History of Madeira Island

When the Infante Dom Henrique, better known in English as Prince Henry the Navigator, gathered together the finest cartographers and navigators of Portugal at the beginning of the 15th century, his plan was to extend the knowledge of the coast of West Africa. Armed only with square-rigged ships, compass, hourglass and astrolabe, the initial sea captains were severely handicapped in their endeavours. But in the course of their ventures, the finest hour of Portuguese maritime history, luck brought greater riches than the purities of science and logic.

Two young sea captains, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, were blown off course on their journey around the African coast and after many days at sea found land on a small island that they named Porto Santo - the very first of the many discoveries made by Henry's school of navigation. On reporting to Henry they were promptly ordered to return and colonise the island. The year was 1419.
Seductive as are the charms of the golden sands of Porto Santo, it seems somewhat incredible today that it took a further year before the next discovery was made. The captains had reported a dark mass of clouds visible on the southern horizon. They were now encouraged to explore this foreboding mass. As theories to whether the world was flat had yet to be completely disproved, it took an enormous leap of faith to cross the traverse.

As they approached, the huge Atlantic rollers breaking along the north coast and the boiling turbulence of the cross currents at the Ponta de São Lourenço cannot have eased the concern of the superstitious sailors. But on rounding the headland they discovered the bay of Machico, the threshold to the heavily forested island that they named Madeira. Prince Henry immediately organised the colonisation of the island, with the first families coming from the Algarve region of Portugal.

Today the statue of Zarco looks down on the descendants of the first colonisers as they navigate the corner in front of the Bank of Portugal building in downtown Funchal. As the Portuguese overseas possessions have shrunk so the relative significance of this first great discovery has gained in importance. To find a needle in a haystack can be trying, but to find Porto Santo in an Atlantic storm was a lucky prize indeed.