One of the “greatest mysteries in the history of the eastern Algarve region has just been unravelled“: the location of the precious stones from the chapel of Santo António, built in the town of Santo António de Arenilha, which disappeared before the founding of today’s Vila Real de Santo António.
According to the studies of historian Fernando Pessanha, the village of Arenilha was founded at the mouth of the Guadiana River in 1513.
It was established as a haven for fugitives, and its port, where slaves and goods from Portuguese North African territories were smuggled, was frequently targeted by corsairs and pirates, the historian explains in a statement to the press.
Starting in 1542, António Leite, captain of the Portuguese strongholds of Mazagão, Azamor, and the Seinal Fort, was named as the chief magistrate of Arenilha as compensation for losing the captaincy of Mazagão, where Portuguese forces in southern Morocco concentrated after the evacuation of Safim and Azamor. During the evacuation of Alcácer Ceguer in 1550, Captain António Leite transferred the precious stones from the existing chapel in the Seinal Fort, including the baptismal fonts, holy water fonts, a column with António Leite’s coat of arms, and the main altar stone, to the religious buildings of Santo António de Arenilha (Trinity Church and Santo António Chapel).
These findings, first pitched by Hugo Cavaco in 2010 and developed in various studies by Fernando Pessanha since 2014, raised a question: what happened to the precious stones of Arenilha when the population of the town dispersed across the region in the 17th century?
The answer to this four-century-old enigma has now been unveiled by art historian Marco Sousa Santos, who identified in the Santo António Chapel in Castro Marim a pedestal bearing what is likely the coat of arms of Captain António Leite, the chief magistrate of Arenilha, as well as the top of an altar table with an inscription:
“This discovery stands out for its significant historical and cultural importance, not only because it represents an archaeological heritage of the Algarve on both sides of the sea, brought to the Guadiana River mouth in the context of King João III’s North African strategy reshaping but also because these are the only known materials that survived the disappearance of the town of Santo António de Arenilha, which was rebuilt from 1774 onwards under the name Vila Real de Santo António,” the statement adds.