Madeira, a stunning archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, is an autonomous region of Portugal. Known for its picturesque landscapes, lush forests, and world-renowned wine, Madeira boasts a rich history that dates back to ancient times. This comprehensive guide will take you on a journey through Madeira’s fascinating past, delving into its origins, periods of development, and historical highlights.

Ancient Origins and Discovery:

Although the exact date of Madeira’s discovery remains a subject of debate among historians, it is widely believed that the archipelago was first discovered by Portuguese explorers in the early 15th century. Some ancient records and maps suggest that Madeira may have been known to the Romans, Greeks, and Phoenicians before the arrival of the Portuguese.
The official discovery of Madeira is credited to João Gonçalves Zarco, Tristão Vaz Teixeira, and Bartolomeu Perestrelo, who set sail from Portugal in 1418 under the patronage of Prince Henry the Navigator. They initially discovered Porto Santo, the smaller island of the Madeira archipelago, and in 1419, they found Madeira Island itself.

Colonisation and Development:

The colonization of Madeira began in 1425, with settlers arriving from Portugal, as well as from other parts of Europe. The fertile volcanic soil and the island’s strategic location made Madeira an ideal base for agriculture and trade.
To cultivate the land, the settlers devised an intricate system of levadas (irrigation channels) to transport water from the island’s northern regions to the drier southern areas. This enabled the growth of various crops, such as sugarcane, which became a primary source of income for the island.

By the 16th century, Madeira was thriving as a hub for sugar production and trade, attracting merchants and settlers from across Europe. Funchal, the island’s capital, developed into a bustling port city during this period, serving as a significant stopover for ships traveling between Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

The Madeira Wine Industry:

Madeira wine, a fortified wine known for its unique taste and long shelf life, has been a cornerstone of the island’s economy since the 17th century. The production process, which involves heating the wine and aging it in barrels, imparts a distinct flavor that has garnered global recognition.
Madeira wine became highly sought after in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the American and British markets. The wine even played a role in the celebration of the United States Declaration of Independence, as it was the wine of choice for the Founding Fathers.

The 19th and 20th Centuries:

Madeira experienced significant changes during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the mid-19th century, a devastating outbreak of oidium and phylloxera diseases decimated the island’s vineyards, severely impacting the wine industry. As a result, the focus shifted to the cultivation of other crops, such as bananas and embroidery, which remain essential to Madeira’s economy today.
Throughout the 20th century, Madeira experienced significant political and social changes. In 1976, following the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, Madeira gained autonomy and established its own parliament and government.

Madeira as a Tourism Destination:

Madeira has long been a popular destination for European travelers, particularly the British, who have been visiting the island since the 19th century. The mild climate, stunning natural beauty, and vibrant culture have made Madeira an attractive location for tourists seeking relaxation and adventure.
In recent years, Madeira has gained recognition for its outdoor activities, such as hiking, canyoning, and mountain biking, thanks to its diverse terrain and extensive network of levadas. Additionally, the island’s rich marine life has drawn scuba divers and snorkelers from around the world.

The archipelago’s unique cultural heritage is showcased in its numerous festivals and events, such as the Madeira Flower Festival and the Madeira Wine Festival, which celebrate the island’s traditions and history.

Notable Figures and Events:

Throughout its history, Madeira has been home to or visited by several notable figures. One of the most famous Madeirans is soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who was born and raised in Funchal. Today, the island pays homage to Ronaldo with a museum and a statue in his honor.
In the 19th century, Madeira was a favorite destination for European royalty and aristocracy, who were drawn to the island’s beauty and mild climate. Charles I of Austria, the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, spent his final years in exile on Madeira and is buried at the Church of Our Lady of Monte in Funchal.

Madeira also played a role during World War II, as British forces used the island as a naval base to protect Allied shipping routes in the Atlantic. Although the island itself did not experience any direct conflict, it served as a strategic location for military operations.

Historical Sites and Attractions:

Madeira’s rich history is evident in its many historical sites and attractions, which offer visitors a glimpse into the island’s past. Some of the most notable historical sites include:

  • Sé Cathedral: Built between 1493 and 1514, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Funchal is one of the few structures that remain from the early period of colonization. The cathedral features a mix of Gothic, Moorish, and Manueline architectural styles and houses several valuable artifacts.
  • Fortaleza de São Tiago: Constructed in the 17th century to defend Funchal from pirate attacks, the Fortaleza de São Tiago now houses the Museum of Contemporary Art, showcasing works by Madeiran and Portuguese artists.
  • Quinta das Cruzes: This historic manor house, once owned by João Gonçalves Zarco, one of Madeira’s discoverers, has been converted into a museum displaying a collection of decorative arts, furniture, and paintings.
  • Monte Palace Tropical Garden: Located on the grounds of a former 18th-century estate, the Monte Palace Tropical Garden is home to an extensive collection of plants and trees, as well as an impressive display of historical tiles and sculptures.

Madeira’s fascinating history spans centuries of exploration, colonization, trade, and cultural exchange. From its ancient origins and the arrival of Portuguese explorers to the development of its world-famous wine industry and its current status as a popular tourist destination, Madeira’s history is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of its people. Whether you’re exploring the island’s stunning landscapes, delving into its vibrant culture, or savoring a glass of Madeira wine, you’ll be immersed in the rich historical tapestry that makes this archipelago truly unique.