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All About Portugal | January 21, 2021

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Porto Santo Island history

Porto Santo Island
Clara Campos

Porto Santo is an amazing island that belongs to the Madeira archipelago. Its 9 km long white sand beach and the wonderful climate are its main highlights.

Porto Santo, “Madeira’s sandy little sister” as Sarah Baxter from the Independent newspaper called it, is a true paradise on Earth. The island’s discovery in 1418 was a landmark on the Portuguese history as it marked the beginning of the Portuguese Age of the Discoveries.

Porto Santo development

When the Portuguese discovers João Gonçalves Zarco, Tristão Vaz Teixeira and Bartolomeu Perestrelo arrived for the first time in Porto Santo Island in the 15th century, the landscape was completely different. Instead of nowadays almost deserted scenery they found dragon trees. However these soon were devastated due to the excessive exploration of their dye-producing sap. The once existing green vineyard gave room to a barren patch. The disappearance of the dragron trees that protected the Island from the Atlantic winds was the main factor that contributed for the landscape change.

Unlike other Portuguese Islands like Madeira or Sao Miguel, Azores, for instance, Porto Santo’s economy didn’t rely on agriculture. The rabbits brought to Porto Santo destroyed all the hope of the early settlers, mostly farmers and fishermen, in developing agriculture. They ate all the crops!

Vila Baleira Porto Santo

Photo by Galeria de amnésia

Nevertheless, Porto Santo was always appealing. Its most famed inhabitant was Christopher Columbus. The discoverer from Geneva married the daughter of Bartolomeu Perestrelo who had been appointed Captain of the Island by Henry the Navigator. Columbus prepared his voyage to America at Porto Santo, in Vila Baleira. The house where he lived is now Casa Museu Cristóvão Colombo.

When the neighbourhoods from Madeira discovered the therapeutic properties of the sand of Porto Santo’s beach, tourism began. Fortunately the increase of visitors didn’t lead to an uncontrolled rise of lodging options. Porto Santo didn’t become one of those tourist destinations flooded by hordes of tourists. Porto Santo still remains an unspoiled holiday’s destination.

The origin of the name Porto Santo

There are two theories concerning the origin of the name Porto Santo (Holly Harbour in English). The first relies on a popular tale stating that in 1418 Gonçalves Zarco named it Porto Santo because the Island sheltered him and his sailors during a storm. The second theory states that the Island was already named Porto Santo when the Portuguese arrived. According to some historic records, it was in the lower Middle Ages that the Island was baptized when a ship found shelter there after a storm.

Where is Porto Santo?

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porto santo: 33.060333, -16.333870

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