Funchal 500 Years

The City of Funchal is the capital of the Autonomous Region of Madeira. Through August 2008, Funchal will celebrate 500 years. During the vast dominions of the Portuguese discoveries Funchal was the first to be granted the status of a City by the Portuguese crown. Its elevation attended to the development of its flourishing sugar culture. Yet another purpose was to transform Funchal into the main centre of a huge Diocese that was to control spiritually the vast territories acquired by the Portuguese, members of the Order of Christ, at the shores of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

A Brief History

The Madeiran Archipelago was discovered in 1419. Its settlement was owed to the discoveries, through the 15th century. It was the first experiment of its kind exploring shores never before inhabited. Trying out with agriculture, cultivating wheat, and later on the sugar cane, brought immediate wealth, and these cultures were thus used as model in the Canaries, the Azores, Cape Verde, and Brazil when colonized.

Late in the 15th century Madeira became, due to its exploration of sugar, a centre for international business. Merchants and adventurers of different European origins were en route to Madeira. The production and distribution of the sugar was the base for the international merchant capitalism of its period. The harbor of Funchal was headed for by German, Italian and Flemish merchants and other economic agents, as it was the case with Christopher Columbus, then a sugar negotiator. The future admiral of the Indies lived in Funchal for a time. He married Filipa Moniz, the daughter of Bartolomeu Perestrelo, who was the captain of Porto Santo.

The significance of the port of Funchal was vital enough so that D. Manuel was giving especial attention to it, even before being crowned king of Portugal. Hence in 1486 still only Duke of Beja, he gave orders to found a central administrative nucleolus between Santa Maria Maior and Santa Catarina and São Pedro, the residency of João Gonçalves Zarco and of his sons and daughters. He ceded his site of Duke as to build there a “Town Hall” and a big Church, which was shortly after to become the Cathedral and the main centre for the future Diocese. His mother, D. Beatriz had already established in 1477 insular customs, being one in Funchal the other in Machico, close to the sea. She had it that an own custom-house ought to be build.

Madeira became an important reference to sailors who navigated towards the North Atlantic. Due to the winds every European armada that sailed for the Atlantic South and the Indian Ocean had to pass through the Madeiran seas. This was even the case with the English and the armadas from Holland sailing towards Central America.

Throughout the 16th and the 17th century Madeira Island affirmed through the port of Funchal its strategic position in the North Atlantic commerce. But due to a new product: the Madeira Wine its position was even strengthened. The wine culture was introduced by the first settlers of Madeira. Already in 1455 the navigator Luís de Cadamosto referred to Madeira’s excellent wine grapes and that their wine was successfully being exported. In the middle of the next century none less than William Shakespeare himself refers to Madeira’s wine in a few of his plays. The playwright, for instance, lets the duke of Clarence, Edward IV’s brother, choose to die in a barrel of malmsey.

Throughout the next centuries the Madeira Wine is said to have therapeutic qualities. By finding out that its taste got even better when transported on sea during long maritime voyages, big armadas that were on their way to the Indies, passed through Madeira to load the wine on board.

Madeira thus became an important market place, while it became as well a place of repose. The so called Madeira quintas, manor houses with big gardens, were built. In the gardens you could find indigenous and imported plants. Of theses quintas large descriptions were made in travel books. For instance admiral James Cook, was accompanied by various specialists, during the 18th century; once on board of the Endeavour in 1768, and then on board of the Resolution in 1772. Authors of the travel books of that period described in detail the flora and fauna they found on the Island.

Even the British admiralty recognized the strategic importance of the port of Funchal in the 17th century, preparing constantly geo-hydrographics most of them in printed form.

During the political instability in Europe, due to the Napoleonic wars in 1801, an important armada composed of more then 100 ships landed on Madeira. The armada was on its way to the Indies, but had to anchor at Funchal’s bay. Under General Henry Clinton a military contingent stayed at Madeira as long as the negotiations were lasting in the continent.

Another occupation happened when the French were invading the Iberian Peninsula in 1807. The Portuguese court could flee to Brazil and was thus not depended on the mercy of the French as were the Spanish. Yet Madeira’s occupation lasted throughout the signing of the peace treaties.

The Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte passed through Madeira on his way to Saint Helena, his future exile. Here he was offered dried fruits, a few books and a cask of Madeira Wine. Yet his health did not allow him to drink the wine. After his death, the Madeira Wine was asked back by the merchants in Funchal. The wine in the cask was divided among the merchants’ families hence today you still have people claiming to possess a bottle of that particular drop.

During the 19th century Madeira became famous throughout Europe for its climate. Especially people suffering from pulmonary illnesses thought it fit for cures. The Island thus became an important place to spend the summer. Amongst others, the empress of Brazil, the Duchess Leopoldina of Austria in 1817, Amélia of Leuchtemberg in 1852 visited Madeira. Adelaide Queen of England passed through Madeira in 1847, the prince Maximilian Napoleon and his wife Charlotte of Belgium passed here the winter of 1859-1860. Nevertheless it was the empress Isabel of Austria, who passed a few months on Madeira between 1860 and 1861, that remained in the memory of the Madeiran people. Sissi, as she became known through the romantic bibliography of the 19th century, never forgot the moments she passed on the Island, recalling them passionately until she returned in 1893-1894 to Madeira, before her death in 1898.

The Habsburgs were to become personally attached to Madeira too, since Charles, the last Austrian emperor died here in 1922. His body is buried in the church of Nossa Senhora do Monte, next to the quinta, where he passed his last days. In 2004 his beatification took place. Still to mention is the Earl Alexander Charles of Lambert, adjutant of the Russian emperor, who settled in 1863 on Madeira Island. He married the year after but died unfortunately before his wife could give birth to his heir. The Earl Carlos Alexander of Lambert, was born on Madeira on December 30, 1864. He was to become a pioneer of the French aviation, and it is said that the invention of the hydroplane is owed to him. It is a curious fact that the first international raid over the Atlantic had Funchal’s port as its destination. The raid took place on March 22nd of 1921. The flight Lisbon – Funchal was conducted by the pilots Sacadura Cabral, Gago Coutinho and Ortins Bettencourt. They were accompanied by the mechanic Roger Soubiran, in a F3, equipped with Rolls-Royce motors. The journey served as a testing flight for the year to come from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro.
By the end of World War Two the first regular airplanes landed at Funchal’s bay. The inaugural flight by Aquilla Airways took place on March 15th 1949. From May 15th hydroplanes coming from Southampton landed at Funchal’s bay.

Source: Funchal 500 Anos