Madeira (island)

Madeira (island)


Madeira (island), an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, located about 1,100 km (700 mi) southwest of Portugal, an autonomous region of that country. The islands are located off the coast of Morocco, north of the Canary Islands, and southwest of the Portuguese capital Lisbon. The Madeiras consist of two inhabited islands, Madeira and Porto Santo, and two uninhabited island groups, the Desertas and the Selvagens. The islands have a total area of 794 sq km (307 sq mi), with Madeira Island by far the largest at 55 km (34 mi) long and 22 km (14 mi) wide. The capital and largest city are Funchal (population, 2001, 103,962), located on Madeira Island.

Madeira (island)


Madeira means “wood” in the Portuguese language and the archipelago was named after its large forests and dense vegetation. The Madeiras have lush tropical and semi-tropical plant life and extensive gardens and are famous for their mild, pleasant climate. The islands are summits of submarine volcanoes, Madeira Island features a mountainous topography; the island’s highest point is Ruvio de Santana Peak, 1,861 m (6,106 ft) high. The Laurisilva Park, forming the largest area of preserved Laurel forest worldwide, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

The islands are relatively sparsely settled—the Desertas and Selvagens groups are too rocky and narrow for habitation. The total population of the Madeiras at the 1991 census was 253,400; the estimated population in the mid-1990s was about 257,000. The majority of the people live on Madeira Island, which has about 253,800 inhabitants. Porto Santo, 42 km (26 mi) north-east of Madeira Island, had an estimated population of 5,000 in the mid-1990s. A large number of Madeiran emigrants reside in South Africa and the United States.


The Madeiran economy is centred on agricultural production, especially sugar, wine grapes, and bananas. The internationally famous Madeira wine comes in several varieties and is an important export. Among other activities contributing to the economy is the cultivation of a variety of tropical fruits, fishing, and the hand-embroidery of linen. This traditional craft is said to have been introduced to the islands in the 19th century by an Englishwoman. In recent decades tourism has increased in importance—the equable climate making Madeira a popular health resort. The economy and infrastructure of the Madeiras have benefited from Portugal’s membership in the European Union. There have been recent improvements in Funchal’s international airport, as well as its road system.

As an autonomous region of Portugal, the Madeiras have their own legislature and some control over taxation. While at least two political parties participate in the local elections, the Social Democratic Party has retained political predominance since the implementation of the 1976 Constitution, which established the framework for the region’s government.


The Madeira Islands were known in Roman times and it is believed the Genoese in the mid-14th century knew of their existence. The islands were rediscovered by the Portuguese explorer João Gonçalves Zarco in 1418. Shortly thereafter, Prince Henry, the Navigator began colonization of the islands and established sugar plantations. These plantations became the prototype for the plantation system developed for the Portuguese colonies in the Americas after 1550. Funchal was founded in 1421. The importance of Madeira wine to the local economy surpassed that of sugar beginning in the late 17th century. A British colony of merchants and entrepreneurs established themselves on Madeira around this time and eventually came to dominate the island’s linen, wine, banking, export, and tourism industries. During the Napoleonic Wars British forces occupied and administered the islands as part of the British Empire; the British later evacuated the islands. Large tourist hotels and other facilities have been constructed in or near Funchal in the latter half of the 20th century.

Madeira (island)