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Another article sent to me from Josef Butler.

An Alternative Ecclesiastical History of Madeira

For the estimated one million holidaymakers who visit Madeira every year, the list of historical attractions available is longer than an Olympic opening ceremony. You could visit the Jesuit Church and College near the town square of Funchal, the Santa Clara Monastery in São Pedro or the Sacred Art Museum. However, one key limiting factor links all these sites; the Catholic faith, which dominates Madeira and much of its history. While Catholicism, as the de facto state religion of Portugal both today and during the first wave of expansion during the 15th century, undoubtedly played a pivotal role in shaping the culture of Madeira, its pre-eminence in the tourism industry does a disservice to the role other faiths played in the history of the island (this does not include the worship of Cristiano Ronaldo, which is a more recent phenomenon).

To understand the dominant role of Catholicism in Madeira it is important to understand the historical context of the island’s discovery. The island itself was the second discovery during the first wave of Portuguese expansion during the early 15th century, after Porto Santo. These discoveries were commissioned by Prince Henry the Navigator, the third son of King John I and Phillipa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt. Henry is primarily known for sponsoring expansionist voyages, hence his moniker, however at this time he was also the Grand Master of the Order of Christ. The Order of Christ was formed in Portugal following the papal bull of 1312, which abolished the Knights Templar. Given that the raison d’être for the Order’s predecessor was to spread Christendom, it is easy to infer that Henry was motivated, at least in part, to expand Portugal’s territory in order to spread the Catholic faith.

In addition to this, the earliest parts of Madeira’s history coincides with a time of religious inquisition that dominated Southern Europe in the beginning of the early modern period. Though the inquisition is most commonly associated with Spain (which was unexpected), who took drastic actions to maintain their Catholic hegemony by persecuting non-Christians, Portugal also held an inquisition in order to secure a marriage pact with the Spanish crown. Therefore it is notable that the Madeiran capital city of Funchal was only formally established 16 years after the Alhambra Decree of 1492, which formally called for the expulsion of all practising Jews from Spanish territories. This is interesting in the context of João Gonçalves Zarco, the discoverer of Madeira and Porto Santo and the first Captain of Funchal.

Despite being elevated to high status by the Portuguese crown, Zarco was not known to be of noble birth, having instead earned his position in Prince Henry’s household as a result of his military actions against Muslims in Algarve. In fact he was not in possession of his family name, De Câmara, until after the discovery of Madeira. ‘Zarco’ was thought to be merely a nickname, the origins of which are unclear. However several Portuguese historians have traced the family name ‘Zarco’ to several prominent Jewish Portuguese figures, noteably Mosse Zarco, the tailor of King John II. During the periods of inquisition it was common for Jews to only practise their faith in private, a lifestyle referred to as Crypto-Judaism. Given the public hostility towards Jews in the region, the lack of information regarding Zarco’s past and the presence of Jews with Zarco as a family name attached to the royal household, it is easy to see why prominent Portuguese historians such as Augusto Mascarenhas Barreto and Manuel Luciano da Silva believe that Zarco himself was a Crypto-Jew.

Practitioners of the Jewish faith continued to play an important, if hidden, role in Madeira’s history long after the discovery of the island. Prominent writer and diplomat Menasseh Ben Israel was born Manoel Dias Soeiro in Madeira in the early 17th century, the son of Crypto-Jews who had fled from mainland Portugal as a result of the inquisition. The Aburdaham family arrived in Madeira from Morocco, by way of Gibraltar, in the 19th century during the height of British influence in the island. They became influential in the trade of Madeira wine to Europe and the New World, and today their graves can be found in the Jewish cemetery on Rua do Lazareto. The Gibraltar connection continued in the 20th century, when 200 Gibraltan Jews arrived in Madeira as a result of the decision by the British government to evacuate the civilian population in 1940. These Gibraltarians built the now disused Sha’ar Hashamayim Synagogue on Rua do Carmo.

Given the aforementioned influence of British expatriates in Madeira, it is unsurprising that Anglicanism has displayed a noticeable presence on the island since the 18th century. By this time a large number of protestant travellers were dying in Madeira, necessitating the opening of the British Cemetery of Funchal in 1772. This was the first cemetery on the island, as it was Portuguese custom to dispose of corpses in the adros (churchyard), until an extremely unpopular change in legislation in 1835, following the Cholera epidemic of the previous year. For this reason one can find many German protestant graves in this cemetery, as they would have had nowhere else to be interned upon dying in Madeira.

Shortly after the establishment of the cemetery, the first Anglican church was built on the nearby Rua do Quebra Costas. The Holy Trinity Church began construction in 1816, nine years after a British military regiment under the command of William Carr Beresford occupied Madeira en route to continental Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars. This influx of Anglicans led to the demand for an official church in 1810, and by 1813 the necessary lands had been purchased. A fund amounting to around £10,000 was raised, with benefactors including the Duke of Wellington, the estate of Lord Nelson and King George III. The Holy Trinity Church continues to provide services for Anglicans to this day, and is a recognised historical landmark in Funchal. However an arguably greater historical legacy was left by a different branch of British Protestantism.

In 1838 Robert Reid Kalley joined the growing number of British nationals who found residence in Madeira. A qualified doctor who had practised in Kilmarnock and Mumbai, he initially found work difficult to come by in Funchal, which was already inundated by practising doctors. Kalley, an arts graduate of the University of Glasgow, instead focused his efforts on improving literacy in Madeira and preaching his Presbyterian faith. This caused great alarm to the Catholic establishment of the island, with the Bishop of Funchal forbidding him from preaching in 1841, and two years later outlawing the bibles he distributed. Undeterred, Kalley founded the Presbyterian Church of Portugal in 1845, for which he faced heresy charges, forcing him to leave the island.

Kalley can be seen as a controversial figure, as he was a foreigner who sought to undermine the social order of a nation of which he had little knowledge of. However the schools he founded were of great help to many impoverished Madeirans, and later he would seek to influence Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, the son of the exiled Portuguese king, to expedite the long overdue end to slavery in that nation. In addition to this around 2,000 Madeirans joined Kalley in exile, including the descendants of Sam Mendes, the director of 2012’s ludicrously overrated Skyfall. In this regard Kalley is an incredibly influential figure in the history of Madeira and its diaspora, who is relatively unacknowledged today.

Of the major Abrahamic religions Islam has had the least profound impact on Madeira, however the faith has made significant cultural contributions to the Iberian Peninsula as a result of a series of conflicts during the middle ages. At the beginning of the 8th century an army loyal to the Umayyad Caliphate of Syria and Turkey invaded southern Spain, starting a conflict that would be waged over the next seven hundred years. This conflict was inseparably linked to the history of Portugal due to the roles of Henry of Portugal and his son Alfonso Henriques in the Reconquista. The Reconquista is the term used to describe the Christian fightback against Islamic gains in Iberia. During these battles Henry fought alongside the King of León and Castile, who in reward granted him the title of Count of Portugal. Henry’s son Alfonso would later defeat his own mother, the daughter of the Spanish King, to establish Portugal as an independent nation. By this point the Umayyad capital in Córdoba, modern day Andalusia, had fallen as the Reconquista swept across Iberia. During this period Alfonso, now the first King of Portugal, effectively doubled the size of his kingdom by claiming territory from the remnants of the Umayyad Caliphate.

The direct impact of Islam on Madeira is limited by relative weakness of Islamic influence in Iberia during the 15th century and beyond, however some aspects of Islamic culture have been assimilated. Anyone who has holidayed in southern Spain, which is every single person in the UK according to my independent research, will be familiar with Mudéjar architecture, the North African, Islamic style that defines the historic buildings of cities such as Córdoba and Seville. This style can also be found in Funchal, such as in the Santa Clara Monastery. Today there is one mosque in Funchal, Al Tawheed in Santo António, and an extremely limited number of restaurants that provide Halal options.

As a product of the Portuguese Age of Discovery, Madeira primarily draws its cultural influences from Portugal itself. However as the first true step into the new world, it would be wrong to ignore the multicultural influences that make Madeira the island it is today. While the many Catholic churches and sites of worship are well worth a visit (although as a tour guide who works at many of these sites, I would say that), it is also important for travellers who find themselves in Madeira to be aware that many other faiths contributed to the history of this island.


About the Author

Josef Butler is a tour guide and editor working in Funchal. For more information on tour guides visit http://madeiranheritage.pt/ or call +351291705060. The views expressed here are not necessarily the views of Madeiran Heritage or the Associação Académica da Universidade da Madeira.