Madeira is a semi-tropical island in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 600 miles southwest of Portugal. Madeira is an archipelago of four islands located off the northwest coast of Africa. With a population of 260,000, they are an autonomous region of Portugal.
Autonomy was granted soon after the revolution of 25 April 1974 that swept away the last vestiges of the Salazar dictatorship that had governed mainland Portugal, the islands and the colonies since 1928. The level of autonomy is ever changing and ever disputed, but is ultimately decided upon by the Assembleia da República that sits in Lisbon.
To the outside world, people from Madeira are, to all intents and purposes, Portuguese. They carry Portuguese passports, vote in Portuguese elections and pay Portuguese taxes. Where they differ from the rest (with the exception of their island brethren on the Azores) is that they are also represented at a local level by the Regional Government of Madeira.
The Madeira archipelago includes two main islands, Madeira and Porto Santo, and smaller uninhabited ones, the Ilhas Desertas and De Selvagens. It is mostly flat and semi-arid, but the Madeira island itself boasts a sub-tropical climate heavily influenced by altitude, with much wetter northern slopes on its high mountains and peaks often swept by heavy winds and rains, and even snow in winter. Madeira means 'wood' and was once covered in forests. Today, the laurel forest covers only 20 % of the island but it is still the world's largest. The Macaronesian heath which replaced it also has considerable ecological value.
Madeira, which is the larger island, is one hundred and eighty miles in circumference, and possesses a most delightful climate, and a perpetual spring. It is composed of one continued hill, that extends from east to west, on the southern declivity of which are vineyards, and the seats of the richest merchants. Madeira abounds with wine, corn, oil, sugar,and fruits; the trees are perpetually in blossom ; and the soil being well watered, and fertilized by several rivers, produces every delicious vegetable that can contribute to the luxury or gratification of life.
This was the first place in the west where the manufacture of sugar was attempted, and from whence the plantations were removed to the Brazils. The sugar made in this island has a sweet smell, and a beautiful appearance.
The initial settlers of Madeira were farmers, the island originally settled by people from the Algarve region of Portugal. Still today, the largest single economic activity outside of Funchal is the farming of smallholdings, most of which are less than 1000 square metres. Many of the popular festas that are celebrated around the island are linked to certain produce such as the cherry, chestnut, sugar cane and the grape vine.
When the crops failed and the land was subdivided beyond subsistence level, the last recourse of the Madeirense was emigration. The island is located on the great sea routes between Europe, Africa and Latin America and it was natural that some should seek their fortune or escape their misfortune – in the lands beyond the horizon. Some 750,000 people, mostly resident in South Africa, Venezuela and more increasingly in the countries of the EU, call themselves Madeiran.
Madeira is now chiefly distinguished for its excellent wines, which seem intended by Divine Providence as a refreshment to the inhabitants of the torrid zone. There are several sorts of these wines, and it was computed that at least twenty thousand hogsheads are annually exported to other countries. The wine of this island not only endures a warm climate, but even improves by being exposed to the rays and heat of the sun.
The most considerable town is Fonchiale, which is fortified with a castle, and battery of cannon.
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