Posted by: Author | January 9, 2013

Madeira’s History

Island Formation

Twenty million years ago the islands of the Madeiran group began to emerge from the sea (first Porto Santo, then Madeira and the Ilhas Desertas / Desertas Islands).

Pockets of fertile soil were created as storms eroded the softer layers of volcanic ash. Slowly the island came to life, as seeds excreted by visiting birds took root and spread.

Early Visitors Sailors visited Madeira to gather sap from dragon trees for use in dying clothes. Mentioned in the Natural History of Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79), Madeira first appears on the Medici Map of 1351, as “Isola de Lolegname” (“Wooded Isle”).
Zarco Arrives Prince Henry “the Navigator” (1394–1460), third son of King John I of Portugal, realized how valuable Madeira was to sailors exploring the Atlantic Ocean. He sent João Gonçalves Zarco (1387–1467) to the islands. Zarco landed on Porto Santo, and returned in 1420 to claim Madeira for Portugal.
Colonization Portuguese colonization of Madeira began in 1425, when Zarco returned to govern the southwestern half from Funchal. Tristão Vaz Teixeira controlled the northeastern half, and Bartolomeu Perestrelo governed Porto Santo. Machico was initially the capital, but Funchal had a better harbour and gained city status in 1508.
Prosperity By 1470, Madeira’s early settlers were exporting wheat, dyestuffs, wine and timber, but sugar produced the biggest profits. Trading with London, Antwerp, Venice and Genoa, the island bloomed for 150 years as Europe’s main sugar producer, channelling the profits into building and art.
Wine Quick profits and wealth became a thing of the past once Caribbean and Brazilian sugar hit European markets in the mid-16th century. Malvazia (Malmsey), a rich sweet wine, then took over as Madeira’s main export. It is the favourite drink of Shakespeare’s roistering character Falstaff.
The British Arrive British merchants dominated the wine trade after Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662, and British (and American) taxes on Madeira wine were reduced as part of the marriage settlement. So valuable was Madeira to the British that an armed force was sent in 1801 to prevent Napoleon from capturing it.
Autonomy Madeira escaped the worst effects of the two World Wars, but by 1974, the year of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, it had become Europe’s poorest region. In that year, Portugal’s dictatorship was toppled in a coup by army officers. Later, celebrating soldiers had carnations stuck in their gun barrels by joyous civilians. In 1976, Madeira became autonomous, except for tax, foreign policy and defense.
Investment Funchal was nearing its 500th anniversary as the capital of an increasingly prosperous island. New harbours and roads have boosted tourism, as well as improving the transport of fresh produce. Its forests are protected as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, and whales and dolphins have returned to its waters.
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