A Madeira em 1907




Volume XVI –December 1907,  p. 751 to 771




By David Fairchild


There is something about an island in mid-ocean which is attractive, and if it is one of those mere specks on the blue field of a schoolboy's geography, so small that one's boyish wonder is that it was worth naming at all, it is almost irresistible.

There is one such spot of land, little more than twice the size of the District of Columbia, which has on it mountains 6,000 feet high, and which, although discovered before America and so thickly populated that there are 625 inhabitants to the square mile, has deep valleys that have scarcely been explored and inhabitants who have grown to old age without ever owning a looking-glass. On this spot of land the tropical banana and tree fern and the temperate-region oak and sycamore grow in sight of each other, and over every high wall great masses of flowering creepers are in bloom, and in the gardens masses of camellias and all sorts of flowering shrubs are perpetually in flower, frowned down upon by the snow-banks which cover the mountain peaks. This is Madeira, one of the most unique, one of the most beautiful, of all the volcanic mountain peaks that raise their summits above the surface of the ocean.

It is one of the quiet spots of the world and one to which tired souls from  our great cities are turning for rest when the gray skies and the piles of sooty snow in the streets make the nervous life of a metropolis unbearable. No wonder it is one of the quietest places in the world, for, although the roads are paved with round beach pebbles, there are no horses shod with iron nor jolting wheels to remind you of the fact. This seems so small a thing to describe that one cannot conceive what a difference the absence of horses and carriages makes to one fresh from the streets of an American city teeming with them.

All vehicles in Madeira are on runners. If you go calling, it is in a bullock sledge, with canopy top and comfortable seats. If you move a bank safe or a steam-boiler, it is carried on a "stone boat" or sledge of poles, and you may have to get forty oxen to pull it. If you are in a villa on the hillside and want to get downtown, you take a running car and slide down over the cobblestones.

A ride in a running car is an experience to be ranked with the initial ride in an auto. You sit down in a comfortably cushioned seat in a low basket on wooden runners and brace yourself for the slide. Two strong men, each holding a guide rope, pull your car over a bag of grease to grease the runners, and then give you a running shove, and jump each on a runner behind, as the car shoots down at break-neck pace over the cobblestones. The men yell, hens and dogs scamper, foot passengers cling close to the wall of the narrow street, the runners get hot and fill the air with odor of burning wood, as you shoot around sharp corners, down the busy thoroughfare, past gorgeous masses of flowering creepers, which hang over the walls of the private villas that border your street.

But oh the change when you get to the bottom! You are obliged either to walk or take a carro, slowest of all slow vehicles, drawn by slow-moving bullocks, squeaking" and slipping over the stones, now shoved by main strength of the drivers away from the curb, now jolting over unusually bad bits of cobblestones, until at a snail's pace you reach your destination.

The Portuguese island of Madeira, though lying in the latitude of Charleston,  is almost tropical in character. On the seacoast no freezes occur, and all but the ultra-tropical plants grow luxuriantly in the open air with ordinary care. The English residents have amused themselves with their gardens and have introduced a host of things that now add to the beauty of the island. They lay tribute, as it were, on the steamers as they anchor in the little roadstead from all parts of the world, getting from them all sorts of strange plants and animals, and they are sending to remote regions gifts of plants from their collections.

I know of no other place in the world where one can so sit under the shade of his own arbor and watch the steamers as they come and go to all parts of the world. This one weighing anchor for Pernambuco, just as the smoke of a South African cattle-boat is visible on the horizon. New York and San Francisco  are of course more cosmopolitan than this, but you cannot appreciate it as you do when your neighbor at the table, a Russian from Odessa, stopping on her way to Rio, is replaced when she leaves by a Boer from the Transvaal on his way to London, and when in order to keep up a general table talk you must resort to three languages at least.

I can imagine no spot on the globe more favorably situated by nature than Madeira for the creation of a truly great private garden, and if there should be among those Americans who read these lines one who wants to see the most beautiful private estate in the world, he will find it, I believe, in the historic Palheiro, now the property of Mr. John B. Blandy, who belongs to one of the oldest of the many English families on the island. Twice, at long intervals, I have   had the privilege of visiting Palheiro, and both times its charm and its remarkable variety of landscape and its incredible profusion of flowers have astonished me.

It does not lose its beauty even by comparison with the villas of southern and central Italy, or with the far-famed Cintra of Portugal. When you see an English manor-house commanding from an altitude of 2,000 feet a superb view of green mountain-side with the sea at its feet, a great avenue of sycamores, beautifully kept lawn, hedge rows, great masses of climbing roses, beds of violets, strawberry gardens, and English oaks, you are convinced that you are in England in June : but double rows of immense camellias covered with blossoms, giant acacias with their masses of pure gold flowers, groves of oranges and  lemons, convince you that you are in Italy, and its exquisite valley of tree ferns makes you sure that you must be in New Zealand, Hawaii, or one of the East Indian islands.

Summer, it is said, is the time to visit this wonderful place, and it is a pity that a misconception of the climate of the island prevents Americans from spending this season there, but even in winter, when the dispatches from home were telling of blockades of snow and interrupted traffic, we found Palheiro a dream of landscape beauty, and took away with us 26 kinds of flowers. There are few places that give a greater perspective on our rushing, bustling civilization than this Portuguese island in the Atlantic, or which show more clearly the inevitable results of bad management from a political point of view. Did not every intelligent man one meets   in Madeira criticise the government policy there might be reasons for not saying harsh things about it, but, as it is the constant talk of those who are borne down under it and suffer from it, there is no reason why American visitors who spend, as most of them do, only a day or two on the island should not understand some of the reasons why its people are so poor as a class, why illiteracy is so prevalent among them, and why this seeming paradise of beautiful and fruitful things is anything but ideal for those forced to live there and earn their living on it.

How is it possible that 150,000 people, who get their living from cultivating the soil, should keep abreast of the times when there is not a single industrial or agricultural school among them, and when the complaint common among those who send their children to the religious schools of the country is that the children are only taught how to sing?

China has at the present time in this country over 120 government students, who are being educated at our agricultural and technical schools. Japan has long ago established her schools of agriculture and her experiment stations on a comprehensive scale, but Madeira remains still in a condition of apathy toward these fundamental things, which is truly appalling, and I predict that in ten years' time, unless she undergoes a revolution in this regard, she will be farther behind in the race than China is today.

How is it possible for a colony to prosper if its policies are directed on the mainland and subject to the political mix-ups of the mother country, which is interested only in the revenues she can get out of the impossible import duties she imposes?

Protection, designed in America to assist new industries until they get on their  feet, has been resorted to by the Portuguese to keep alive such agricultural industries as should long ago have migrated to countries of cheap land and machine labor. If the government finances had been spent in exploiting the resources of the country by the introduction of crops that would pay, or in encouraging the cultivation of the delicious fruits and vegetables such as are already grown, a market could readily be formed in Europe and America, and this wonderful island would be rich instead of poor, and would have a host of agricultural monopolies instead of the one (Madeira wine), which has apparently seen its best days.

That new industries can be built up and thrive is perfectly evident from the start that has been made, mainly through the efforts of a few men, in the embroidery business. So profitable has this industry become that missionaries in the interior  of the island informed us that the housewives neglected their homes, injured their health, and ruined their eyesight in order to make the beautiful embroidery which every female tourist takes away with her. One firm, the Madeira House, sold $1,200 worth to one steamer load of Americans alone in a single day. Another dealer showed the writer a cablegram from the son of the governor of Pará, who was just leaving Brazil for Paris, ordering $720 worth of embroidered petticoats.

In the old days, when Madeira wine was all the fashion and American clippers carried it around the Horn and back again to age it, the island prospered, and English firms made fortunes in a hurry. The island has a monopoly, an agricultural monopoly, such as France has in her truffles and her Bordeaux. Nowhere else in the world could the same wine be produced, and the wealthy of the great cities demanded it at any price. Times have changed, and doctors say that Madeira is bad for gout. The demand has decreased, fraudulent adulterated "Madeiras" have been illegally put on the world markets, and the vineyards still stand, but no great fortunes are now made in the wine business of the island.

For one who wants sight-seeing and things to do, Madeira is not the place to go. You cannot expect that thirty miles of mountainous country, so steep that horses cannot be used on it and over which you must either walk or be carried in canvas hammocks, will be the place to taken an automobile or have anything more exciting about it than is furnished by dangerous landing places on the coast or precipitous cliffs and ravines of volcanic rock ; but there is a class of people to whom the wonderful scenery does appeal, who revel in the sunshine, the colors, the odors of the flowers, the quaint roadside scenes, and who are interested in the terraced hillsides, populated by simple peasants, living in thatched cabins. There are valleys thousands of feet deep, which are terraced to their summits in a manner quite as wonderful as anything you will see in Java or Japan. We Americans have not yet reached the stage where we must terrace and contour our hills, and it is a very useful thing to see how the almost perpendicular hillsides of this little island are all made to bear the crops which support human life, for it gives one a good idea of the margin of possible unoccupied land that still exists in America.

The problem that the Portuguese inhabitants of this colony have had to face is how to support on an island of 240 square miles, a great deal of which is in the air, so to speak, and absolutely untillable, a rapidly growing population, now numbering 150,000, or 625 to every  square mile. They have done it in one way, and, I suppose, the only way possible, a few generations ago, but if today this island were to be discovered anew, absolutely without human inhabitants, as it was originally, and it were left to Americans to populate it, the problem would be handled in quite another fashion.

By brute force and hand labor they have tried to do it, and, though the water-courses develop thousands of electric horse-power, they do not use it as they could to run their mills nor to encircle the island with an electric railway. They prefer that it shall cost more to bring a load of timber from a few miles in the interior than to bring it all the way from Norway, and in this, perhaps, they are no worse than Americans, with their short-sighted policy of poor country roads. But their terraces are marvels of industry, and one stands amazed before them as before the giant ant-hills of Africa or the Indies.

Little by little, just as the ant-hills are made, these terraces are fastened to the cliffs by a race of physically overworked people, who are happy in a religion that keeps them in the grossest ignorance and in those physical pleasures that are common to the savage and the civilized alike. Instead of growing in intelligence, these emigrants—hybrids of Moorish and European immigration—have been forced by the pressure of a hard day-by-day struggle for mere food and fire to lower and lower levels, until today they are on a plane with some of the so-called savage races, as far as their food habits are concerned, though, of course, far above these in their instinct of labor. The island is now so overpopulated that the young men are getting away to Hawaii and the Argentine, where money is to be made. In a sense, Madeira is becoming an admirable place for the creation of cheap but industrious field labor. In a single steamer over 1,000 of these field hands left for Hawaii to work in the sugar estates there.

If there were adequate provision for educating these peasant's sons, it would be hard to find conditions more likely to instill into them the instinct of industry and at the same time develop good, strong bodies than those furnished by the simple mountain life of the peasant of Madeira.