300 miles off the north east coast of Brazil is the miniature archipelago of Fernando de Noronha. Rising from the ocean floor 13,000 feet below sea level an underwater mountain emerges from a turquoise sea, culminating in a 1,060 foot high peak of rugged grey basalt rock surrounded by twenty one small islands.
Amerigo Vespucci, the Genovese sailor and chronicler of the first three expeditions to the New World, was a widely read and much appreciated author in the first years of the 16th Century. He discovered Fernando de Noronha on his third voyage to Brazil in 1503. In England Thomas More, one of the greatest intellectuals of his time, was deeply moved and impressed by Vespuccio’s accounts of the lands of Brazil: new and pure, unfolding before old Europe. More wrote UTOPIA, a plan for a fictional perfect socialist state set on an island.
More’s book begins: “Utopia measures 200,00 paces at its widest point in the center of the island. This width diminishes gradually and systematically from the centre to its two extremeties, in such a way that the whole island is rounded off in a semi-circle in the form of a crescent.. in the middle rises a rock visible from afar…” and from afar flying over the island you can make out the rock through the plane’s window. The proud rock is like an uplifted finger: the Morro do Pico. Continuing the comparison with More, the archipelago’s twenty islands really do open up into a deep azure crescent moon.
Noronha is the top of a dead volcano which rose up in the middle of the Atlantic shortly after the continents of Africa and South America drifted apart. Seen from a satellite, the structure shows the geological scars of a remote past. Around 90 million years ago, the island broke through the ocean surface, spewing lava and forming one of the highest points of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The sea, infinitely blue and transparent, begins where the coast falls away in abrupt cliffs. These give Noronha its majesty. On the more protected leeward coast, they rise into sharp peaks, such as the Morro do Pico.