Madeira Island - History

Who? What? When? Where? Why?...

In 1419, Portuguese explorer João Gonçalves Zarco, under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the navigator, set sail en route for African Guinea and was thrown off course by a violent storm. The result of being blown off course was the discovery of a small island that was named Porto Santo “Holy Port” as is was this island that provided these navigators with shelter during the harsh weather.

A year later, a neighbouring island was discovered and was given the name Madeira Island, which means “wood”. Colonization began in 1420 and the first settlers consisted of families from the Algarve and prisoners. Along with two other men, Tristão Vaz Teixceira and Bartolomeu Perestrelo, João Gonçalves Zarco was responsible of colonizing the archipelago of Madeira. He took primary residence and was given capitancy of Funchal, Tristão Vaz Teixeira took residence and was given captaincy of Machico, while Bartolomeu Perestrelo took residence and was given captaincy of Porto Santo. In 1508 Funchal was elevated to the status of city by King Manuel I of Portugal.

 It took nearly seven years to burn down the dense forest to clear the land to begin cultivation. The first agricultural adventure was the raising of wheat which was then followed by sugarcane production. Due to increasing soil depletion and increased completion from the other colonies (Brazil and the Caribbean) the sugarcane trade became no longer profitable and with that other products began to surge into the market, one of them being the popular Madeira wine, which is known and adored worldwide. Today it is still one of Madeira´s most significant products, although sugarcanes is still cultivated today.


From the mid 19th century, Madeira began what would now be its main source of income, Tourism. Madeira´s great climate conditions, often described as an eternal Spring, would attract an elite of European noble tourists. The climate was not the only reason why Madeira was very attractive to its visitors, it was also believed that Madeira´s fresh air would cure diseases. In 1950 Madeira began the construction of medium-class hotels in the hotel district in Funchal to provide an affordable holiday destination to its vacationers.

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