Madeira and the Azores

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The Madeira archipelago, located about 350 miles from the northwest coast of Africa and 520 miles southwest of Portugal itself, consists of the main island of Madeira and a smaller one, Porto Santo, twenty-five miles to the northeast. Though previously known, the islands were uninhabited when claimed by the Portuguese around 1419. The Portuguese began to settle them about 1425. Wood, especially cedar and yew, became important exports, along with such dyes as dragon's blood, orchil, and woad. The rich volcanic soil was made even more fertile by burning much of the tree-covered island. Because Madeira was very mountainous, terraces had to be built. Wheat became an important earlier product. It is estimated that from 1450 to 1470 Madeira was producing 3,000 to 3,500 tons a year. Grapevines were planted, sugar was introduced, and by about 1452 Madeira had its first sugar mill. Soon sugar became the archipelago's main product and was sold throughout Europe. However, by the mid-sixteenth century the sugar boom was beginning to end, and wine gradually replaced it as the island's main export.

Sugar, of course, required a workforce. At first Guanches from the Canaries and Muslim slaves from North Africa were used, followed by black slaves in the aftermath of voyages sponsored by Prince Henry (13941460). While sugar was king, the slave portion of the archipelago's population was approximately 10 percent. By the 1460s it was estimated that the Madeiras had two thousand inhabitants. By the early sixteenth century there were twenty thousand people living there, including about two thousand slaves. In the meantime, to encourage colonization, the main island of Madeira was divided into two hereditary lord proprietorships, Funchal and Machico, with extensive administrative, fiscal, and judicial privileges. The island of Porto Santo, with much less water and vegetation, was granted to a third lord proprietor. This lord proprietorship system was introduced to Brazil in the 1530s.

By the early sixteenth century Funchal, the capital of Madeira, was large enough with five thousand inhabitants to be raised to the dignity of a city (1508). Six years later it became the seat of a diocese (1514) with jurisdiction over all the Portuguese Overseas. During this time the Madeira archipelago continued to be an important way station for ships sailing to and from the Canaries and along the west coast of Africa. By 1676 the population of Madeira reached fifty thousand, with ten thousand residing in Funchal.

The Azores seem to have been discovered in 1427 and were uninhabited. The two most easterly islands (Santa Maria and São Miguel) of the Azorean archipelago are about 840 miles away from Portugal and 420 miles from Madeira. At first animals (especially sheep and goats) were left on the unpopulated islands so that lost or shipwrecked sailors would have food. By 1439 seven islands were known, including the middle group of Terceira, Faial, São Jorge, Pico, and Graciosa, with Terceira seventy-five nautical miles from São Miguel. Finally the two most western islands (Flores and Corvo), located about 1,000 miles from Newfoundland and 375 miles west of Santa Maria, were discovered about 1450 by Diogo de Teive. The lord proprietor approach was also used in the Azores and may have been even more important than in Madeira. Wood and woad were early exports, then wheat became important, though woad and other dyestuffs were major exports until the late seventeenth century. Initial settlement was a slow process, but by the end of the fifteenth century all nine islands in the Azores were populated with settlers from Portugal, Flanders, and the Madeiras. By 1500 there were five towns. By 1550 there were two citiesAngra in Terceira and Ponta Delgada in São Migueland twelve towns. In 1534 Angra became the seat of a diocese with jurisdiction over all the Azores.

In 1582 (on São Miguel) and 1583 (on Terceira) the forces of Dom António (15311595), prior of Crato and pretender to the Portuguese throne, backed by the French, were defeated by Spain's Alvaro de Bazán (15261588), marquis of Santa Cruz. During the Spanish Habsburg period (especially the early years), the Azores were frequently attacked by English, French, and Dutch pirates and corsairs. By 1587 the archipelago had a population of thirty-three thousand, and by 1695 the number of inhabitants was estimated at eighty-five thousand. Throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, large numbers of the surplus population of the Azores and the Madeiras migrated to the Portuguese overseas colonies, especially Brazil.

See also Portugal .


Duncan, T. Bentley. Atlantic Islands: Madeira, the Azores, and the Cape Verdes in Seventeenth-Century Commerce and Navigation. Chicago and London, 1972.

Oliveira Marques, Antonio Henrique de. History of Portugal. 2nd ed. New York, 1976.

Francis A. Dutra

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Madeira and the Azores

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