Islands of Ancient Volcanic Origin
The volcanic origin story of Madeira takes us back roughly 5 million years. Peaks and valleys of hardened lava, ash and rocks ended up forming the four islands of the archipelago-- Madeira, Porto Santo, Desertas and Selvagens, now one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
The island of Madeira was discovered by a trio of adventurous Portuguese sea captains, João Gonçalves Zarco, Bartolomeu Perestrelo and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, who named the island ‘Madeira’ for being a heavily wooded island, and its capital city Funchal for the abundance of fennel in the area. Though the island was discovered in 1419, colonization didn’t begin until 1425, once the Portuguese realized the island was chock full of natural resources and located in a strategically important area.
Sugar, Honey & Rum: The History of Madeira's "White Gold" Era
Back in the 15th century, Madeira began planting sugar cane, a crop originally imported from Sicily by Dom Henrique (better known as "Prince Henry the Navigator.") Though the steep and hilly lands were very difficult to cultivate, Madeira eventually had great success and began producing sugar cane on farms and in mills around the island. Sugar was considered a luxury at the time, and as plantations and production expanded, the industry grew to rapidly become one of great importance to the local economy. Madeira Sugar became well known all over Europe, attracting merchants and traders to the port city of Funchal, many of whom eventually settled in the city and across the island.
By 1472, Madeira Sugar began being exported directly to Flanders, opening a very important line of trade between Portugal and the country. Sugar was even traded for unique works of Flemish art, much of which can be found displayed at museums around Madeira. Works of gigantic proportions were imported, mostly paintings, ostentatious mixed altarpieces or triptychs, as well as major images from Bruges, Antwerp and Malines. Silver and copper objects, and gravestones with metal inlays were imported from Flanders and Hainaut, such as those in the Funchal Cathedral and in Museums such as the one of Sacred Art.
Madeira Island's sugar production reached its peak between 1500-1520, making the island the largest sugar exporter in the world. But, by the end of the century, sugar cane production fell due to over-production and a disease that wiped out the crop fields around the island. Today, three sugar cane processing factories still exist and process the raw materials into honey, molasses and rum. Though the factories are only running during the spring months, they are open for visitors year round at their locations in Ribeiro Sêco in Funchal, Calheta and Porto da Cruz.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Madeira’s economy boosted with the emergence of its world-famous wine. In fact, Madeira’s fortified wine has not only accompanied many great meals, but also some of the world’s most historically significant moments. That’s right, the founding fathers of the United States toasted to the signing of the Declaration of Independence with Madeira wine on July 4, 1776. Winston Churchill was once quoted as saying that drinking an aged Madeira wine is equivalent to “drinking liquid history.”
Click here to read all about Madeira's world famous wine.
Madeira gained immense popularity as a European tourist hotspot throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, laying the groundwork for what would later become the islands’ largest economic sector in present day.
(Photos courtesy of Visit Madeira)