From The Madeira Island Web Site

The conflicting reports on the discovery of Madeira: An Introduction
By Jorge Barbosa
May 13, 2007 - 4:53:21 PM

The discovery or first sightings of the island cannot be precisely determined. In a way similar to the way the Americas were discovered (or rediscovered) by Christopher Columbus where legend and sporadic evidence showed Vikings to have been amongst the first Europeans to enter the new land the same can be said for Madeira.

Records show Arabs and Carthaginians trolling the Atlantic waters from the sixth century B.C. through to the second millennium with accounts being remitted of various lands they had encountered. Some of these accounts were pointed out in the “Al Kalidat” – a record maintained by Arabic geographers. These records made several references of islands far off-shore including mention of islands that look and picture characteristics similar to that of the archipelago of Madeira.

Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus of Sicily) in circa 1450 B.C. drew on oral accounts and verbal reports that make specific reference to a densely wooded island.

Nearly a century earlier than the official date of discovery of the island a book called the "Libro del conoscimento de todos los reynos", written by an anonymous Franciscan monk in mid fourteenth century Castile (Central Spain), and republished for the first time since by Jiménez de la Espada in 1877, makes specific reference to the islands called “Selvage”, “Desierta” and “Puerto Sancto”.

The first cartographic representations of the islands are found in the “Atlas Mediceo” (circa 1352 – 1357). Here, the islands in the archipelago are referenced as “Porto Sancto”, “I De lo Legname” and “Deserte”.

Atlas of Charles V Map of Mecia de Viladestes - 1413Mecia (Matthew) de Viladestes (a Jewish/Catalan cartographer residing in Majorca during the early fifteenth century) drew a map in 1413 that showed a very close approximation of the real configuration and outlines of the archipelago. This map was published six years before the official discovery date of 1419.

So with all the verifiable and confirmed evidence of the islands being known of prior to the Portuguese claim why the conflicting dates of discovery?

During the time of the voyages of discovery initiated in the early fifteenth century much dispute was to be had as to whom the new lands and islands were to belong to. Portuguese and Castilian sailors under the aegis of their respective crowns sought to grow their kingdoms by the right of first discovery. It was convenient, then, for the Portuguese and Castilians to simply ignore any previous account of discovery of any new lands and lay claim to first discovery when these claims were “published*” or pronounced under the socio-economic system of the time - which was governed strongly by ties to the catholic church – the church which in turn was ultimately the final authority for claims of title to property. Any claim made by, say Arabic explorers, who were outside the scope of papal control, would just be squashed and title given to whomever brought proof of first discovery. So it was then that in 1419 the official discovery of the archipelago took place by João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira as vassals to the Portuguese crown and title was taken of the islands.

The importance of making a “claim of discovery” was very much tied into the way the Catholic church endorsed and recognised the fiefdoms of Kings. The pope, who was after all the King of Kings, was the ultimate authority in awarding recognition of title to the new lands. The competition between the Portuguese and the Castilian monarchs for territorial expansion was heating up and the Atlantic Ocean became the new frontier for the expansion of the catholic influence. Some measure of control had to be installed to avoid conflicts. Hence the need and consequent negation of any previous claims to first discovery of the new territory.

* It is interesting to note that to provide physical evidence of first discovery the discoverers would install a stone cross or standard on the new found territories. The cross being an immitigable token of Christian right to the new land.

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