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Porto Santo in the context of Portuguese expansion

European overseas expansion, together with long-distance maritime trade, which ensured a regular communication between Northern and Southern Europe, as well as the “Atlantic Mediterranean”, which includes the wide gulf between Algarve and Northern Africa and the Madeira and Canaries archipelagos, are harbingers of a modernity that has been consolidating itself since the 13th century, and finds in urban development and the cities’ mercantile and productive demands its more visible expression.

Porto Santo will become an important supplier to Italian textiles, since the island is rich in a very coveted dyeing material: “dragon’s blood”, or the sap from the dragon-tree, also used in medicine. It is hardly surprising, then, to see Porto Santo present and correct in Italian-Aragonese maps since the 14th century.

We may call Porto Santo’s first economic cycle the “dragon-tree cycle”, an important moment in early European overseas expansion. European expansion is, indeed, the beginning of “globalisation”, though with diversified protagonists: Italian and Flemish cities, Castile, Portugal, England, France, Holland.
By the 16th century, the Porto Santo dragon-trees had been almost totally decimated. The island’s role in the process of European expansion, where Castile and Portugal hold an increasingly major position, enters a new “economic cycle”: the cultivation of cereals, a staple of European diet. Porto Santo proved itself up to that task: its rye crops were used to supply the Portuguese fortifications in Northern Africa, whose “offensive defence” relied heavily on cavalry. Madeira rye was of such high quality that it was used in the king’s stables during the 15th and 16th centuries; royal restockers kept a vigilant eye on each year’s crops.

Porto Santo’s importance was more than economic: it was also an advanced line for the protection of the Madeira archipelago, a vantage point from which to sight approaching corsairs, as well as a sea-mark for the ships that sailed towards the African coast, India (through the Cape route) or Brazil. Even when the small island was not used by the ships for any kind of stop, its outline gave psychological stability to the seafarers, who were still used to sail in the ancient Mediterranean way, along the coast. A little reminder of land solidity, even in the shape of a small island, in the wide ocean, was always welcome.

Porto Santo was also coveted by the Turkish expansionist forces stationed in Tunisia and Algeria. The Turkish threat was kept in check by the Spanish protection of the Mediterranean and by the Portuguese fortresses in the Northern African coast. Nonetheless, Porto Santo was quite affected by that conflict: until the early 19th century, there were many skirmishes with Turkish corsairs, who kidnapped people from the island to sell as slaves in Tunes or Alger. The popular taunt “go to Regela” (the latter word is a corruption of Argélia, the Portuguese word for Algeria) dates back to that time.

João José Abreu de Sousa

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