Identification. In about 1419 Portuguese mariners made landfall on the little Atlantic island (42 square kilometers) of Porto Santo (holy haven); 40 kilometers to the southwest they discovered Madeira (isle of timber), the most populous (260,000) and largest (741 square kilometers) island of the Madeiran Archipelago, Portuguese culture, with a strong British overlay, still permeates insular political, economic, and social life. The archipelago includes the uninhabited Ilhas Desertas (Deserta Grande, Châo, Bugio), just offshore southeastern Madeira, and the tiny Ilhas Selvagens (wild Islands) 270 kilometers south, on the northern fringe of the Canaries. Madeira owes its resort image to a benign climate, a profusion of scenic marvels, and world-renowned wines.
Location. The Madeiran archipelago lies between 33° and 30° N and 15° and 17° W on the eastern edge of the Atlantic Basin, 978 kilometers southwest of Lisbon. These islands are mountain peaks of seismic origin rising from the abyssal ocean floor; from an ocean depth of 5,000 meters its central massif rises to 1,861 meters (Pico Ruivo). The island's sheer, unapproachable coastline and convoluted terrain create multiple microclimatic and vegetation zones. Southern Madeira is warm (with a mean annual temperature of 18° C) and dry. The north receives heavy precipitation (up to 200 centimeters per year) and functions as an island watershed by virtue of an intricate water-control system ( levadas, or conduits) dating from the sixteenth century. The high overall population density (440 persons per square kilometer) requires intense utilization of every type of econiche. Porto Santo is warm, dry, and largely flat, with a 7-kilometer-long beach along its southern fringe.
Demography. By 1427 three captain-proprietors ( donatários ) were directing settlement ( povoamento ) of Madeira's southern and northern halves and of Porto Santo. The Southern "captaincy," centered on Funchal (named for funcho, or fennel, a local aromatic herb), soon outpaced other regions. Today almost half of the island's population of 260,000 inhabitants live in greater Funchal. The original settlers were Portuguese; later genetic admixtures came from occupying pirate forces, British merchants, Spanish priests, and Africans, Moors, and Jews. Until recently most islanders lived in extreme geographical and social isolation. The small stature, darker skin, and inflected speaking of people from Madeira's remote northwest suggest protracted genetic drift. Rural Madeirans inhabit different linguistic, social, and economic worlds than city residents. The prevalence of absentee landholdings and high population density gives rise to frequent emigration, commonly to South America. Porto Santo's Population (3,500) is largely composed of retirees, airline personnel, and (permanent) tourists.
Linguistic Affiliation. The language of the Madeiras is Standard European Portuguese (SEP), which follows Romance Language Family conventions (inflective, synthetic, and stress-timed) and is the norm against which internal insular variations are evaluated. The most distinctive pronunciation feature is a characteristic shift of high front "i" (as in English " see ") to the diphthong "ei" (as in "they" ). A marked contrast between the speech of Madeira's urban elites and rural folk is a strong indicator of social status. English is the lingua franca in Funchal and other tourist centers. A richly diverse lexicon reflects a cosmopolitan cultural ambiance.