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1800: The Citrus Trade

From the gardens of the Solar Branco Eco-Estate you can see one of the original look-out towers where a watchman would alert the landowners of the approaching British ships, and thus the need to start picking the citrus fruit for its journey to London.

“Even today there is evidence of the great orange-growing industry that dominated in the 19th century; Grand townhouses reflect the wealth this crop generated, and the development of the countryside by land purchased for rural estates is significant history.” David Sayers

The majority of the citrus trade for the Azores was not between the mainland of Portugal, but with the United Kingdom. In the 1800s citrus was a luxury fruit, available in season only from November to May and most featured around Christmas time as a highly valued item by Victorian Londoners.

At first, English merchants came out to the Azores at the start of the season to supervise purchase and loading of the cargo, but by the mid-nineteen century, many along with their families lived permanently on São Miguel in their large houses, known as “Solars.” One of these was the Solar Branco Eco Estate.

Each fruit was picked as it turned from green to yellow / orange and was wrapped in a dry sheathing leaf of corn. Loading was done via small boats from the docks to the waiting ships. Speed in loading was vital, for should bad weather set in the vessel would have to wait out in to sea on partially loaded and several days might pass before the loading could be completed.

Side note: Orange as a colour didn’t exist until the fruit came to Europe. Previously, yellow-red was called simply that: yellow-red, or even just red. The word “orange” come from the Sanskrit term for the orange tree, nāraṅga. Traders travelled with the nāraṅga across the Middle East, and it became the Arabic naaranj. It lost that first “n” in both French and English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “orange” started to be used in English to describe cloth and clothing in the 16th century. This also coincided with Portuguese sailors bringing a sweeter, tastier orange from China to Europe. “China apple” is still a synonym for orange in a number of languages, including Dutch and Ukrainian. But in Europe and beyond, “orange” became both the name for the colour and the fruit. Even in China, the orange’s likely birthplace, the characters for the fruit and the colour are the same.

By the mid-1800’s several hundred boats and several thousand men were employed in the trade. The topsail schooner was the favoured ship, able to sail quickly between Ponta Delgada and London with this valuable but quickly perishable cargo. At the height of the trade-in 1854 60 million oranges and 15 million lemons were recorded coming to the UK form the Azores.

In 1860, merchants accidentally brought an insect called “colchanero” (a mosquito that attacks the leaves of the orange) from Brazil. This drastically reduced the production of citrus. Combined with increased supplies from other countries, including California and Florida, ironically from orchards established with parent trees taken from the Azores, the trade slowed and the remaining trees were left to die or cut down to make way for new products to trade.