History in Madeira
The Gothic style 15th century Roman Catholic Cathedral of Funchal.
Pliny mentions certain Purple Islands, the position of which with reference to the Fortunate Islands, or Canaries, may indicate Madeira islands. Plutarch (Sertorius, 75 AD) referring to the military commander Quintus Sertorius (d. 72 BC), relates that after his return to Cádiz, "he met seamen recently arrived from Atlantic islands, two in number, divided from one another only by a narrow channel and distant from the coast of Africa 10,000 furlongs. They are called Isles of the Blest." The estimated distance from Africa, and the closeness of the two islands, seem to indicate Madeira and Porto Santo.
There is a romantic tale about two lovers, Robert Machim and Anna d'Arfet in time of the King Edward III of England, who, fleeing from England to France in 1346, were driven off their course by a violent storm, and cast onto the coast of Madeira at the place subsequently named Machico, in memory of one of them. On the evidence of a portolan dated 1351, preserved at Florence, Italy, it would appear that Madeira had been discovered long before that date by Portuguese vessels under Genoese captains.
It is certain that the discovery of Madeira predates the Portuguese settlement,
as it appears on maps as early as 1339.
Statue of João Gonçalves Zarco.
In 1419 two captains of Prince Henry the Navigator – João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira – were driven by a storm to an island they named Porto Santo. They gave this name (meaning Holy Harbour) in gratitude for their rescue from the shipwreck. The following year, an expedition was sent to populate the island, in which the two captains, together with captain Bartolomeu Perestrello, took possession of the islands on behalf of the Portuguese crown.
The islands started to be settled circa 1420 or 1425. In 23 September 1433, the name Ilha da Madeira (Madeira Island or "wood island") appears on a map, its first mention in a document.
The three captain-majors had led, in the first trip, their respective families, a small group of people of the minor nobility, people of modest conditions and some old prisoners of the kingdom. To gain the minimum conditions for the development of agriculture, they had to rough-hew a part of the dense forest of laurisilva and to construct a large number of canals (levadas), since in some parts of the island, there was excess water, while in other parts water was scarce. In the earliest times, fish constituted about half of the settlers' diet, together with vegetables and fruit. The first local agricultural activity with some success was the raising of wheat. Initially, the colonists produced wheat for their own sustenance, but later began to export wheat to Portugal.
The discoveries of Porto Santo and Madeira were first described by Gomes Eanes
de Zurara in Chronica da Descoberta e Conquista da Guiné. (Eng. version
by Edgar Prestage in 2 vols. issued by the Hakluyt Society, London, 1896–1899:
The Chronicle of Discovery and Conquest of Guinea.) Arkan Simaan relates these
discoveries in French in his novel based on Azurara's Chronicle: L’Écuyer
d’Henri le Navigateur, published by Éditions l’Harmattan,
Santa Catarina Park, in the heart of Funchal.
However, in time grain production began to fall. To get past the ensuing crisis, Henry decided to order the planting of sugarcane – to produce the "sweet salt" rare in Europe and, therefore, considered a spice – introducing Sicilian beets as the first specialized plant and along with it the technology of its agriculture.
Expansion of sugar plantations in Madeira started in 1455, using advisers from Sicily and (largely) Genoese capital for the mills, and developed until the 17th century. The accessibility of Madeira attracted Genoese and Flemish traders keen to bypass Venetian monopolies. "By 1480 Antwerp had some seventy ships engaged in the Madeira sugar trade, with the refining and distribution concentrated in Antwerp. By the 1490s Madeira had overtaken Cyprus as a producer of sugar." Sugarcane production became a leading factor in the island's economy, and increased the demand for labour. Slaves were used during portions of the island's history to cultivate sugar cane, and the proportion of imported slaves reached 10% of the total population of Madeira by the 16th century.
In 1617 Algerian pirates, having long enslaved Christians along the Mediterranean coasts, captured 1,200 men and women in Madeira. After the 17th century, as sugar production shifted to Brazil, São Tomé and Príncipe and elsewhere, Madeira's most important product became its wine. The British occupied Madeira as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, a friendly occupation starting in 1807 and concluding in 1814 when the island was returned to Portugal.
When, after the death of King John VI of Portugal, his usurper son Miguel of Portugal seized power from the rightful heir, his niece Maria II, and proclaimed himself 'Absolute King', Madeira held out for the Queen under the governor José Travassos Valdez until Miguel sent an expeditionary force and the defence of the island was overwhelmed by crushing force. Valdez was forced to flee to England under the protection of the Royal Navy (September 1828).
In 1921, the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Charles I, was deported to Madeira after his second unsuccessful coup d'état in Hungary. He died there one year later and is buried in Monte.
On 1 July 1976, following the democratic revolution of 1974, Portugal granted political autonomy to Madeira, Madeira Day is a celebration of this. The region now has its own government and legislative assembly.