Madeira’s History

Madeira’s History

History: a peaceful island born of violence

About 20 million years ago, Madeira burst from the Atlantic in giant gushes of volcanic flames.  After the lava cooled, erosion shaped the island.  The highest point is on the east-west backbone,  and is called Pico Ruivo or Purple Peak.

Discovery of Madeira

Zarco - Funchal, Madeira Island, Portugal

Two captains, Joao Gonçalves Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixeira, discovered the Archipelago  (Porto Santo Island)  in 1418.   Both captains were serving the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator.   Zarco discovered Madeira Island  itself shortly after in July 1419.  He also founded the city of Câmara de Lobos.  Zarco received half of the Island of Madeira.  Together with Tristão Vaz Teixeira and Bartolomeu Perestrelo, he started the colonization of the islands in 1425.  Zarco died in Funchal.


When Zarco landed on Madeira, a lush and dense forest covered the uninhabited island.  He called it “Ilha da Madeira”, or Island of woods (Madeira means wood in Portuguese).  The first settlements in Madeira grew after the discovery.  The first colonizers arrived in 1420 to 1425.  Of course the early colonizers were the families of the captain-majors.  Members of noble Portuguese families followed.   But it was not just the rich and influential who  established their residence in Madeira. Some prisoners came as well for the sole purpose of working in the fields.  They cultivated the land, or prepared areas for agriculture, clearing out some parts of the forest.   Interestingly, the prisoners also  constructed levadas or water canals.

After trying to grow wheat, Henry the Navigator introduced sugarcane on Madeira.  Sugar production became very successful on Madeira.  Quickly, it became the island’s primary economic engine until the sugar production was moved mostly to Brazil after the 17th century.  Vineyards and wine production also started in the 17th century.   Embroidery production was also important.

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