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Madeira Ruled the Sugar Trade

Madeira was the center of the sugar trade in the 15th and 16th centuries

Years:  1425 — 1599

In the 15th century, a new economic cycle took hold in Madeira -- the sugar trade, also known as “ouro branco” (white gold). 

With the decline of wheat as an important export commodity, Prince Henry the Navigator decided to introduce sugar cane to Madeira to increase revenue. Sugar cane was imported from Sicily and quickly altered the landscape. Due to Madeira’s location, climate, and soil, it became a highly profitable industry that in turn helped European colonization and expansion. The production of sugar cane attracted adventurers and merchants from all parts of Europe, especially Italians, Basques, Catalans, and Flemish. 

Sugar cane production became the primary engine driving the island's economy, increasing the demand for labor. African slaves were used during portions of the island's history to cultivate sugar cane. Most of the manual work of excavating, harvesting, and transporting the sugar cane was done by these African slaves – it was this model of sugar cultivation that would soon gain a foothold in the Caribbean and Brazil. The number of slaves reached 10% of the total population of Madeira by the 16th century. 

The introduction of the sugar trade turned Funchal into a popular stopover for European trade routes. In 1472, sugar began to be exported directly to Flanders, which was the main distribution center, establishing Madeira as an important axis in economic relations between Portugal and Flanders. 

The popularity of Madeira attracted explorers like Christopher Columbus to the island in 1478. He married the daughter of a plantation owner on Porto Santo and took some sugar cane plants with him on his voyage to the Caribbean.  By the end of the 15th century, Madeira was the world’s greatest producer of sugar. However, with the commercialization of sugar cane in other regions, this economic cycle eventually ended.  After the 17th century, as Portuguese sugar production was shifted to Brazil, São Tomé, Príncipe and elsewhere, Madeira's era of white gold ended, to be replaced by a new commodity -- wine.

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