Knock On Wood

Madeira is a small island, or rather a mini-archipelago, since it has three neighbors—Porto Santo, with over five miles of golden beaches, the Desertas, and the Selvagens—no one lives on the last two, both of which are nature reserves—the Desertas are home to the monk seal, which the Portuguese sailors christened lobo marinho.

The island’s name means ‘wood’, because of the extensive woodland cleared for agriculture when it was colonized.

A cliff face going up fifteen hundred feet from the ocean—folks scratch a living from sharecropping at the base of the mountain, growing sweet potatoes and maize. The boat from which the picture was taken is in fifty fathoms of water—one nautical mile further south you’d be at five hundred fathoms—this is the home of the deep ocean predators: bluefin tuna, dolphins, sharks, and whales.

I’ve been to Madeira a number of times, but this was a special trip—the first chance since the global lockdown to catch up with old friends.

The islands are at the core of my first book, The India Road, since their discovery marked the start of an amazing century of Portuguese endeavor—in 1419, the captains Joao Gonçalves Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixeira were blown out to sea in a storm, at a time when astronomic navigation was taking its first steps, and thanked god in the usual way by naming their safe harbor Porto Santo, or Holy Port.

As always, there are apocryphal tales about the islands, starting with an account by Plutarch of the life of Quintus Sertorius.

quas duas insulas propinquas inter se decem stadium a Gadibus sitas … constabat suopte ingenio alimenta mortabilus gignere.

It was said that these two neighbouring islands, situated ten thousand stades from Cadiz, produced food for humans entirely of their own accord.

There are references to the Islas Afortunadas, or Fortunate Islands—the ancient name for the Canaries, so it’s not clear whether this passage references Madeira or not—but the mention of two neighboring islands ten thousand stades (one thousand nautical miles) from Cadiz is suggestive. In actual fact, both Madeira and the Canaries are substantially closer (about six hundred nautical miles), but right up to the XVIIIth century, mariners were not able to accurately determine longitude. Since there’s nothing further west, it’s safe to assume that the sailors who spoke to Sertorius landed on the ‘Isles of the Blest’ around the year 80 BC.

The food narrative is also interesting—although volcanic islands are associated with destruction, the emission of ash from an eruption often results in fertile soils, rich in iron, magnesium, and potassium. The islanders grow corn, a new world crop, sugarcane and bananas, old world crops, and sweet potato—although traditionally considered to be from the Americas, recent evidence suggests it may also have been present in Southeast Asia.

The Roman general never made it to Madeira (or the Canaries), so the story is apocryphal, but there is also evidence (of mice and men) that Vikings may have stopped off in the XIth century, probably on their way to a spot of rape and pillage in the Andalusian caliphate. That evidence is provided by DNA from mice—I’m tempted to say this explains Rattus norvegicus, but of course this is about its more endearing cousin, Mus musculus.

In 1420, the island of Madeira was formally claimed by the Portuguese crown—’discovered’ by the two captains, together with Bartolomeu Perestrello—an Italian, whose original name was Pallastrelli. Perestrello married four times—his daughter Filipa, from his last marriage, was the first wife of Christopher Columbus—you can read all about that in my third book, Clear Eyes.

I didn’t get to Porto Santo this time around, but next time I’ll visit the house where Columbus lived.

So, celebrate life and look forward to the next time… knock on wood.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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