal power, and no doubt manual labour as well. This has given rise to a huge number of millstones (all constructed from the local volcanic rocks), and their evidence can be found all over the place, as garden ornaments, table tops, general building supplies etc.

As witnessed by the government supported inventory surveys, the windmills are recognized as a considerable cultural asset, featuring strongly in tourist images of the islands. However such recognition does not necessarily lead to any more practical support for the upkeep of the mills, and the condition of various restored mills has clearly fluctuated over the years - with at least one example of a restored mill being destroyed after it passed into local government hands. Other mills remain in private hands, and have had no work done on them at all, and although the derelict structures have a beauty and fascination of their own, their future survival, exposed as they are to the same winds which once provided them with motive power, is of course in doubt.

Some common themes

Although there is a huge variety of mills in the Azores, a number of repeated themes can be seen.

More features of pedestal mills

The mill body is round, with mostly vertically arranged weatherboarding, with the boards butted flush against each other, not overlapped. The interior framing is as you might expect, a series of vertical timbers which bridge the gap between 2 more substantial wooden rings, one at the pedestal level, and a slightly smaller ring at the top of the body. Each upright has a horizontal timber that separates it at around the mid-height from the next one (generally following the curve of the outer body). There is also a series of angled timbers which appear to brace the upright timbers, being higher on the timber that is nearest the front of the mill (forming a 2 zigzag line stretching back to each side). I was surprised that this zigzag brace had been omitted from the last panel to the left of the door (as you look from the inside out) in one of the rebuilt mills I saw, thinking this was a mistake. However when I saw the same omission in a derelict mill, I realized that this last panel was used to house candles to light the mill - so omitting the brace meant that there was no wood directly above the candle flame. The panel was also protected by a sheet of metal.

Above the walls, the roof is conical, with a dormer like opening for the windshaft. The single pair of millstones is sited centrally above the post, with the bedstone fixed, but the runnerstone adjustable via a tentering screw to the right of the stone which raises and lowers the beam below the stones on which the base of the upright shaft sits. The upright shaft is generally a square iron rod, which thus serves as a damsel to vibrate the grain into the stones. The runner stone is turned by a rynd on this shaft, which carries a gear wheel at its upper end. This upper gear meshes with a gear on the windshaft - note that where a propeller is used then the windshaft mounted gear was smaller than the upright shaft gear, giving a reduction in rotational speed. Some form of braking was often in evidence on a separate disk on the windshaft, not on the gear wheel (which often had radial cogs meshing with the face mounted cogs of the gear on the upright shaft).

I assume that the whole of the upright shaft was removed to allow the runner stone to be lifted to dress the stones. Some mills had a permanently installed stone crane to the left of the millstones. The grain was held in a small hopper ahead of the upright shaft, and the flour was collected from the rear of the stones, towards the door of the mill. There were examples of both wooden tuns, and sheet metal ones. Out the rear of the mill there was a flat level area, in larger mills this comprised a full balcony, possibly even roofed, and an angled ladder down to ground level, which also served as a tailpole for winding the mill.

The mills of Pico

Of the three islands I visited, I was least impressed with the mills of Pico. Pico has a series of mills which have been reconstructed with a definite eye for the tourist potential, but a somewhat lower regard for historic preservation or accuracy. These range from the mill at Calheta de Nesquim where the rotatable "wooden" body of the mill has been reconstructed as a fixed cement rendered masonry tower, through the mill at Ponta Rasa whose sails and indeed the whole mill at some time was neon outlined, to the mill at Companhia de Cima who's recent reconstruction left a whole pile of original parts unused. The mill in the Unesco World Heritage vineyard landscape at Criação Velha is clearly an extensive (and expensive) rebuild, with almost all external material appearing to have been replaced, and the one view I have seen of the interior suggests that no original material was reused there either.

Similarly worrying, a mill just a few miles from the Unesco site, that was subject to earlier preservation and was in apparent fair repair around about 5 years ago, (and which is similarly owned by the same town council) has been recently destroyed, despite its prime location as a tourist spot in the island's main (only!) town.

The São Jorge windmills

Whilst not restricted just to São Jorge, there is a particular style of mill found particularly on that island. This consists of a masonry built base which houses the millstones, topped with a very narrow wooden tower which holds the propeller. The entire wooden tower is rotated in to the wind using a y-shaped tailpole which attaches to each side of the tower. The roof of the base typically has a number of indentations or grooves perpendicular to its edge, which provide 'tick-points' so that the tailpole can rest in them, and be prevented from rotating round to either side.

The Islands in more detail


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Last updated 03/03/2017 Text and images © Mark Berry, 1997-2017 -