Development of Madeira Islands

Madeira Old Map

After the settlement Madeira had to start growing its economy, so they based in agriculture.

To gain the minimum conditions for the development of agriculture, they had to rough-hew a part of the dense forest of laurisilva and to construct a large number of canals (levadas), since in some parts of the island there was excess water, while in others water was scarce.

During the period of settlement, fish constituted about half of the settlers' diet, together with vegetables and fruits cultivated from small cleared parcels of land.

Initially, these colonists produced wheat for their own subsistence, but later the quantity cultivated was sufficient to begin exporting wheat to continental Portugal.

Madeira Old MapOn 1433, the name Ilha da Madeira (English: Madeira Island, or literally island of wood) began to appear in the first documents and maps. The name given to the islands corresponded to the large dense forests of native laurisilva trees that populated the island during the settlement.

However, when grain production began to fall, the ensuing crisis forced Henry the Navigator, as principal benefactor of the islands, to plant other commercial crops.

The planting of sugarcane, and later Sicilian sugar beet, allowed the introduction of the "sweet salt" (as sugar was known) into Europe, where it was a rare and popular spice. Madeira Old MapThese specialised plants, and their associated industrial technology, created one of the major revolutions on the islands and fuelled Portuguese industry.

The expansion of sugar plantations in Madeira began in 1455, using advisers from Sicily and financed by Genoese capital (it would become an integral part of the island economy until the 17th century). The accessibility of Madeira attracted Genoese and Flemish traders who were keen to bypass Venetian monopolies.

Madeira Old MapSugarcane production was the primary engine of the island's economy, increasing the demand for labour. Slaves were used during portions of the island's history to cultivate sugar cane, and the proportion of imported slaves reached 10% of the total population of Madeira by the 16th century.

After the 17th century, as sugar production shifted to Brazil, São Tomé and Príncipe and elsewhere, and then Madeira's most important product became its wine.

Madeira Old MapWine growing in Madeira island began with Infante D. Henrique, who brought Malmsey vine-stocks from Greece. Since then, it played a decisive role in the production of Madeira generous wine that in the 18th century began to be exported to the whole world. In that period, wine barrels were transported in boats and if they were not sold abroad, they would come back to the island.

It became clear by then that the wine won a particular aroma and flavour in this process. Therefore, since 1730 Madeira wine barrels were sent in long boat trips, so as to mature its qualities.

In the beginning of the 19th century, producers began to replicate the heating and cooling processes that took place in high sea. Since then, steaming (“estufagem”) and heating (“canteiro”) processes have been applied to stimulate these actions.

Madeira Old MapMadeira Designation of Origin covers an area of around 450 ha of vineyards in a typically Mediterranean climate with mild temperatures all year long and low temperature ranges, even though air humidity is always high. Apart from Malmsey vine-stock, other varieties are also used in the production of Madeira wine, such as Boal, Verdelho and Sercial, providing four sweetness levels to the wine: sweet, half sweet, half dry and dry.

Other products were developed such as embroidery from XVIII, wickerwork industry and banana on XIX century until today.

Madeira Old Map
Carlos Verdinho
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