In 1419 two captains of Prince Henry the Navigator, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, were driven by a storm to the island they called Porto Santo, or Holy Harbour, in gratitude for their rescue from shipwreck. The next year an expedition was sent to populate the island, and, Madeira being described, they made for it, and took possession on behalf of the Portuguese crown, together with captain Bartolomeu Perestrello.
The islands started to be settled circa 1420 or 1425. On September 23, 1433, the name Ilha da Madeira (Madeira Island or “island of the wood”) appears in a map, by the first time, in a document.
The three captain-majors had led, in the first trip, the respective families, a small group of people of the minor nobility, people of modest conditions and some old prisoners of the kingdom.
To gain the minimum conditions for the development of agriculture, they had to rough-hew a part of the dense forest of laurisilva. Then fires were started, which are said to have burned for seven years. The colonists constructed a large number of canals (levadas), since in some parts of the island, they had water in excess while in other parts water was scarce.
The manual work was done by enslaved Africans brought from the African mainland. They were soon put to growing and refining sugar, which was much in demand in Europe and highly profitable. As the slaves were worked to death and the women were unable to bear children, more and more Africans were captured and brought to the island.
This pattern for sugar cultivation became the model that would soon be transferred to the Caribbean and Brazil. In Madeira it became evident that a warm climate, winds to work windmills for sugar crushing and easy access to the sea (for transportation of the raw sugar to Europe) were, together with slave labour, important components in what became a huge and highly profitable industry, which funded industrialisation and European expansion.
Some years before his voyages across the Atlantic, Christopher Columbus, who at the time was a sugar trader, visited Madeira. It is generally accepted that he was born in Genoa, Italy as Cristoforo Colon. In Portugal it has been claimed that he was born in that country, as Salvador Fernandes Zarco but this is disputed.
Columbus married the daughter of a plantation owner on Porto Santo and so was well aware of the profits to be made. He also understood the necessary growing conditions for sugar and the navigational technique known as the Volta do mar. On one of his voyages to the Caribbean he took sugar cane plants with him. By the end of the 1400s, Madeira was the world’s greatest producer of sugar.
In the earliest times, fish constituted about half of the settlers’ diet, together with vegetables and fruit. The first local agricultural activity with some success was the raising of wheat. Initially, the colonists produced wheat for their own sustenance but, later began to export wheat to Portugal.
The discoveries of Porto Santo and Madeira were first described by Gomes Eannes de Azurara in Chronica da Descoberta e Conquista da Guiné. (Eng. version by Edgar Prestage in 2 vols. issued by the Hakluyt Society, London, 1896-1899: The Chronicle of Discovery and Conquest of Guinea.) Arkan Simaan relates these discoveries in French in his novel based on Azurara’s Chronicle: L’Écuyer d’Henri le Navigateur, published by Éditions l’Harmattan, Paris.