Early days | Recent History
In many contemporary accounts, the discovery of Madeira is attributed to João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira in 1419. However, it is now generally held, due to evidence from Italian and Catalan maps from the 14th century, that Madeira may have been discovered as early as 1350. However it was undoubtedly the Portuguese who set about colonising the island for the purpose of commerce and maritime expansion.
During the 15th century, Madeira played an important role in the great Portuguese discoveries and the island became rich from trade. It was in Madeira and Porto Santo that Christopher Colombus learned the art of navigation and planned his voyage to America.
In 1425, the island was divided into the regions of Funchal, Machico and Porto Santo. Rapid development began and organised settlements arose. Agricultural production increased to the point where Madeira had about 150 large farms that produced more than 3,000 tonnes of wheat, the greater part of which was exported to mainland Portugal and to the Portuguese trading posts of the Saccharine and Guinea Littoral.
As the 15th century drew to a close, the island concentrated on the production of sugar cane for European export. Slavery flourished at the time, with thousands of men, women and children being transported from Africa to work in the cane fields and sugar mills.
Diogo Teives invented the first water-powered mechanical sugar mill early in the 16th century which increased the capacity for sugar cane processing. Towards the end of the century the sugar economy of Madeira collapsed. This was due in part to soil deficiency brought about by over-production, but also to the competition from imported sugar from Brazil.
The irony could not have escaped the Portuguese, who were responsible for exporting the technology and labour to Brazil and South America to set up sugar production there.