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The island is volcanic in origin and characterized by a substratum of basalt deformed by a series of fractures in a northwest-southeast orientation.In settling the Azores, the crown applied a system that was successful on the island of Madeira in 1425: the new lands would be administered by title grants (donatário) to a noblemen and men of confidence (donatary-captains) that would oversee security and colonization, while enforcing the King's law.The master or Donatário for the Azores was the Infante Henry the Navigator (in his role as governor of the Order of Christ and Duke of Viseu), who was granted carte blanche to enforce the King's dominion (except to coin money and some judicial authority).Santa Maria's discovery was attributed to Gonçalo Velho Cabral in 1432 (rather than the pilot Silves), since discoveries were not "recognized officially" until they declared so by the Portuguese Crown, who registered them in Cabral's name, as commander of the voyage (he had already commanded two voyages of exploration in 1431-1432).According to legend Cabral's crew disembarked on a small beach in the northwestern Ponte dos Canestrantes, where he encountered a population of Eared seals, proclaiming the beach Praia dos Lobos (from the generic Portuguese lobos-marinhos, or monk seals ).This area would attain the title of Vila do Porto for the nestled anchorage that developed there, and the municipality would also adopt the name, by 1470 (as indicated on their floral).

Similar to other islands of the archipelago, Santa Maria was a victim of repeated attacks by privateers and pirates.

After successive pirate attacks, the population was very hostile to travellers: in February 1493, the travelling Christopher Columbus was greeted harshly by its residents, when he and his crew were forced by a storm to land on the island in the Baía dos Anjos on their return from their famous "discovery" of the New World.

Several of his crew were captured, and complex negotiations were undertaken to liberate the same.

When the 1580 crisis of succession ushered in the Iberian Union in Portugal, the island initially supported António of Crato, but with pressure from Philip II of Spain in the Azores, António declined even to disembark in Santa Maria.

During this period, the island came to depend on the Governor General of the Azores.

There was confusion between tower and pilots as to the appropriate altitude during their approach.