History of Madeira

According to legend Madeira was discovered by an Englishman and his mistress who were shipwrecked on the island in 1346*. The history books, however, will tell you that in 1418, João Goncalves Zarco claimed both Madeira and Porto Santo on an expedition sent by Prince Henry the Navigator.

When Zarco's colonists arrived it was found to be uninhabited. The Portuguese immediately found the island useful because of its rich soil. They set about clearing the dense forest by setting large parts of it on fire, so that it would be possible to grow crops. The fires are reported to have smouldered for as long as seven years. Sugar cane was the first crop to be imported from Italy, and then vines from Crete making it possible to produce the now very famous Madeira Wine.

Over the next 150 years the island grew in importance due to its convenient geographical location and it became a stepping stone for explorers. Columbus married one of the daughters of the island's governor and lived for a while in Porto Santo. English settlers were allowed onto Madeira for the first time in 1662 following the marriage of Charles II of England to Portugal's Catherine of Braganza. In 1801 the next big influx of British citizens came to Madeira and in 1807, when a British force was stationed on the island to protect Madeira from France during the Napoleonic Wars.

For a long period, a dictatorship existed in Portugal, but in 1974 there was a military coup which led to the free elections of the present day. In 1976 a constitution was drawn up in Lisbon declaring Madeira and Porto Santo an ‘autonomous political region’. This gave the islanders a Regional Government and Parliament which have helped to improve the political structure and living standards of Madeira.

Due to its excellent geographical location, Madeira became a natural stopping off point on the way to the New World, Asia and the Far East during the development of world trade.

Today many cruise ships make Madeira a port of call. Since the airport was built in 1964, Madeira has become an extremely popular holiday destination.

* The much favoured legend of the shipwrecked couple dates back to the early fourteenth century where English adventurer Robert Machim fell in love with a beautiful woman called Anne D’Arset. She was already betrothed to another English nobleman with an impending ‘arranged’ marriage. As love for another prevailed the couple eloped, sailing from Bristol in a ship bound for Brittany. A bad storm blew them off course and after 14 days drifting in the Atlantic came across the island of Madeira. Soon after, another storm hit and paralysed their already damaged vessel and so they anchored the boat and came ashore. Anne became sick and died in her lovers arms and so a heartbroken Robert buried her at the foot of a big tree. He placed a cedar wood cross nearby with an inscription asking any future Christian settlers to build a church beside Anne’s grave. Soon after Robert died and was buried alongside his beloved. However this popular story is not supported by any historical facts.

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