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History of Madeira

Madeira may be a small archipelagic location but this island also boasts of a rich history. Today, looking around the place would still make anyone feel nostalgic because of the preserved olden architecture and the maintained rustic beauty that envelopes the island. Even if the locals embraced modernity and industrialism, the island still echoes its rich heritage.

Originated from volcanic activity Madeira exists geologically "only" about 5 million years. The oldest island of the Madeira archipelago is Porto Santo (about 14 million years old).

Discovery of Madeira

It was in July 1419 when this island was first discovered by Portuguese explorers. These two seafarers are Captains João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz. The main reason why the two went on an expedition is because they were following the orders of Prince Henry the Navigator. He called for the best sea navigators and cartographers in all of Portuguese because he wanted to have more information about the West African coast. This was in the early part of the 15th Century.

The ships that the two captains used were the square-rigged ones. Hence, when strong winds started to strike, they got rerouted and were left sailing aimlessly for days. Their supposed exploration of the West African coast made them discover an unmapped land which they named as Porto Santo.

Because of the undoubted richness of the place, colonization was immediately ordered by Prince Henry. It took a year after the discovery of Porto Santo before the bay of Machico was found. This is also the time when the Portuguese explorers were able to uncover the lush forests and rich land of Madeira.

historische boothenry the navigator

Before Portuguese Exploration

Interestingly, there is information which relates to the existence and discovery of Madeira even before the Portuguese explorers came.  There were maps which date back to 1339 which also shows that Madeira has already been seen and plotted by seafarers before the Portuguese navigators. In Florence, Italy, there exists a portolan which is identified to exist in 1351. A book entitled Libro del Conocimiento, which is dated 1348-1349, also pin-pointed the exact same island. This book was attributed to a Spanish monk and the islands were referred to as Diserta, Leiname and Puerto Santo.

These are artifacts which show that Portuguese explorers may have placed Madeira on official records and maps but the earliest knowledge about this island existed way before the navigations which Prince Henry spearheaded.      

Earliest Recorded Settlement

The official record books say that the first settlement in Madeira was made after the Portuguese discovered this island. The first colonizers came in 1420 to 1425. The first ones to arrive are families of captain-majors. These are the spouses and children of men who are given the position as colonial officers. They were followed next by noble Portuguese families.

It was not just the rich and influential who first established their residence in Madeira. Some of the prisoners were also brought for the sole purpose of working in the fields. They were tasked to cultivate the land, set-up the area for agriculture, clear out some parts of the forest and construct levadas or canals.

Rise of Madeira

The primary produce of the agricultural land was wheat. At first, this would only suffice the settlers but eventually, wheat was also being exported to mainland Portuguese. By 1455, sugar was added to their produce and this contributed in pumping up Portugal’s economy. By the 1480s to 1490s, Madeira has remained as one of the leaders when it comes to sugar trade.   

Aside from sugar production, creation of wine became progressive during the 17th century too. In the 17th up to the 18th century, the Madeira wine is considered as the most luxurious beverage for the colonial Western Hemisphere. Though the British Empire colonized Madeira during the Napoleonic Wars, this was once again returned to Portugal in 1814. Hence, the progress of wine industry was never stopped.

Both World War I and World War II affected Madeira negatively too. The waters that surround the island became a battle ground. This created incalculable damage to the economy. It was only in 1944 when things became calmer. Then, in 1978, the official flag of Madeira was first raised.  

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