The island of Madeira was discovered by Tristão Vaz Teixeira, Bartolomeu Perestrelo and João Gonçalves Zarco, two Portuguese explorers, in 1419, which dubbed the island ‘Madeira’ (“wood” in English) due to the abundance of this raw material.

Noticing the potential of the islands, as well as its strategic importance, the colonization of the islands began in 1425.

At the beginning of its settlement, some agricultural crops, such as cane sugar, were introduced, which quickly afforded the Funchal metropolis frank economic prosperity. This meant that, in the second half of the fifteenth century, the city of Funchal became a mandatory port of call for European trade routes.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were marked by the emergence of a new culture that would boost the Madeira economy again: wine.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Madeira flourished for the birth of the tourism sector, quickly becoming a mandatory reference for the European aristocracy that has set temporary residence here, attracted by the natural therapeutic qualities of the island.

In 1976, Madeira became an Autonomous Region of Portugal, thus having the power to legislate.


descobrimentos portugueses_by_grafik-d5qn6bl


The explorers discovered the island of Porto Santo in 1418 after a sea storm, where the vessel was cleared of its route along the coast of Africa, due to bad weather. After many days adrift at sea, a small island which they called “Porto Seguro, Porto Santo” (“Safe Port, Holy Port” in English), was spotted and saved Zarco’s crew from a disastrous destiny.

A year after the discovery of Porto Santo they arrive on Madeira Island in 1419. Its name is believed to have been assigned by Zarco, who dubbed the island of ‘Madeira’ (“wood” in English) due to the abundance of this raw material.

Around 1425, King João I ordered the colonization of the islands. From 1440 on, the regime of captaincy is established and Tristão Vaz Teixeira was nominated as captain-donee of the Captaincy of Machico; six years later, Bartolomeu Perestrelo becomes captain-donee of Porto Santo, and in 1450, Zarco was appointed captain-donee of Funchal.

The first settlers were the three captain-donees and their respective families, a small group of members of the gentry, people of modest conditions and some former inmates of the Kingdom.

To have minimum conditions for the development of agriculture on the island they had to chop down part of the dense forest and build a large number of water channels, called “levadas”, to carry the abundant waters on the north coast to the south coast of the island.

In the early times, fish and vegetables were the settlers’ main means of subsistence.

“White Gold” Era

cana acucar sugar cane madeira

In the fifteenth century, Madeira starts planting sugar cane imported from Sicily by Dom Henrique. With the rapid expansion of the sugar cane industry, Funchal becomes a commercial center of excellence, attended by traders of various nationalities, which changes its insular financial dimension.
In 1472, the Madeira sugar starts being directly exported to Flanders, which became its main redistribution center. Madeira assumes particular importance in the axis of these relations between Flanders and Portugal.

With the production of sugar cane, Madeira attracted adventurers and traders from the most remote origins, this exploration was considered at the time as the main engine of Madeira’s economy. Many foreigners traveled to the region for the sugar business, especially Italians, Basques, Catalans and Flemish people.

The marketing of sugar in Madeira reached its peak in the 1520s which coincided with the timing of most Flemish works of art to the island, in a notorious commercial environment of prosperity. Works of gigantic proportions were imported, mostly paintings, ostentatious mixed altarpieces or triptychs, as well as major images from Bruges, Antwerp and Malines. Silver and copper objects, and gravestones with metal inlays were imported from Flanders and Hainaut, such as those in the Funchal Cathedral and in Museums such as the one of Sacred Art.

Until the first half of the sixteenth century, Madeira was one of the major sugar markets of the Atlantic. However, there were several reasons for the decline of this culture and gave way to other markets.

The Wine Cicle

In the mid sixteenth century, the famous English playwright William Shakespeare cites the important export and notoriety of the Malvasia wine, drowning the Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV of England, in a barrel of this wine.
With the decline of sugar production in the late sixteenth century, sugar plantations were replaced by vineyards, originating in the so-called ‘Wine Culture’, which acquired international fame and provided the rise of a new social class, the Bourgeoisie.
With the increase of commercial treaties with England, important English merchants settled on the Island and, ultimately, controlled the increasingly important island wine trade. The English traders settled in the Funchal as of the seventeenth century, consolidating the markets from North America, the West Indies and England itself. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the structure of the “wine city prevailed over the sugar city”.
The various governors of Madeira and even the convents of Funchal eventually entered the wine trade.
During the nineteenth century, two serious epidemics attacked Madeira vines, causing losses. In order to try and hold the international wine market of Madeira, they tried planting more resistant varieties, although of lower quality.
The characteristic spaces for manufacturing, aging and storage of wine, which once proliferated, may still be found in some wineries. The memory of objects and contexts related to the wine sector is presented to us in institutions such as the Instituto do Vinho da Madeira, H.M. Borges and the Madeira Wine Company.

Scientific and Therapeuthic Tourism

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Madeira stands out for its climate and therapeutic effects. As of the second half of the eighteenth century, Madeira becomes a resort of therapeutic ends, using the preventive qualities of its climate to cure tuberculosis.
The island’s mild climate, with a somewhat constant temperature all day round, and its weak daylight and annual temperature range, are attractive qualities to advertise Madeira as a recommended and highly sought after island.
Madeira’s fame in the therapeutic tourism quickly spreads throughout Europe and the island takes advantage of the European instability of the time, where liberal wars block the access roads to health resorts of southern Italy and France. The maritime traffic to such areas, with English, German and Russian nationals, ends up being diverted to the region which, of course, has a very positive outcome.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Madeira witnessed the socialising of poets, writers, politicians and aristocrats. The island remained, for a long time, as the resting site for these patients. Nowadays, it is considered to be Europe’s first and main cure and convalescence resort.
The increasingly assiduous presence of these patients, emphasized the need to create more supporting infrastructures: sanatoriums, lodging and agents who served as intermediaries between these outsiders and owners of such spaces.
Tourism, as we understand it today, was taking its first steps.

Early days of Tourism

Transportes Madeira islands

In the nineteenth century, visitors to the island integrated four major groups: patients, travellers, tourists and scientists. Most visitors belonged to the moneyed aristocracy, with an endless list of aristocrats, princes, princesses and monarchs.
Still during the seventeenth century, the increase of sea routes and interest in botany led to the introduction of new plants, which were acclimatized to the Island and enriched the gardens of homes and, in particular, of the estates which arose around the city.In Madeira, the main port and city no longer monopolized the attention of travellers: walks and horse rides enabled incursions to the inner part of the island. In the late 1840s the first steps were taken to create a set of supporting infrastructures within the island. However, it is only in 1887 that the first adequate network of inns, outside of Funchal, begin to appear. The presence of these units did not put an end to the traditional hospitality of existing homes and estates in Funchal, further south.
As a result of a high demand for the season, there was a need to prepare guides for visitors. The first tourist guide of Madeira appeared in 1850 and focused on elements of history, geology, flora, fauna and customs of the island.
Regarding hotel infrastructures, the British and the Germans were the first to launch the Madeiran hotel chain.

Development of Transportation Network

In the first half of the twentieth century attention focused on air transport.
The opening to the world, via this route starts with the seaplanes, which began operating on 15th May 1949, with equipment of “Aquila Airways”. Subsequently, it is followed by Artop until 1958. During this period, 32,838 passengers disembarked on the island.
In 1960, the airport on the island of Porto Santo opens and the Madeira Archipelago now has a regular air service between the two islands for the first time. Previously, the connection between the two islands was done by by boat, with the “Lisbonense” and “Cedros” Ferryboats.
In 1964, Madeira tourism gains greater projection, with the construction of the Santa Catarina Airport, with a 1,600-meters long runway. The new infrastructure allows aircrafts to operate on the island, benefiting from domestic, international and charter flights, managed to transport, at the time, large numbers of tourists. In 2000, the airport’s runway was expanded to 2781 meters. It is partially built on slab over the sea, and supported by 180 pillars. This is an international airport, also with domestic flights.
It is also in the first half of this century that the Port of Funchal was expanded, widening the pier in all its length and extension.
At this time the construction of roads connecting the different locations were built, albeit in a rudimentary manner.



Madeira earns its administrative political autonomy in 1976, becoming an Autonomous Region of Portugal. This stems from the 25th April 1974, which marked the beginning of a new era.
With the entry of Portugal into the European Union, the Autonomous Region of Madeira (RAM) has benefited from funds that have provided it with a greater reliance on regional development in various sectors. The road network was one of the main targets for improvement with various infrastructures that reduce distances and increase the safety of those who use it.
Madeiran tourism has become increasingly characterized by a high influx of tourists and the consequent emergence of new hotel infrastructures and a new philosophy of action in this area, related to the economic, social and cultural development that begins in the Region.