Recent studies have shown that Madeira is a mere seven million years old, formed by volcanic activity that thrust a mass of rock and lava through the Atlantic’s choppy waters. Probably never inhabited by indigenous people, the island spent millennium after tranquil millennium unacquainted with the human race.
So just who got to Madeira first? The Portuguese history books would have us believe it was captain João Gonçalves Zarco, dispatched in 1419 and again in 1420 by Prince Henry the Navigator who was acting on a hunch. However, a Medici map of 1351 shows the Madeiran Archipelago and even the Romans may have been aware of it – Pliny the Elder mentions the islands in his Natural History. But it was Zarco et al who really kicked off the human story on Madeira and Porto Santo. He became governor of half the island (fellow explorer Tristão Vaz Teixeira got the other half) and established Funchal, which quickly took over from Machico as the island’s capital.
As more and more settlers from Europe arrived, at first the area around Funchal was used for wheat production, but sugar cane was soon found to be a more lucrative prospect. Madeira’s year-round warmth meant grapes began to thrive and Madeira wine became a vital export. This was helped by the British occupation of Madeira during the Napoleonic wars – Madeira wine became a luxury tipple in Victorian Britain and British merchants were given special trading rights with the island.
The first wealthy tourists also arrived on the coast in the late 19th and early 20th century, but this was in stark contrast to conditions inland where hunger stalked the land. The two world wars left Madeira almost untouched. In 1974 the Carnation Revolution in mainland Portugal led to Madeira being handed autonomous status with its own legislative assembly and president.
With the building of the airport in the 1960s, tourism became the mainstay of the economy and that remains the case to this day. In the new millennium some big infrastructure projects such as the south coast motorway (the Via Rápida) have improved life on Madeira immensely. No doubt Zarco would have approved.