By order of Prince Henry, the Navigator, in the first quarter of the 15th century, the first sugar cane stalks (Saccharum officinarum), from Sicily, reached Madeira. Here they found fertile soils and abundant water, brought by the small levadas from the sources of the main streams. The places with a greater production of sugar cane and where most of the engenhos (sugarcane mill ) could be found were located on the Southern slope of the island, namely in the municipalities of Funchal, Ribeira Brava, Ponta do Sol and Calheta.
The first reference to Madeiran sugar dates back to 1433 and, two decades later, it was already produced in sufficient quantities for exportation, being considered the most refined sugar on the market. The Madeiran sugar was successful in the European market due to its quality, competing with the sugar from Sicily, Egypt and Morocco, and was exported to England, Flanders, France, Italy, Constantinople, among other markets. The sugar, also called “White Gold”, was exported inside a type of “cone” made out of clay, called “Pão de Açúcar” (Sugar Bread) or “Cones de Açúcar” (Sugar Cones).
The Madeiran economy improved with the exports of sugar to Europe and the great sugar cane producers started to order sacred art pieces from the Nordic schools of Flanders and Bruges, as a way to thank God for the favourable harvests. All, regardless of their social status, benefited from this wealth.
The main churches and some chapels received sacred art pieces, either as paintings or sculptures, and also other silver and copper art pieces. Nowadays, some of these pieces may be visited at the Sacred Art Museum and in the main churches and chapels of the island, especially on the southern slope. We may state that the Flemish art in the islands is a gift from the sugar.
In the second half of the 16th century, the Portuguese colonies, such as Brazil and São Tomé, began the production of sugar cane from the stalks taken from Madeira. These productions were in smaller quantities and with a lower cost, slowing down the production of sugar in Madeira.
The production of sugar cane in Madeira always had a high cost due to several natural and human factors. The peculiar orography of the island does not allow for great plantations of sugar cane and forced the plantations to be made in small terraces along the island’s slopes, which never allowed the introduction of machinery for its planting and transport, forcing men to, almost manually, create levadas to be able to bring water to those plantations. This entire sugar cane production process in Madeira subsequently increases its cost when compared to the sugar cane produced in other places in the world.
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