Porto Santo History and Culture

Porto Santo was the first island in the Madeiran archipelago to be settled. Probably the first humans to set foot on Porto Santo did so some 600 years ago, after being washed ashore by a storm while exploring the Barbary Coast. These hapless sailors – led by João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz – had been sent on a voyage of discovery by Prince Henry the Navigator, and made a beeline back to Portugal to report what they had found. The prince dispatched a ship under Bartolomeu Perestrelo to colonise the island, also sending Zarco and Vaz back in their own vessels to explore further. The flotilla arrived some time in the 1420s, and by 1446 Perestrelo and been created ‘Captain’ of Porto Santo, a position that was hereditary. Perestrelo planted vines and sugar cane, and tapped the local Dragon Trees for ‘Dragon’s Blood’, a hugely valuable resin used for medicines and dyes. He also introduced rabbits, which was not such a good move as they ate everything else up, and Porto Santo has never fully recovered. Zarco and Vaz moved on to found a settlement on Madeira, which took over in importance, and Porto Santo continued quietly in sun-baked obscurity until the present day. With one notable exception. Bartolomeu Pestrelo’s daughter Filipa Moniz married a Genoese sugar merchant named Christopher Columbus.

Much of the story is lost in legend, but we do know that Columbus was based on Madeira around 1478, and it would appear that his in-laws gave him land on Porto Santo after he married Filipa in 1479, but she died in childbirth a year or two later. The story goes that while on Porto Santo Columbus began studying ocean currents, intrigued by ‘Sea Hearts’ (seeds of  Entada gigas) washed on to the beach by the Gulf Stream from the Caribbean. Or (some say) got a tip-off about a land across the ocean from sailors washed up after a wreck. What we do know is that in 1480, Columbus laid out his plan for a voyage across the Atlantic before the king of Portugal, and later to Isabella of Spain, and in 1485 set off on his expedition. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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