On 29 March, some of the main regional and national media outlets marked the birth of the culture factory that once was an alcohol factory. In a predictably promising future, turned to creation and art creators, the Arquipélago – Contemporary Art Center emerges with an irrefutable mission: observe, stimulate, disseminate and produce through transdisciplinary action in the fields of visual, audiovisual/multimedia and performing arts.
In its productive/creative mission, which today is a mission of knowledge, culture and critical mass, we regard the building as a functional continuity that runs through history and that was determined and placed at the service of the human structures headquartered there.
The timeline of this building’s history/memory and of the structures that preceded the Arquipélago – CAC is very recent; it is only 122 years old. The newspaper A Persuasão from 8 February 1893 announced the project to build three alcohol factories on the island of São Miguel, two in Vila Franca and one in Ribeira Grande. It focused on the latter one as its planning was further advanced; the construction site had already been chosen; the Town Hall of Ribeira Grande had granted it the right to use water from the Teixeira Stream for manufacturing, and in this context, a narrow-gauge railway linking that town to Ponta Delgada was even being considered2. For the author of that news article, this seemed to be too many factories, but for the author of an article published on 21 April 1893 in the news section of Estrela Oriental, what should have been highlighted was the importance of this initiative to life and to the awakening the so-called lethargy of Ribeira Grande3.
As for the doubts expressed in the article from A Persuasão about the simultaneous construction of three distillation plants (two would never be built), they deserve special attention because they further particularize and emphasize the context of the origin of the Ribeira Grande Distillation Factory.
In early 1893, with antecedents in previous years and continuing in 1894, the recurring theme of newspapers of São Miguel (and other islands) was the so-called alcohol issue. The emerging problem stemmed from the implementation of a monopoly system and particularly from the increase of taxes applied to the Azorean industry. The whole situation led to several reactions, with various representations and protest committees. During the Sunday rally held in Ponta Delgada on 2 July 1893, the voices of Montalverne de Sequeira, Pereira de Ataíde and Manuel da Câmara rose up against the infamous tax of 100 reis per litre of alcohol. According to the speakers, this tax could not exceed 50 reis per litre under any circumstance if one did not want to destroy the agricultural and industrial work of the Azores5. Generally speaking, these measures of the central government would seriously impact the economy of the islands (or of the main islands São Miguel and Terceira6) by hitting one of their crucial productive pillars, alongside with the production of sweet potato, an essential (but not exclusive) raw material.
Equally connected to the alcohol issue, but not limited to the years 1893, 1894 and 1895, the Azores witness a significant number of rallies, demonstrations, explanations and propaganda events7. The islands were living through the full agitation of the so-called 1st autonomist movement, which would come to a formal end with the famous decree dated 2 March 1895 and the recognition of the administrative autonomy of the archipelago. This was then the context in which the Ribeira Grande Distillation Factory was born, a context that was, in principle, adverse from an economic point of view but promising in social and political terms.
Little is still known about the construction and production at the factory. Nevertheless, two distinct moments of the initial investment are already clear. The first one dates from 1893 and includes the establishment of the first company, period for which there are news articles and announcements about the license issued by the Civil Government on 11 August8, the reception of proposals for the supply of building materials on 7 July and 27 October of the same year9, the subscription of funds/investors in August and September10, the shareholders’ meeting that approved the articles of incorporation on 1 October11, and the acquisition of equipment for outfitting the factory12.
As for the second moment, it started right at the beginning of 1894. In January, the dissolution of the previous company was made public13, an event that was also echoed in the minutes of the Ribeira Grande Town Council meeting held on 18 January14. About a month later, a new company was established with the same purpose15, although the deed of incorporation was only signed on 21 March16. The town council issued a new license for the use of water from the Teixeira Stream on 8 March17, and new managers were appointed to the factory on 11 April. Among them, we can highlight the chairman of the general meeting Teotónio de Ornelas Bruges, the chairman of the board Marquis of Praia e Monforte, the managing director Francisco Augusto Serpa, and the engineering and architectural consultants João Cândido de Morais and João Silvestre de Almeida18.
With this new momentum, construction of the factory finally began and, in the week of 9 to 15 April 1894, they broke ground19 with construction work starting on 16 April20. In October, there was news on the progress made and on the arrival of equipment (machinery) and coal for manufacturing; in November, the installation of machinery was finished and the expedite building process of the factory was praised21; on 3 June 1897, the expansion of the factory was already announced22.
As for the start of operations, it was initially announced for late 1893 / early 189423 and later postponed to December 1894 or January 189524. The first campaign was definitely announced for 2 November 189525, a campaign that, in terms of sweet potatoes, would end in mid-January and continue later on using corn26. On 29 January 1896, the 1st export of alcohol produced at the Ribeira Grande plant made the news27. As for the shutdown of the factory, so far we have established that it took place after the creation of the Union of Azorean Alcohol Factories (UFAA) on 15 December 1902 on a date that is yet to be determined. Following the 1901 Decree, which reduced the limits to alcohol production in the Azores, two industrial units were shut down in São Miguel and many others in Terceira. One of these units was the Ribeira Grande Distillation Factory.
From then on, the history/memory of the building and of its functionality over time still needs more research and study. The Azores Built Heritage Inventory28, in the descriptive notes of the building, mentions that the facilities of the old distillation plant were used as a tobacco dryer and military barracks. In the short time we had, we were not able to collect information about the latter function.
Nevertheless, based on relevant information and copies of property registration booklets made available by the Micaelense Tobacco Factory, it was possible to compile some facts from 1930. In that year, on 7 February, the then called Destilação Ribeira-Grandense SARL [Ribeira Grande Distillation Factory Ltd.] sold to the Sociedade Ribeira-Grandense the plot of land where a building with 11 sections designed for the distillation of alcohol was located, with the function of that facility from then on being unknown. The aforementioned Sociedade Ribeira-Grandense would sell the same building to the Micaelense Tobacco Factory on 20 October 1969. During the time it was owned by the latter company – as local people still recall, the complex was used for drying and storing tobacco. On 11 February 1999, the Micaelense Tobacco Factory sold the same building to the company Evaristo Lima Co. Ltd. It is this company that would eventually sell the building to the Autonomous Region of the Azores on 29 November 2006.
This brief timeline and review of facts demonstrates that much more can still be done to study the memory of the physical and functional structure that now houses the Arquipélago – Contemporary Art Center. With the circumstances and particular facts of its appearance clarified and with the key roles it played over time briefly listed, this stands as a testament to the human will to create, reinvent and readjust, abilities that we can associate to the physical structure that today houses the Arquipélago-CAC. Finding every time the respective place in the community, it is today a structure that features an even more archipelagic and definitely Atlantic and universal dimension through the singular form of communication that art is.
Text: Rute Dias Gregório1|DRC|Director of the Ponta Delgada Public Library and Regional Archive
*This text was published in CulturAçores – Revista de Cultura
1 The collection of information for this work would not have been possible without the collaboration of the Ponta Delgada Public Library and Regional Archive, of the Ribeira Grande Municipal Archives, of the Micaelense Tobacco Factory, and of the property section of the Regional Directorate for Budgetary and Treasury Affairs
2 A Persuasão, No. 14, 7 April 1893.
3 Estrela Oriental, No. 16, 21 April 1893.
4 Ribeira Grande Municipal Archives: Town Hall Fund, Minute Book, Minutes No. 10, 29 March 1893.
5 A Estrela Oriental, No. 14, 7 April 1893.
6 On the importance of this industry, cf. Maria Isabel João, “Indústria e industrialização”. In Enciclopédia Açoriana. Available online: http://www.culturaacores.axores.gov.pt/ea/perquisa/Default.aspx?id=7686.
7 Which also include the advent of the newspaper A Autonomia dos Açores, first published on Sunday, 5 March 1893. Cf. J. G. Reis Leite, “Autonomia dos Açores (A)”. In Enciclopédia Açoriana. Available online: http://www.culturacores.azores.gov.pt/ea/pesquisa/Default.aspx?id=4953
8 Ponta Delgada Public Library and Regional Archive: Ponta Delgada Civil Government, ct. 353, fl. 12-13.
9 A Estrela Oriental, No. 27, 7 July 1893; No. 43, 27 October 1893.
10 A Estrela Oriental, No. 31, 25 August 1893; No. 36, 8 September 1893; A Persuasão, No.1649, 23 August 1893.
11 A Persuasão, No.1665, 4 October 1893.
12 A Persuasão, No.1662, 23 November 1893.
13 A Persuasão, No.1670, 17 January 1894.
14 AMRG: FCM, Livro de Atas, Minutes No. 3, 18 January 1894.
15 A Persuasão, No.1675, 21.02.1894.
16 A Persuasão, No.1713, 14 November 1894.
17 AMRG: FCM, Livro de Atas, Minutes No. 8, 8 March 1894.
18 A Persuasão, No.1682, 11 April 1894.
19 A Persuasão, No.1683, 18 April 189.
20 A Persuasão, No.1713, 14 November 1894.
21 A Persuasão, No. 1708, 10 October 1894; No. 1713, 14 November 1894.
22 A Persuasão, No.1849, 23 June 1897.
23 A Persuasão, No.1662, 23 November 1893.
24 A Persuasão, No.1711, 31 October 1894.
25 A Persuasão, No.1761, 16 October 1895.
26 A Persuasão, No.1773, 8 January 1896; No. 1784, 25 March 1896.
27 A Persuasão, No.1776, 29 January 1896.
28 Ribeira Grande: São Miguel: Inventário do Património Imóvel dos Açores, [S.L], Direção Regional da Cultura, IAC – Instituto Açoriano de Cultura e Câmara Municipal da Ribeira Grande, 2007, p. 155.