Military Titles of the Past
by Doug da Rocha Holmes
Copyright © 1997
Note: Permission to run this lecture granted by Doug da Rocha Holmes.
The more one does genealogy research, the more likely one will come across military titles of ancestors. And one will wonder about the ranks of military and the duties, especially if one finds a captain or lieutenant in the family.
The majority of this article is based on a booklet written by General Francisco Soares de Lacerda Machado, native of Lajes do Pico, titled Os Capitães-móres das Lages (Ilha do Pico), published in 1915 and reprinted in 1991 by the local government in Lajes do Pico, Açores.
The organization of the military was based on a decree by King Sebastião (king from 1557-1578) on 9 December 1569.
>>Eligibility for military service was from ages 20 to 65.
Each concelho (our equivalent is the county) is headed by a capitão-mór. In 1915, this title corresponded with the post of coronel (colonel, the commander of a regiment). Mór is a contraction of Maior (major).
There are many bandeiras (companies) within each concelho. Each company is comprised of 250 men. At the head of each company is the capitão. The capitão has one alferes (2nd lieutenant), one sargento, one meirinho (bailiff), one escrivão (secretary), and ten cabos (corporals). Each cabo leads a squad of 25 soldiers.
The capitão-mór is also the administrator of justice for the soldiers. He is elected by the municipal council which selects someone very notable and with noble ancestry. Then, with the help of the elected capitão-mór, the municipal council elects the other posts such as capitão, alferes, sargento, etc.; all except the cabos which is done by the capitão of each bandeira.
These military personnel are land-based soldiers. Perhaps in the islands, they also used their small fishing boats in their duties, but this system applied to the whole of Portugal.
As for the reasons to have such an army, one just needs to read a bit of history to see that there have been many times when soldiers repulsed the attacks of pirates or the armadas of other countries like Spain. Pirates infested the seas around Pico in the 1830s, as reported by the above author.
By the time of the last capitão-mór of Lajes do Pico, Thomé Cardoso Machado da Silveira Bettencourt e Simas (Thomé Cardoso Machado, for short), who died in 1832, there was one capitão-mór, one sargento-mór, one ajudante, and 19 bandeiras covering all the locations within the concelho of Lajes do Pico. The title of ajudante (aide) seems to be added after the original 1569 decree. The earliest date I've seen for this post is 1712, Francisco de Simas de Oliveira of S.Roque do Pico. Since there was only one ajudante in each concelho, it implies it was a post above that of capitão and below sargento-mór. And as implied above, the sargento-mór is the second highest military post at the level of the concelho, though it was not mentioned in the 1569 decree. The first record I've seen of sargento- mór is from 1662, Sebastião Ferreira de Mello, also of S.Roque do Pico. Another post not mentioned is tenente (lieutenant). The earliest I've seen this post is about 1800 in Piedade, Pico. It implies the post was above alferes (2nd lieutenant), but is rarely seen in the records.
Here is the list of companies (bandeiras) in the concelho of Lajes do Pico in 1830 (one of three concelhos of Pico):
1st company Baixa (parish of Piedade) 2nd " Calau da Ponta ( " ) 3rd " Caes do Gallego ( " ) 4th " Ponta da Ilha ( " ) 5th " porto da Calheta (parish of Calheta de Nesquim) 6th " porto da Manhênha (parish of Piedade) 7th " porto da Calheta (parish of Calheta de Nesquim) 8th " Manadas ( parish of ? ) 9th " Aguada (parish of Ribeiras) 10th " Santa Cruz das Ribeiras ( " ) 11th " Pontas Negras ( " ) 12th " Cancella da Areia ( " ) 13th " Portinho das Ribeiras ( " ) 14th " Lagôa (parish of Lajes) 15th " Barra ( " ) 16th " Santa Catharina (Castle) ( " ) 17th " Calhau do Soldão ( " ) 18th " Pesqueiro de Santa Cruz (parish of São João) 19th " Arruda (parish of ? )
Sometimes, but rarely, one finds someone designated as belonging to a particular company and gives the number. So, such a list in the concelho where one does research would be very interesting. I would welcome references like this one above for other Azorean concelhos, if anyone has some.
In practice, I have never seen anyone with the title of meirinho in the church records. My conjecture is that the post was held by some young student who could write. Nor have I seen anyone listed as cabo, except in history books. Rarely, I've seen listings simply as soldado (soldier), especially on Terceira where they might be posted at the castle of S.João Batista (in Angra). But the rest of these titles are seen quite often.
One will notice that in the baptism and marriage records, the heart of the sources for genealogy research, an individual's rise through the ranks of the military will be displayed. Perhaps the person is first seen with the rank of Alferes when he was married. After two or three baptisms of his children, one might see him as capitão. After many more children's baptisms, and while he was listed as the padrinho (godfather) or witness at the baptism of many children or at marriages, it's possible he may have risen to sargento-mór, and finally perhaps even capitão-mór. Such a person of rank will certainly own escravos (slaves) and it will be noted as they are baptized and married. If he reaches the age of retirement, and people in the Azores quite often live very long lives into their 80s and 90s, he will continue to be referred to in the records as the father or grandfather (avô) along with his military rank until his death. After his death, you'll see him referred to as perhaps Cappitam Major Pedro Gomes Vieira, já falicido (already dead). This person lived in the 1600s, also in São Roque do Pico.
This type of military formation became extinct by a decree on 30 April 1832; a period referred to as the Movimento Liberal nos Açores (liberal movement in the Azores) when the Freemason government took over and effected a multitude of other changes.
Sources: Please contact author for source information. E-mail: Rocha@dholmes.com
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