The Madeira Islands
(Funchal Islands), form an archipelago of volcanic origin in the North
Atlantic Ocean. They belong to Portugal and comprise two inhabited
islands, Madeira and Porto Santo, and two uninhabited groups, the
Desertas and the Selvagens. The islands are the summits of submarine
mountains based on an abyssal ocean floor. Administratively they form
the autonomous region of Madeira. The islands have an area of 306 square
miles (794 km²).
Madeira Island, the largest of the group, is 34 miles (55
km) long and has a maximum width of 14 miles (22 km) and a
coastline of about
90 miles (144 km) and rises in the centre to the Ruivo de Santana Peak
(6,106 feet [1,861 m]). The greater part of the interior above 3,000
feet (900 m) is uninhabited and uncultivated; communities of scattered
huts are usually built either at the mouths of ravines or upon slopes
that descend from the mountains to the coast.
Santo Island is about 26 miles (42 km) northeast of Madeira; its main
town, Vila de Porto Santo, is called locally the Vila. At each end of
the island are hills, of which Facho Peak, the highest, reaches 1,696
feet (515 m). Crops include little besides wheat, grapes, and barley.
Desertas lie about 11 miles (18 km) southeast of Madeira and consist
of three islets, Chão, Bugio, and Deserta Grande, along with the Prego
do Mor off the north end of Chão Island. Rabbits and wild goats live
on the poor pasture and attract occasional hunters to once-inhabited
The Selvagens, or
Salvage Islands, are three uninhabited rocks located 156 miles (251 km)
south of Madeira, between the latter and the Canary Islands. The largest
has a circumference of about 3 miles (5 km).
It has been
conjectured that the Phoenicians visited Madeira. Genoese adventurers,
however, undoubtedly explored the whole archipelago before the mid-14th
century, because an Italian map (the Laurentian portolano) dated 1351
depicts the Madeiras quite clearly. A Portuguese navigator, João
Gonçalves Zarco, probably sighted Porto Santo in 1418, having been
driven there by a storm when exploring the coast of western Africa. When
Zarco visited Madeira in 1420, the islands were
without human or
land-mammal habitation, and his sponsor, Henry the Navigator, at once
began their colonization. The dense forests were felled and burned (the
fires are said to have raged for seven years), and much land was brought
introduced grape cultivation from Cyprus or Crete in the 15th century.
Sugarcane most probably was brought to Madeira from Sicily about 1452.
Madeira is said to have been the location of the world's first sugarcane
plantation, and the island's sugar trade quickly became important.
Madeira wine, which is dark brown and ranges from dry to sweet with a
hard aftertaste, became an important export in the 17th century. (The
wine's modern producers agitate it artificially to reproduce the effects
of shipment on stormy Atlantic voyages.) The sugar and wine industries
of the Madeira Islands suffered temporarily when slavery was abolished
in 1775 by the order of the Portuguese statesman-reformer the Marquês de
The Madeira Islands'
economy is still based on the production of sugar, wine, and bananas.
The common sweet potato and gourds of various kinds are extensively
grown, as is the kalo, or taro, introduced from the Pacific islands.
Most of the culinary vegetables of Europe are also grown on the islands
in plentiful quantities. In addition to common temperate fruits,
oranges, lemons, guavas, mangoes, loquats, custard apples, figs,
pineapples, and bananas are produced, the latter being an important
export. Although agriculture predominates in the Madeiran economy,
handicrafts, tourism, and fishing are notable subsidiaries. Handicrafts
include woodworking and wicker working. Embroidery, which was introduced
in 1850 by a Mrs. Phelps, an Englishwoman, now employs thousands of
women. Pop. (1987 est.) Madeira, 264,800; Porto Santo, 4,700.