João Gonçalves Zarco Inaugurates the Era of Portuguese Exploration with the Rediscovery of the Madeira Islands, 1418-20

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João Gonçalves Zarco Inaugurates the Era of Portuguese Exploration with the Rediscovery of the Madeira Islands, 1418-20


Located some 560 miles (about 900 km) west of Morocco, the Madeiras—also known as the Funchal Islands—today consist of two inhabited islands, Madeira and Porto Santo, and two uninhabited groups, the Desertas and the Selvagens. Together they comprise about 306 square miles (794 sq km) and they have remained a possession of Portugal since João Gonçalves Zarco discovered them in the period 1418-20. In fact Gonçalves was actually rediscovering the islands, which may have been known since ancient times. In any case, history has assigned him a relatively small role in an event that marked the beginning of Portugal's overseas empire.


Some scholars believe that Phoenician mariners of ancient times had known about the Madeiras, which lie north of the Canary Islands on a latitude just south of Casablanca, Morocco. Certainly it appears that sailors from Genoa, a great maritime power in the Middle Ages, knew of the island group: the Laurentian Portolano, a Genoese map dating to 1351, clearly depicts the Madeiras.

Yet somehow the islands were forgotten. It may be that Genoa, which had been hit hard by the Black Death (1347-51), scaled back its furthest westward sea routes; and no doubt the Genoese were not inclined (the map notwithstanding) to share their knowledge of the islands with others. Thus when Zarco caught sight of them in 1418, it was as though he were finding the island group for the first time.

Zarco's experience can hardly be separated from its context as part of the exploration efforts put into place by Portugal's remarkable Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460). The latter was destined never to reign, a fortunate thing for the history of exploration because it is hard to imagine how he could have made the great strides that he did as a patron of exploration if he had been distracted by affairs of state.

Henry participated in a successful crusade for Ceuta, a city in northern Morocco in 1415, and as a result was widely honored. The experience whetted his appetite to learn more about the African continent and outlying islands, as had his earlier reading of travelers' tales. It was Henry's desire to find the source of the gold in West African empires such as the Mali of the fabled Mansa Musa (c. 1280-c. 1337), and to locate the realm of the legendary Christian king Prester John. Therefore he began to gather around himself explorers, mariners, and cartographers in an informal "school" established in Sagres, a city in southwestern Portugal. Zarco's discovery of the Madeiras would be the first great achievement of Henry's school.


Of Zarco himself, little is known. It appears that his family was Jewish, an interesting fact in light of the fierce anti-Semitism that characterized the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula. This hatred of Jews had become particularly fierce as Portugal, Aragon, Castile, and other kingdoms had fought to reconquer the region from the Muslims who had held it since 711; yet the Zarco family, who came from the Portuguese city of Tomar, seemed to flourish in Catholic Portugal. João Gonçalves himself became a noble in the house of Prince Henry, and thus it is not surprising that the latter would have chosen Zarco to command one of his school's first voyages. (Henry himself never actually took part in any of the expeditions he organized.)

Though Zarco first saw the Madeiras in 1418, it was not until 1419 that he landed on the island of Porto Santo. With him was Tristão Vaz Teixeira, and the two men accurately calculated their position so as to be able to return shortly afterward with colonists. This time they were joined by Bartolemeu Perestrello, destined to become father-in-law to Christopher Columbus (1451-1506). It would be another year before they discovered Madeira, the largest of the islands, though some scholars maintain that the Portuguese actually made this discovery during the reign of Afonso IV (1325-57).

The islands were completely bereft of human habitation, or indeed of land mammals, and the explorers must have felt as though they had reached the edges of the known world—as in fact they had. These events took place, after all, nearly 75 years before Columbus's epochal voyage to the New World, after which monumental discoveries became relatively common for a century. As it was, the claiming of the Madeiras was a project that seemed almost magical.

When the first men ventured away from Porto Santo and caught their earliest glimpses of Madeira (the two islands are about 26 miles or 42 kilometers apart), they reported that they had a seen a mass of dark clouds along the horizon to the south. A number of medieval superstitions plagued mariners of that time, as they would for many years: for instance, before Gil Eannes (fl. 1433-1445) sailed past Cape Bojador on the West African coast some 15 years later, European sailors believed the cape to be a point of no return. Thus it took enormous courage just to venture to the southwest from Porto Santo, where they found Madeira.

Madeira looked like a dark cloud precisely because, like Porto Santo, it was covered in dense vegetation. Even more mysterious than these two, the only inhabited parts of the Madeiras today, were the barren portions of the island group. There were the Desertas, some 11 miles (18 km) southeast of Madeira. Though in time the Portuguese would inhabit these four tiny islands, the land was inhospitable, good only for rabbits and wild goats. (The latter are in fact the only full-time residents of the aptly named Desertas today.) Even more forbidding were the Selvagens, or Salvage Islands, on which there was never any question of human habitation. The Selvagens are a group of three rocks, the largest with a circumference of some 3 miles (5 km), located about 156 miles (251 km) south of Madeira.

Concentrating their attention on Porto Santo and Madeira, the men set about colonizing the islands according to Henry's orders. In this they practiced a form of slash-and-burn agriculture, setting the forest alight and letting the flames clear the island. It was said that the fires raged for seven years.

They planted grapes from the eastern Mediterranean, though scholars are unsure whether the original plants came from Cyprus or Crete. By the seventeenth century, Madeira wine would become the island's most famous export, and even today the dark-brown wine, with its strong aftertaste, is known the world over. Supposedly the taste of Madeira, which varies from dry to sweet, resulted in part from the action of the turbulent Atlantic waters on casks shipped abroad during the era of seafaring; today makers of the wine produce a similar effect by artificially agitating the casks.

In the meantime, sugarcane had been brought to the Madeiras from Sicily, probably in about 1452. Madeira became home to a sugar plantation, reputedly the world's first, and its economy became increasingly dependent on the labor of African slaves. Thus the islands went through something of a crisis in 1775, when the reformist Portuguese Prime Minister Carvalho e Mello (1699-1782) ended slavery on the Madeiras.

Though sugar and wine production have remained mainstays of the local economy, a few other crops, most notably bananas, sweet potatoes, and taro root, have been added over the years. Handicrafts such as embroidery, introduced c. 1850 by an Englishwoman named "Mrs. Phelps," is also a major industry, as are woodworking and the making of wicker furniture. Fishing is significant, along with tourism—an industry in which the gorgeous Madeiras, with their breathtaking landscapes, pleasant climate, and exotic-yet-familiar charm, enjoy a distinct advantage.

During the nineteenth century, Britain, then the dominant world power, briefly took possession of the Madeiras. No doubt the British acted with the idea in mind that the islands' proximity to Africa and Europe, and their position at the gateway to the Atlantic, made them strategically significant. A number of factors conspired to reduce their military importance, however, most notably Britain's loss of its possessions in Africa, and Portugal soon regained control of the islands.

Yet in the modern world of supersonic transport and electronic communication, where the battlegrounds are financial and commercial rather than military, the Madeiras, no longer remote, are as strategically located as any other place. This was a point made by U.S. Ambassador to Portugal Gerald McGowan in a March 16, 1999, speech in Funchal, Madeira. "Standing here in Madeira today," McGowan said in the course of his speech, "I can't help thinking what must have been running through the mind of João Gonçalves Zarco when he landed on this beautiful island almost 600 years ago."

In fact McGowan was one of the few people outside the Madeiras who remembered Zarco and his great achievement in the period 1418-20. A statue of the explorer stands in downtown Funchal, before the Bank of Portugal building, but Zarco's name is hardly a household word anywhere else. One of the few books about his adventures in a language other than Portuguese is Relation historique de la découverte de l'isle de Madère (1671) by Francisco Alcoforado. Even in this case, the author was Portuguese; the book is only partially about Zarco himself; and like all other works on the explorer, this one has yet to see translation into English.

Despite this lack of attention to Zarco's life, it is fair to say that he struck the first blow in a campaign of exploration that would build one of the world's first and greatest overseas empires. Henry used the Madeiras as the point of departure for expeditions to new lands, gradually adding the Azores and parts of West Africa to Portuguese possessions in the 1420s. In time, Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500) and Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524) would round the southern tip of Africa, opening up eastward routes to Asia and in the process inaugurating the European colonization of the East.


Further Reading

Madeira Island's Regional Tourism Service.

University of Calgary. European Voyages of Exploration. "Africa: Ceuta—The First Step."

University of Calgary. European Voyages of Exploration. "Prince Henry the Navigator."

Washington File. United States Information Service, Bucharest, Romania. "Ambassador to Portugal McGowan Speech in Madeira ."

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João Gonçalves Zarco Inaugurates the Era of Portuguese Exploration with the Rediscovery of the Madeira Islands, 1418-20

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