Madeira: History

Scenic mountainous landscapes, stunning wildlife and fabulous food

The story of Madeira begins with a romantic tale of two lovers, Robert Machim and Anna d’ Arfet, coming from England to France in 1346, being driven off their course by a storm, and cast on the coast of Madeira at a place that was named Machino in their memory.

A less-fanciful record of history of the discovery of Madeira in 1418 sees a ship commanded by João Gonçalves Zarco beaten off course by violent storms, and finding safe harbour on an island. It was named Porto Santo (the sister island of Madeira), or Holy Port in English, as a sign of gratitude to God for saving their lives.

A few years later the first colonists set fire to the dense forests of Madeira to enable the cultivation of sugar cane, then in 1452 the first slaves on Madeira began to build terraces and retaining stone walls and the water canals for irrigation that would give rise to a vast network of Levadas in Madeira.
Madeira played its own part in the discovery of the Americas, as Christopher Columbus visited Madeira to buy sugar in 1478. He found flotsam of various plants of foreign origin on the beach of Porto Santo, corroborating the theory that land lay even further west from Madeira. He hatched his plans for the future discovery of the Americas.

For 60 years during the 16th and 17th century Madeira fell under Spanish rule, and then in the mid 1600s, English traders and merchants were given privileged access to the Madeira economy. Over time they gained control of the Madeira wine industry, and many chose to stay permanently in Madeira.
In the early 1800s, Madeira also briefly came under British rule as British troops defended Madeira against the marching forces of Napoleon.

And in the late 1800s, Madeira started enjoying its first taste of tourism, as more ships travelled between northern Europe and the tropical climates of the south. Madeira’s Reid’s Hotel opened its doors to cater to a very wealthy class of clientele.

In 1964 Funchal Airport was opened, and the first commercial flights introduced, and Madeira welcomed a new generation of tourists.
The archipelago of Madeira gained self-rule in 1974.
As Portugal headed into the European Economic Community in 1986, it was good news for Madeira. Madeira is considered one of the poorest regions of the EEC and the islands are given incredible financial support.