Madeira Islands, Archipelago of

   An autonomous region of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean that consists of the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo and several smaller isles. The capital of the archipelago is Funchal on Madeira Island. The islands have a total area of 496 square kilometers (308 square miles) and are located about 1,126 kilometers (700 miles) southwest of Lisbon. Discovered uninhabited by Portuguese navigators between 1419 and 1425, but probably seen earlier by Italian navigators, the Madeiras were so named because of the extensive forests found on the islands' volcanic hills and mountains (the name Madeiras means wood or timber). Prince Henry of Aviz (Prince Henry the Navigator) was first responsible for the settlement and early colonization of these islands.
   The Madeiran economy was soon dominated by sugar plantations, which were begun when the Portuguese transplanted sugar plants from the Mediterranean. In the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, Madeira was worked largely by black African slaves brought from West Africa, and the islands produced sugar, cereals, and wine. Eventually the islands' fortunes were governed by a new kind of wine called "Madeira," developed in the 17th century. Madeira was produced using a heating process, and became famous as a sweet, fortified dessert wine popular both in Great Britain and in British North America. It was a favorite drink of America's Thomas Jefferson. The Madeira wine business was developed largely under British influence, management, and capital, although the labor was supplied by African slaves and Portuguese settlers. Two other main staples of these islands' economy were initially developed due to the initiatives of British residents as well. In the 18th century, Madeira became an early tourist attraction and health spa for Britain, and the islands' tourist facilities began to be developed. It was a British woman resident in the 19th century who introduced the idea of the Madeiran embroidered lace industry, an industry that sends its fine products not only to Portugal but all over the world.
   Since the 1950s, with new international airline connections with Britain and Portugal, the Madeiras have become a popular tourist destination and, along with Madeira wine, tourism became a major foreign exchange earner. Among European and British visitors especially, Madeira Island has attracted visitors who like flower and garden tours, challenging mountain walks, and water sports. Over the last century, a significant amount of Madeiran emigration has occurred, principally to the United States (California and Hawaii being the favored residential states), the Caribbean, and, more recently, South Africa. Since 1976, the Madeiras have been, like the Azores Islands, an autonomous region of Portugal.
   See also Levada.

Historical dictionary of Portugal 3rd ed.. . 2014.

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