From The Madeira Island Web Site

A Timeline of the History of Madeira
By Jorge Barbosa
Apr 29, 2007 - 9:45:41 PM

20 Million Years Ago

Volcanic eruptions from off the seabed start forming the basis of the platform upon which Madeira would grow. Layers and layers of molten lava keep spewing from the earth’s sea bound mantle and this settles on the already steep shoot of solid rock growing over many centuries. Eventually the volcanic lava pushes above sea level and continues to spew ash and molten rock into the air. Various islands and rock bed form around the area of the Madeiran archipelago today.

1.7 Million Years Ago

The volcanic disturbances extinguish themselves and the island cools down. With time seeds and other pods brought by the oceanic flow and wild birds take root on the island. These seedlings flourish in the rich volcanic soil. A dense forest of trees and plants emerges.


2000 Years Ago (approximately)

Sources report knowledge of the island. Early Phoenicians, Romans and North-Africans make references to what could be the archipelago of Madeira in ancient texts. The island remains uninhabited.


Under the auspices of Prince Henry the Navigator, and under one of many routes of seafaring discovery along the African coast, a ship commanded by João Gonçalves Zarco bound for African Guinea is beaten off course by violent storms. In what must have been considered a miracle for the then seafarers the boat encounters an island where they find safe harbour. João Gonçalves Zarco names this island “ Porto Santo”, or “Holy Port” in English, as a sign of gratitude to God for saving their lives.


On a return visit to Porto Santo the Captain spots dense cloud in the distance south west of the island of Porto Santo and sees the outline of another bigger island. Upon visiting the larger island they come across dense wooded forest and choose to name the newly added Portuguese territory “ Ilha da Madeira”, or “Wood Island” in English.


Colonisation begins. The first settlers set fire to the dense forest near the areas where conditions are ideal for the cultivation of sugar cane. Sugar – the white gold – transforms the island into a rapidly important economic unit for the Portuguese crown. Mostly noble families are entrusted to these ventures.


The first sets of slaves are brought over from Africa including “Guachos” from the Canary Islands. They are tasked to the rugged and difficult work of building the terraces and retaining stone walls. They also start building the water canals for irrigation that would eventually give rise to a vast network of “ Levadas” in Madeira.


Christopher Columbus visits the archipelago to buy sugar. He marries Filipa Moniz, daughter of the first governor of Porto Santo Bartolomeu Perestrelo. He finds flotsam of various plants of foreign origin on the beach of Porto Santo to inculcate the theory of other lands or islands even further west from the archipelago. This way is hatched his plans for the future discovery of the Americas.


The archipelago undertakes its first census. There are more than 5000 inhabitants on the islands.


The city walls, to protect Funchal from Pirate attack, are completed.


Despite the protection of the city walls 1000 (one thousand) French corsairs attack Funchal. They assassinate the governor and plunder the mansions and churches dotted around the successful community. This marks the worst act of aggression ever perpetrated on the island.


Phillip II of Spain assumes the throne in Portugal and Madeira falls under Spanish rule.


The total population of Madeira is now calculated at 28 345 inhabitants. Of these at least 3000 are slaves.


Under the leadership of Dom João IV (King John IV) Portugal revolts the Spanish rule and recover independence from the Spanish crown. Madeira is Portuguese again.


Catherine of Bragança, daughter of Dom João IV (King John IV), marries Charles II, the king of England. As part of the pre-nuptial agreement English trade and merchants are given privileged access to the Madeiran economy. Over time they gain strong control of the emerging and lucrative Madeira wine industry. Many choose to reside permanently in Madeira.


Slavery is abolished in Portugal.


In one of the worst natural disasters on the island 600 inhabitants drown during some flash floods in Funchal. Preparations are made for the building of high walls on the banks of the three rivers that run down to the harbour in central Funchal.

1807 - 1813

British troops land on the island. Their purpose is to act as a defence against the encroaching and marching forces of Napoleon as his armies conquer most of Europe. Indeed, Madeira is briefly under the dominion of British rule and the Union Jack is hoisted over that of Portugal’s flag when Napoleon takes control of the country. Madeira never sees a French soldier close to its shores.


In one of the worst health problems the island has ever suffered more than 7000 inhabitants fall victim to cholera. At the same time a devastating mildew destroys the vines across Madeira and economic hardship is rife. New varietals of grapes are planted and the introduction of banana as an alternative cash crop is promoted.


Madeira starts enjoying the first inklings of what would become its mainstay for the insular economy: tourism. The island’s new fortunes are a result of the increased and intense traffic of ships between cold northern Europe and the warmer tropical climates of the south by a new bourgeoisie class of Europe.


The emblematic and token hotel “The Reid’s” opens its doors to the public. It caters specifically to a very wealthy and distinct upper class of clientele.


German submarines firing from the harbour of Funchal bombard the city on two separate occasions. The damage incurred is minimal.


Inhabitants on the island revolt against the stringent economic measures put in place by the government of Oliveira Salazar. They go on general strike. The government in Lisbon sends troops to the island to quell the rebellion. After the suppression many Madeirans start to seek new lives abroad and begin a long tradition of emigration to many different parts of the world. Initially, these would include the “Sandwich Islands” (Hawaii), the USA and Brazil. Later it is Venezuela, South Africa and France that collect the many departed.


Santa Catarina Airport (or Funchal Airport) is inaugurated. The first commercial flights are introduced and the island adapts to a new type of tourist.


On the 25th of April a bloodless revolution takes place and the dictatorial government is overthrown. A democratic regime is installed and Portugal starts to relinquish its colonial territories.


The archipelago of Madeira is accorded self-rule and is given autonomous status by the Portuguese government. Madeira has its own regional government, presidency and legislature. The military and judiciary remain under Portuguese auspices.


The entry of Portugal into the European Economic Community heralds a new phase of development for Madeira. Madeira is considered one of the poorest regions of the EEC and the islands are given incredible financial support for the development of infrastructure and the economy.

© Copyright 2007 by The Madeira Island Web Site