Madeira, a group of islands in the North Atlantic Ocean belonging to Portugal, consist of two inhabited islands named Madeira and Porto Santo, three uninhabited rocks named collectively the Desertas, and also two uninhabited rocks named the Selvagens.
Funchal, the capital of Madeira, is on the south coast of the pricipal island, in 32° 37 45 N, lat. 16° 55' 20' W long. It is about 360 miles from the coast of Africa, 535 miles from Lisbon, 240 from Teneriffe, and 480 from Santa Maria, the nearest of the Azores. Madeira, the largest island of the group, has a length of 30 geographical miles, an extreme breadth of 13 miles, and a coastline of 80 or 90 miles. Its longer axis lies east and west, in which direction it is traversed by a mountain chain, the backbone of the island, having a mean altitude of 4000 feet, up to which many deep ravines penetrate from both coasts. On the south there is left very little of the indigenous forest which once clothed the whole island and gave it the name it bears (Madeira, from materia, "wood"), but on the north some of the valleys stil contain native trees of fine growth. A long narrow and comparatively low rocky promontery forms the eastern extremity of the island, and here there is to be seen a tract of calcareous sand, known as the Fossil Bed, containg land shells and numerous bodies resembling the roots of trees, probably produced by infiltration.
It has been conjectured, but on insufficient evidence, that the Phoenecians discovered Madeira at a very early period. Pliny mentions certain Purple or Mauretanian Islands, the postion of which with reference to the Fortunate Islands or Canaries might seem to indicate Madeira islands. There is a romantic story, of doubtful truth, to the effect that two lovers, Robert Machim and Anna d'Arfet, fleeing from England to France in 1346, were driven out of their course by a violent storm, and cast on the coast of Madeira at the place subsequently names Machico, in memory of one of them. On the evidence of a portulano dated 1351, preserved at Florence, it would appear that Madeira had been discovered long previous to that date by Portugese vessels under Genoese captains. In 1419 two of the captains of Prince Henry of Portugal were driven by a storm to the island called by them Porto Santo, or Holy Port, in gratitude for their rescue from shipwreck. The next year an expedition was sent to colonise the island, and, Madeira being descried, they made for it, and took possession on behalf of the Portugese crown. The islands were then uninhabited.
For the sixty years intervening between 1580 and 1640, Madeira, with Portugal itself, was under Spanish rule. In 1801 British troops ocupied the island for a few months, commanded by General Beresford, and it was agin under the British flag from 1807 to 1814.
See also: Madeira wine.