Plutarch in his Parallel Lives (Sertorius, 75 AD) referring to the military commander Quintus Sertorius (d. 72 BC), relates that after his return to Cádiz, he met sailors who spoke of idyllic Atlantic islands: "The islands are said to be two in number separated by a very narrow strait and lie 10,000 furlongs (2,011.68 km) from Africa. They are called the Isles of the Blest."
Archeological evidence suggests that the islands may have been visited by the Vikings sometime between 900 and 1030.
During the reign of King Edward III of England, lovers Robert Machim and Anna d'Arfet were said to have fled from England to France in 1346. Driven off course by a violent storm, their ship ran aground along the coast of an island that may have been Madeira. Later this legend was the basis of the naming of the city of Machico on the island, in memory of the young lovers.
Knowledge of some Atlantic islands, such as Madeira, existed before their formal discovery and settlement, as the islands were shown on maps as early as 1339.
In 1418, two captains under service to Prince Henry the Navigator, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, were driven off course by a storm to an island they named Porto Santo (English: holy harbour) in gratitude for divine deliverance from a shipwreck. The following year, an organised expedition, under the captaincy of Zarco, Vaz Teixeira, and Bartolomeu Perestrello, traveled to the island to claim it on behalf of the Portuguese Crown. Subsequently, the new settlers observed "a heavy black cloud suspended to the southwest." Their investigation revealed it to be the larger island they called Madeira.
The first Portuguese settlers began colonizing the islands around 1420 or 1425.
Grain production began to fall and the ensuing crisis forced Henry the Navigator to order other commercial crops to be planted so that the islands could be profitable. These specialised plants, and their associated industrial technology, created one of the major revolutions on the islands and fuelled Portuguese industry. Following the introduction of the first water-driven sugar mill on Madeira, sugar production increased to over 6,000 arrobas (an arroba was equal to 11 to 12 kilograms) by 1455, using advisers from Sicily and financed by Genoese capital. (Genoa acted as 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.
"By 1480 Antwerp had some seventy ships engaged in the Madeira sugar trade, with the refining and distribution concentrated in Antwerp. By the 1490s Madeira had overtaken Cyprus as a producer of sugar."
Sugarcane production was the primary engine of the island's economy, increasing the demand for labour. African 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.
Barbary corsairs from North Africa, who enslaved Europeans from ships and coastal communities throughout the Mediterranean region, captured 1,200 people in Porto Santo in 1617. After the 17th century, as Portuguese sugar production was shifted to Brazil, São Tomé and Príncipe and elsewhere, Madeira's most important commodity product became its wine.
The British first amicably occupied the island in 1801 whereafter Colonel William Henry Clinton became governor. A detachment of the under Lieutenant-colonel James Willoughby Gordon garrisoned the island.
After the Peace of Amiens, British troops withdrew in 1802, only to reoccupy Madeira in 1807 until the end of the Peninsular War in 1814. In 1856, British troops recovering from cholera, and widows and orphans of soldiers fallen in the Crimean War, were stationed in Funchal, Madeira.
World War I
On 31 December 1916, during the Great War, a German U-boat, SM U-38, captained by Max Valentiner, entered Funchal harbour on Madeira. U-38 torpedoed and sank three ships, bringing the war to Portugal by extension. The ships sunk were:
- CS Dacia (1,856 tons), a British cable-laying vessel. Dacia had previously undertaken war work off the coast of Casablanca and Dakar. It was in the process of diverting the German South American cable into Brest, France.
- SS Kanguroo (2,493 tons), a French specialized "heavy-lift" transport.
- Surprise (680 tons), a French gunboat. Her commander and 34 crewmen (including 7 Portuguese) were killed.
After attacking the ships, U-38 bombarded Funchal for two hours from a range of about 2 miles (3 km). Batteries on Madeira returned fire and eventually forced U-38 to withdraw.
On 12 December 1917, two German U-boats, SM U-156 and SM U-157 (captained by Max Valentiner), again bombarded Funchal. This time the attack lasted around 30 minutes. The U-boats fired 40 4.7-and-5.9-inch (120 and 150 mm) shells. There were three fatalities and 17 wounded; a number of houses and Santa Clara church were hit.
Charles I (Karl I), the last Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was exiled to Madeira after the war. Determined to prevent an attempt to restore Charles to the throne, the Council of Allied Powers agreed he could go into exile on Madeira because it was isolated in the Atlantic and easily guarded. He died there on 1 April 1922 and his coffin lies in a chapel of the church in Monte.
Autonomy and modern history
On 1 July 1976, following the democratic revolution of 1974, Portugal granted political autonomy to Madeira, celebrated on Madeira Day. The region now has its own government and legislative assembly.
On 20 February 2010 at least 42 people died and 100 were injured by the 2010 Madeira floods and mudslides that affected the Island.
NASA satellite image of wildfires on the island of Madeira from 19 July 2012
Drought conditions, coupled with hot and windy weather in summer, have caused numerous wildfires in recent years. The largest of the fires in August 2010 burned through 95 percent of the Funchal Ecological Park, a 1,000-hectare preserve set aside to restore native vegetation to the island.
In July 2012 Madeira was suffering again from severe drought. Wildfires broke out on 18 July, in the midst of temperatures up to 40 °C (more than 100 °F) and high winds. By 20 July, fires had spread to the nearby island of Porto Santo, and firefighters were sent from mainland Portugal to contain the multiple blazes.
In October 2012, it was reported that there was a dengue fever epidemic on the island. There was a total of 2,168 cases reported of dengue fever since the start in October 2012. The number of cases was on the decline since mid November 2012 and by 4 February 2013, no new cases had been reported.
In August 2013, a hospital and some private homes were evacuated as a wildfire approached Funchal. A number of homes were destroyed when the fire hit Monte, a suburb of Funchal.
In August 2016, wildfires caused over 1,000 people to be evacuated, destroyed 150 homes, and led to the death of three people, all of whom are said to have been elderly. The wildfires threatened Funchal and other administrative regions of Madeira, such as Calheta.
In August 2017, a falling tree killed at least 13 people and injured 49 at a religious ceremony. People had gathered outside the Church of Our Lady of Monte in Monte, to celebrate the Roman Catholic Feast of the Assumption, which takes place on Tuesday and is a public holiday. The Lady of the Mount festival is the island's biggest.
As of 2017, Madeira holds a Human Development Index comparable to that of Barbados.
In 2019 Madeira island celebrates six centuries since its formal discovery by the Portuguese.
On 17 April 2019, a tourist bus carrying German tourists plunged off a road in Caniço and overturned. At least 29 people died, all German, while another 27 were injured, including the Portuguese driver and tourist guide. Madeira decreed three days of mourning and both German and Portuguese Foreign Affairs Ministers visited the island on the occasion alongside the Portuguese President, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Queen Elizabeth II expressing their condolences.
As of 2019, Madeira has been awarded 'Europe's Leading Island Destination' five times since 2013 – the exception being 2015 – and four times 'World's Leading Island Destination' since 2015 by the World Travel Awards.