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History of Madeira

The Archipelago of Madeira is comprised of the islands of Madeira, Porto Santo and the Ilhas Desertas.

The floating garden of Madeira rises from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean approximately 700 km from the African coast and 1000 km from the Portuguese mainland. The island is around 740 square kilometres in size. Volcanic eruptions and the process of erosion over millions of years have produced a magnificent landscape.

The island of Madeira was discovered by the Portuguese explorers João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira in 1419. Early accounts record a densely wooded island populated by gentle birds. The first settlers began the gargantuan task of clearing the land for agricultural purposes. Setting fire to the forest was the first step. Deep ravines and soaring mountain peaks proved to be another obstacle encountered by the courageous settlers.

They began creating tiny terraces called “poios” by building stone walls to hold the soil. Rocks were broken up and carried to almost inaccessible places in order to build the stone walls. Water was abundant high up on the northern slopes, but the warmer southern coast was dry. These resourceful pioneers decided to build a unique system of irrigation canals called “levadas” that would carry the water required to cultivate the first sugar cane and vines.

The task of levada building continues until the present day and the network is now over 2000 kilometres in length. The water supplies homes and towns, agricultural plots and is also used to drive the hydroelectric power stations.

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