Flag of Portugal

Madeira flag Madeira




Ferries-Car rentals

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.

Porto 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.

The 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 Deserta Grande.

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 into cultivation.

The Portuguese 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 Pombal.

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.

BACK      - Box 8593 108 Reykjavik- Iceland - - about us - sources               HOME