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Madeira in the 15th and 16th centuries

Once the Portuguese started making regular trips to the Madeira archipelago, in the late 1420s, plans started being made to populate it and put it to economic and strategic use.

In the beginning, a voluminous production of cereals ensured not only an abundant source of food for the settlers, but also an important export until about 1470, in spite of the hardships of Atlantic sailing. This regular circulation of riches through commerce, together with frequent communication by ship with the mainland, would ensure constant social progress.

In the mid-1500s, sugar gains pride of place in Madeira economy. It will remain an key export, with some fluctuations of conjuncture, until the last decades of the 16th century. Other important exports were wine and dyeing materials, demanded by the Flemish and Italian textile-makers, and wood for shipbuilding at Ribeira das Naus, in Lisbon.

Madeira’s early prosperity, with its sugar production constantly increasing until the early 16th century, will bring about a quick colonisation of the South of the island, especially Funchal.

Foreign merchants, mostly from Flanders and Italy, will settle in Madeira to deal with the exportation of sugar to many places, like Rochelle, Rouen, Genoa, Venice, Flanders, England, etc.

The high price of sugar in the international market led to an increased deforestation, in search of good soil for planting

Around 1425, the unexplored lands began to be distributed by petty noblemen: squires and knights, the “best people that could be found”, as mentioned in a document of King John I. They were more or less occupied in trading, which makes it possible to call them merchant-knights or knight-merchants; they were naturally linked to navigation due to the fact that they lived on islands, making any communication with other continents (Europe and Africa) or archipelagos necessarily maritime.

These land-owning squires and knights were called at the time herdadores (inheritors) and stood at the top of the Madeira social pyramid; they dealt in their surplus production of cereals, cattle, wine or sugar. Those foreigners who came to Madeira attracted by the sugar business usually associated with them and married into their families. A typical instance of that is João Esmeraldo, who married first a granddaughter of João Gonçalves Zarco and later a daughter of rural proprietor, merchant and navigator João Fernandes do Arco.

The Atlantic islands’ fascination, whose fame was growing, had also to do with the desire for fast, lucrative business, with an immediate improvement in standards of living thanks to a highly fertile agricultural exploration that easily made up for the problems of distance and transportation.

The expansion of the sugar production, which started in earnest in the mid-1400s, reached its limits around 1500, but kept feeding a prosperous overseas business. Funchal, which boasted the finest bay in Madeira’s coastline, took advantage of that prosperity to become the archipelago’s main urban centre, with a significant Portuguese and foreigner bourgeois population, basically made up of merchants, who could also be sugar-cane farmers and sugar producers.
Madeira’s exportations had necessarily to be maritime and long-distance, especially since Flanders became, from very early on, the great centre for the redistribution of Madeira sugar, belonging either to the Madeira lords, until 1497, to the Portuguese King, through a production tax, or to private farmers. Long-distance maritime trade needed an elaborate transportation system, where the ships’ fleetness and cargo capacity, the sailors’ competence and financial security for the valuables, etc., were all major concerns, besides a capacity for managing important capitals and a knowledge of traders in Europe and Africa, especially, in the latter’s case, the ones based on the Portuguese fortifications. Similar problems attended the import trade, with Africa and Europe, whose maritime routes converged on the Gibraltar Strait, being the main markets for Madeira trade during the 15th and 16th century.

The economic and social life of the isles takes place already within a context of transition from a Western Europe that still bears traces of feudalism and primitive States, to a modernity of urban expansion, development of communications and intense commercial activity, which lead to a search for novel or rare products, like sugar, even if that implied sailing far to get them, as in Madeira.

The Madeira foreign merchants, who brought the archipelago into the reality of large-scale international business while adopting local economic and social traditions, are a good proof of the social dynamics at work in that geographic space.

João José Abreu de Sousa

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