João Gonçalves Zarco
João Gonçalves Zarco
In 1418 Portuguese navigator João Gonçalves Zarco sighted one of the Madeira Islands off the coast of Morocco. Within two years, he had claimed the Madeiras for Portugal, whose possession they remain. Zarco's "discovery"—the Madeiras had actually been known to mariners before, then forgotten—was the first notable achievement credited to the school of explorers founded by Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460).
Little is known about Zarco's life aside from his adventure in the Madeiras, though it appears he was Jewish. This in itself is interesting, because while anti-Semitism was strong in all of Western Europe during the Middle Ages, it was rampant in the Christianized lands of the Iberian peninsula. Yet the Zarco family, which apparently came from the Portuguese city of Tomar, managed to flourish under Catholic rule. João Gonçalves himself became a noble in the house of Prince Henry, known to the Portuguese as Dom Henrique, the Infante.
In 1415 the Infante (so named because he never ruled) took part in a successful crusade for Ceuta, a city in northern Morocco. Most likely Zarco himself participated in this crusade, a turning point in Henry's life: not only did his victory win him considerable honors, but his experience in North Africa influenced his desire to learn more about the African continent and outlying islands.
On the heels of his success in Ceuta, Henry began to gather explorers, mariners, and cartographers around him in an informal "school" he established in Sagres, a city in southwestern Portugal. Zarco went out on one of the very first voyages Henry sponsored, during which he caught sight of the Madeiras. The islands, some 560 miles (about 900 km) west of Morocco, had probably been known to the Phoenicians in ancient times. Certainly Genoese sailors of the fourteenth century had known about the island group, but the knowledge seems to have been lost; thus when Zarco landed on the island of Porto Santo in 1419, it was as though he were finding the islands for the first time.
Bereft of human habitation, the Madeiras were filled with extremely dense vegetation. On orders from Henry, Zarco and others began to colonize the islands, practicing a form of slash-and-burn agriculture. It was said that the fires raged for seven years. They planted grapes brought from the eastern Mediterranean, and today the Madeiras abound with crops that include not only grapes (Madeira wine is famous), but sugarcane and bananas. At least this is true for the inhabited islands of Madeira and Porto Santo: the Desertas, southeast of Madeira, are home only to rabbits and wild goats, while the Selvagens are a trio of uninhabited rocks.
The Madeiras were the first major fruit of Henry's efforts, and their rediscovery would soon be followed by the discovery of the Azores by Diego de Sevilha beginning in 1427. As for Zarco, he dropped from the pages of history, and it is unknown whether he died on the Madeiras or lived out his days in Portugal.
During the 1980s and 1990s, a U.S. medical doctor named Manuel L. da Silva put forward a controversial theory, which he discussed in books such as The Religious and Mythological Powers in the Name of Cristovao Colon, that linked Zarco with Christopher Columbus (1451-1506). According to da Silva, who had studied a number of documents from the era, Columbus was actually Zarco's grandson. It was his conjecture that Dom Fernando, first Duke of Beja, had an affair with Isabel Gonçalves Zarco, the explorer's daughter, and out of this relationship came a son, Salvador Fernandes Zarco. The latter supposedly later changed his name to Colon (the Portuguese version of Columbus) to hide his Jewish ancestry. This theory, while interesting, has not received widespread support among historical scholars.