History of Madeira


History of Madeira

The history of Madeira begins with the discovery of the islands by Portugal in 1419.

Pre-Portuguese times

Pliny mentions certain Purple Islands, the position of which with reference to the Fortunate Islands or Canaries might seem to indicate Madeira islands. Plutarch ("Sertorius", 75 AD) referring to the military commander Quintus Sertorius (d. 72 BC), relates that after his return to Cadiz, "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, fleeing from England to France in 1346, were driven off their course by a violent storm, and cast on 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.

Portuguese discovery

In 1419 two captains of Prince Henry the Navigator, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, were driven by a storm to the island they called Porto Santo, or Holy Harbour, in gratitude for their rescue from shipwreck. The next year an expedition was sent to populate the island, and, Madeira being described, they made for it, and took possession on behalf of the Portuguese crown, together with captain Bartolomeu Perestrello.

The islands started to be settled circa 1420 or 1425. In September 23, 1433, the name "Ilha da Madeira" (Madeira Island or "island of the wood") appears in a map, by the first time, in a document.The three captain-majors had led, in the first trip, the 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, they had water in excess 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 Eannes de Azurara 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, Paris.

Portuguese Madeira

However, in time grain production began to fall. To get past the ensuing crisis Henry decided to order the planting of sugarcane - rare in Europe and, therefore, considered a spice - promoting, for this, the introduction of Sicilian beets as the first specialized plant and the technology of its agriculture. Sugarcane production became a leading factor in the island's economy, and increased the demand for labour. Genoese and Portuguese traders were attracted to the islands. Sugarcane cultivation and the sugar production industry developed until the 17th century.

Since the 17th century, Madeira's most important product has been its wine, sugar production having since moved on to Brazil, São Tomé and Principe, and elsewhere. Madeira wine was perhaps the most popular luxury beverage in the colonial Western Hemisphere during the 17th and 18th centuries. The British Empire occupied Madeira as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, a friendly occupation which concluded in 1814 when the island was returned to Portugal,and the British did much to popularise Madeira wine.

When, after the death of king John VI of Portugal 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 an unsuccessful coup d'état. He died there one year later and is buried in Monte (Funchal).

In July 1 1976, following the democratic revolution of 1974, Portugal granted political autonomy to Madeira. The region has now its own government and legislative assembly.

References

ee also

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