It is only in recent years that one can talk of the ‘Madeirenses’ as a collective society, since the topography of the island had previously been more conducive to the separate development of the various communities of the island. Although their origins were undoubtedly Portuguese, the customs, dialects and development of each council were very different. Today, politics, roads and popular culture have united the various parts of the island into a more homogeneous whole and the remaining differences are those between Funchal and the so-called ‘campo’ (countryside).
Of ties that bind the island together perhaps the most important is the influence of the Catholic Church and Madeirans are a God-fearing people. But the fear of God can be relaxed on occasions as organised religion provides plentiful opportunities for a good ‘festa’ (party). In the month of June alone there are three parties to celebrate the popular saints São João, São Pedro and Santo Antonio.
By origins the natives of Madeira are farmers, the island having been originally settled by people from the Algarve region of Portugal. Still today the largest single economic activity outside of Funchal is the farming of smallholdings, most of which are less than 1000 square metres. Many of the popular ‘festas’ that are celebrated around the island are linked to a certain product such as the cherry, the chestnut, sugar cane and the vine.
When the crops failed and the land was subdivided beyond subsistence level, the last recourse of the ‘Madeirense’ was emigration. Sitting as the island does on the great sea routes between Europe, Africa and Latin America, it was natural that some should seek their fortune - but that more should escape their misfortune - in lands beyond the horizon. The emigrant works to return to his beautiful island and to the broken family that waited so long for his return. Some 750,000 people, mostly resident in South Africa, Venezuela and more increasingly in the countries of the EU, call themselves Madeiran.