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The discovery of Madeira

The beautiful island of Madeira is one of the world’s most  amazing holiday destinations, and this small island situated off the coast of Morocco has a fascinating and colourful history. The island is relatively young (in Geological terms), as it sprang from volcanic activity beneath the Atlantic Ocean a mere 5 million years ago. The violent origin of Madeira is what has shaped the magnificent mountainous landscape, and created the rich and fertile soil. Indeed,  it was these very qualities that eventually led to the island being colonised by the Portuguese some 600 years ago.

By getting to know the history of Madeira, a visit here is made even more rewarding. The heritage that shaped Madeira  still ruminates through the people who call it home, as well as being carved into the stunning landscape itself. So read on to discover the interesting history that has formed Madeira as we know and love it today.


Madeira was officially discovered in July 1419 by two young seafarers called Captains João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz. They were initially following the orders of Prince Henry the Navigator (who is considered the father of Portuguese exploration), who wanted to find the most skilled navigators and cartographers in all of Portugal, in order to learn more about the west coast of Africa.

And so João and Tristão set sail in hopes of returning with everything the Prince needed. However, during their travels, the ship they were sailing in encountered strong winds that forced their square-rigged vessel off course, causing them to become shipwrecked on an unfamiliar island. They soon discovered that the island was uninhabited, and in an act of gratitude for their safety they named the new land Porto Santo (which literally translates as ‘holy harbour’). Word of the sheer richness and diversity of the provisions and materials found on the island (and the fact it was a mere 50km away) soon reached Prince Henry, who immediately ordered colonisation. 

Despite the Portuguese being the first to claim Madeira, information exists to suggest that the island was actually discovered before the Portuguese first stumbled across it. As well as a vague mention in some Roman texts, and a map dated in 1351, there is also a book entitled Libro Del Conocimiento which is dated between 1348-1349 that pin points the island’s exact location. However, despite any previously existing knowledge, the Portuguese explorers are the ones who placed Madeira on official records. 

Early settlement & the growth of Madeira

The first settlement came shortly after the discovery by the Portuguese explorers, with the first groups of colonisers arriving between 1420 and 1425. The people who were first to call it home were the families of the captains and colonial officers of the Portuguese, followed shorty by some of Portugal’s wealthy noble families. It wasn’t just the rich and influential that first established residence in Madeira; prisoners were also brought to the island in order to work the land. These prisoners were instrumental in establishing Madeira’s infrastructure, and  did this by cultivating the land, creating agriculture and clearing the forests to make room for growth, as well as constructing roadways and digging canals. 

After this initial colonisation, a period of prosperity and growth started in Madeira that continues to this day. Wheat became the island’s primary produce, and whilst at first it was enough only for Madeira’s  settlers, it was soon grown in sufficient amounts  to be exported back to mainland Portugal. This ensured a steady growth of Madeira’s economy and population. Eventually, the production of wheat started to fall, and Prince Henry ordered the settlers to divert their attention to the growing and cultivation of sugar cane. Between the 1480’s and the 1490’s,  Madeira became one of the world’s leaders in the sugar trade, with thousands of foreign traders and settlers flocking to the island. Wine eventually took over from sugar in the 17th century as Madeira’s finest export, and soon became the most luxurious beverage for the colonial west. To this day, wine remains the chief export of Madeira.

Recent history

Sadly, Madeira was badly affected during both the First World War and the Second World War. This was especially troublesome during the Second World War when the waters that surround the island became the setting of constant conflict between the warring navies. This took its toll in a number of ways, and had a big negative impact on the economy. Throughout the war, Madeira remained neutral but kept faithful to the agreement found in the Treaty of Windsor of 1386. This meant that Madeira helped Britain by providing a base for resupply and shelter; they also came to the assistance of roughly 2000 citizens of Gibraltar who were evacuated from their home country.

Madeira was finally granted full autonomy from Portugal in 1974, and in 1978 the official flag of Madeira was raised for the first time. Since then, Madeira has grown steadily, and joined the European Union in 1986.

Madeira today

Tourism has always been one of Madeira’s chief attractions for visitors. The first tourists came to Madeira in the 1850’s, where the wealthier Europeans would come to escape the winter and enjoy the pleasant climate and beautiful landscape. 

So it’s encouraging to think that, despite the growth that has transformed Madeira in the last few centuries, it still remains a popular tourist destination. This is in no small way due to the friendly locals that live there, the breath-taking scenery found everywhere on the island, and a perfect year-round climate.

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