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600 Years of Madeira

The year is 1418, the year of the discovery of Porto Santo Island, an event that occurred after a storm on the high seas that diverted from its intended route a vessel that was following the African coast. The navigator Gonçalves Zarco and his crew were saved by this small piece of land that they named Porto Santo (Holy Harbor). A year later, in 1419, another piece of land was spotted in the distance, which they named Madeira (wood), due to its forested slopes. Six-hundred years later, Madeira has a storied history and heritage.

Rising steeply from the Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of Europe and Africa, Madeira boasts a mild year-round climate and a 1,350-mile network of "levadas" – man-made channels dating back to the 16th century constructed to carry water for irrigation. Volcanic in origin, Madeira’s rugged interior rises abruptly to over 6,000 feet (1,800 metres), with forests of pine and laurel flanking its jagged peaks.

Settlers came from continental Portugal. Economic activity started with cereals and crops until the late mid-15th century. Then came the era of sugar cane that made Madeira an international trading port in the 16th century. Finally, wine production replaced sugar cane. Madeira became known for its wine in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th century, wine production suffered tremendously, but has rebounded to new heights, complemented by a robust tourist trade.

Click on an article below.

Madeira -- Introduction

Porto Santo was discovered in 1418 when a storm diverted Gonçalves Zarco's ship that was following the African coast. In 1419, another piece of land was spotted in the distance, which they named Madeira.

Madeira Discovery and Settlement

Settlers were recruited from throughout Portugal to populate the islands. Forests were burned for agriculture. Cereal crops were at first successful but after decades began to wane. Switching to sugar cane transformed Madeira into an international trading port.

Christopher Columbus in Porto Santo and Madeira

Columbus learned much about navigating the Atlantic from his stays in the archipelago.

The British in Madeira

By the end of the 17th century until the 20th century, British merchants occupied a pivotal position in the Madeiran economy, especially in the Madeiran wine industry.

Madeira Geography & Geology

Located 280 miles from the African coast and 540 miles from the European continent, it's a 1.5 hour flight from Lisbon.

Levadas in Madeira

Originally built for agriculture, today levadas produce hydroelectric power too.

Madeira Ruled the Sugar Trade

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

Madeira Wine

Wine succeeded sugar as a Madeira staple.

Madeiran Emigration

Nature, politics and economics caused islanders to flee the archipelago.

Madeiran Cuisine

Madeiran cuisine has European and African heritage.

Madeira -- Pearl of the Atlantic Today

Madeira today is a tapestry woven from its rich history and heritage.


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