Welcome to Lagos, Luz & Sagres - Some Portuguese and Algarve History




A brief history of Lagos, Portugal
The earliest known inhabitants of the Lagos area were the Lusitanian tribes. Phoenician ships are known to have regularly plied the coast of southern Spain (they founded the port of Cadiz) and Portugal and it is thought that the current location of Lagos was originally settled by them some 900 years BC as they made use of its natural harbour at the mouth of the River Bensafrim - moving the original settlement from the Iron Age hill fort based on the opposite side of the river. The Carthagians (or 'Carthaginians' - interchangeable) founded Portus Hanibalis (present day Portimão) circa 550 BC and Lagos would have come under their remit at that point. The Romans arrived in the 2nd century BC, they called the place Lacobriga (Camp of the Lake), and there are several Roman texts referring to the towns' excellent climate and fishing prospects, especially its suitability for making the special Roman condiment called garum which was shipped direct to Rome. Many Roman ruins have survived including fish salting tanks and the old slave market. From the beginning to the end of the 5th century the Visigoths ruled the town. The Moorish invasion of the Algarve began in 711 and they had conquered Lagos by 716 renaming it Zawaia. They were to stay until the 13th Century.

The Moors were finally driven out of the region in 1249 when Faro was conquered for the Christians (the ending of the long drawn out 'Reconquista') by Afonso III and the town then became a gathering point for the fleets sailing round Cape St. Vincent from Lisbon, before leaving to fight the Moors at Cueta, in Africa. The Burgundian dynasty was then established followed by the Aviz (or Avis) dynasty beginning in 1385. This was the starting point for what is now generally regarded as the greatest period in Portuguese history, a period known as 'The Age of Discoveries' and one in which Lagos played a leading role.

Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) known simply as 'O Navegador' to the Portuguese, was the third son of João I of Portugal, the founder of the Aviz dynasty, and of Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt of England, and it was he who initially started Portugal's great maritime empire from his base in Vila do Infante ('Princes Town' - modern day Sagres) by building a school of navigation and inspiring the design of the caravel. This ship was key to the Portuguese success because it combined speed and manoeuvrability (with the ability to sail upwind) with durability for heavy ocean seas. Although the technological base was at Sagres, Lagos is where the ships were built and harboured and where the merchants set-up their trading posts. Lagos therefore entered a period of great prosperity as Portuguese maritime adventurers went on to discover Madeira (1419), the Azores (1427), Gil Eanes rounded Cape Bojador (1434), Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope (1488) and later Vasco da Gama landed in Mozambique and then India in 1498. In 1500 Pedro Alvares Cabral 'officially' discovered Brazil. In 1522 Magellan circumnavigated the world. The slave market (Mercado dos Escravos - now an art gallery) was built during this period.

King Sebastian statue in the central square At the end of the 16th Century, the Boy-King Sebastian (Sebastião I) elevated the town to the rank of city. In his late teens, strong-willed and having been led to believe by sycophantic aides that he had a divine missiion as a Christian warrior, he gathered an army to invade Morocco. In 1578 a fleet was assembled at Lagos and he had his troops mustered in front of the castle before setting sail, where tradition says that they were addressed by Sebastian from the Manuelin window in the walls of the Governor's Palace. It was an ill-fated expedition, the army was routed in the battle of Alcácer-Quibir in Morocco and the King, who had no heirs, was killed, although his body was never found and a cult formed believing he would one day return - but there was no miracle.

King Philip II of Spain wasted no time in invading a rudderless Portugal and, cunningly renaming himself Felipe I, proclaimed himself King of Portugal. During his reign he entered into war with England, and Lisbon was one of the muster points for the Spanish Armada. This made the Algarve a target for Sir Francis Drake, who would harry the coast on his way to and from his inspections of the Spanish fleet lying in Cadiz. On one such raid Sir Francis attacked Lagos, but was rebuffed and left empty-handed so made his way to Sagres where he had more success and captured Sagres fort. For much of thev rest of the 17th Century the Algarve coast was at the mercy of several groups of pirates including the fearsome Corsairs. To help defend the area a series of small forts were constructed all along the coast and the Fortelezas built at this time in Lagos were at: Meia Praia, Ponta da Bandeira, Pinhão, Ponte de Piedade and Porto de Mós.

The Great Earthquake, on 1 November 1755, (an estimated 8.7 on the richter scale) that destroyed Lisbon and the resulting tsunami that swept across and devastated the Algarve coast, caused huge destruction in Lagos and many important buildings, such as the parish church of Santa Maria da Graça, within the oldest town walls, were lost forever. Others were very badly damaged but still retained some of their earlier features and have since undergone renovation, including the Church of Santa Maria with 16th-century traces, the 17th-century regimental storehouse next to it, and the 'golden' Church of Santo António which forms part of Lagos' museum. The Earthquake removed the political importance of the city. With his castle and all the principal buildings in ruins, the Governor of the Algarve moved to Tavira, close to the Spanish border.

The next notable event in the area was 'The Battle of Lagos', a naval skirmish between 14 British ships under the command of Sir Edward Boscawen and 12 French ships under M. de la Clue, which took place between the 18th and 19th August 1759 during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763). Two French vessels were lost and two captured near Lagos while the rest scarpered (very French...) and de la Clue was mortally injured.

In the 19th century, the Portuguese War between liberalists and absolutists resulted in Lagos being besieged for a short time. Otherwise this period was a quiet one for the town and fishing and whaling its mainstay, with tuna and sardines being the main catch.

The tourist boom of the 1970s, encouraged by the opening of Faro airport in 1965, helped to re-invigorate Lagos in the modern era. After the 1974 'Carnation Revolution' the subsequent abandonment of Portugal's overseas empire led to the country being deluged with over half a million 'Retornados' (the Returnees) who poured back home from the colonies. Many of them were dispersed in the Algarve region resulting in a varied and enterprising group of people mixing in with Lagos' established population. The next wave of development focused on the local infrastructure. Connecting roads to Lisbon and Spain were turned into major motorways, Faro airport was modernised, and sewage and water supply projects were completed. The 1990s saw a large influx of foreigners coming to settle here, mainly British, German and Dutch but also people from all over Europe and beyond, seeking the same delightful climate and 'natural' way of life the Romans did two mellenia previous. In 2000 Lagos' new Marina was opened and now the town is firmly established as a tourist resort.
Lagos Town Centre
Lagos History Home | ©2005-2011 Lagos-Luz-Sagres.com