History Files



The Fort of São José

by Renato Barros, 29 November 2008

The sub-tropical archipelago of Madeira lies some 580 kilometres (360 miles) west of Morocco and Casablanca, and north of the Canary Islands. These islands were known to the Romans as the Purple Islands, and were probably known during the Middle Ages, before being 'rediscovered' by João Gonçalves Zarco in 1418 and colonised shortly thereafter.

A small atoll sits just outside Funchal, the capital of Madeira. A large basalt formation, it is detached from the mainland by about a hundred metres (109 yards). As such it technically formed a separate island, therefore being one of a scattered group in the Madeira Archipelago. It has since been joined to the mainland by the harbour causeway.

It was on this atoll that the fort of São José was constructed. It was also here that in 1419 the atoll's discoverers took refuge before moving on to Madeira itself.

The fort itself appears to be at least 300 years old and has a long and regionally important history. Shown complete in many early paintings, prints and photographs, sadly it was partly destroyed when the harbour road was widened in around 1950. It is built of mortared masonry on three levels and still contains a fine stone staircase, a vaulted ceiling, doorways, a well, and several other less easily accessible features.

The heart of the fort remains in immaculate condition, with sunlight pouring through the portholes. It is the first and the oldest dwelling in the Atlantic thanks to the devoted conservation efforts of its current owner.

On the islet, stone steps can still be seen sculpted from bare rock itself. Not far away, a stone triangle set in the blue Atlantic sea stands as a remembrance of where the discoverers anchored their ships. This triangle has given rise to many questions amongst archaeologists due to the fact that it is not the most feasible or suitable means of anchoring a vessel or caravel [1].

Might this be part of the route Columbus took in 1492? Might it be pointing in the direction of the sea routes to India or the Americas? One of the vertices points towards Sagres, on the southernmost peninsula of Portugal, which is where the island's discoverers had come from. Another one points towards Africa, while the third is directed towards the Antilles in the Caribbean. So the question remains; might there have been another military or civil meaning to the triangle?

[1] Caravel - a ship regularly used in Portugal and Spain in the era of sail, with three or four masts. Used by Christopher Columbus.

Since Funchal was the first 'city' in the Atlantic, this islet was undoubtedly its first port. It took on an important role in European maritime expansion.

It was for many years a stopping point for the transhipment of everything which Madeira imported and exported, including the fifteenth century 'white gold of Madeira' (sugar), and later, in the eighteenth century, shipments of wine.

As quarantine was compulsory for everyone who visited the island, legend has it that the great discoverers would also reside in the fort, to be protected by its thick walls. Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook are just two of the illustrious figures mentioned as having stayed there. Other distinguished guests included pirates, military personnel, artists, and politicians.

Until 1776, this islet was recorded on official maps as the Islet of Diego (the name of Christopher Columbus' son). From then onwards, and by royal charter, it was physically linked to the island of Madeira. This happened during the reign of King Joseph Emanuel of Portugal, from which the fort gets its name – the Fort of São José.

Chart of the port of Madeira

A chart of the port of Madeira which shows the fort

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Between 1801 and 1807, the British occupied Madeira as part of the Napoleonic Wars against France, and they used the fort as a military stronghold and penal complex.

In 1888, the government decided to extend the Port of Funchal. As a result, the Fort of São José was forgotten once again by the Madeirans.

Desperately in need of funds in 1903, the Portuguese government put the fort up for sale, and they used the money from the purchase to develop and complete the NSC Fort. The port of Funchal itself now owned the fort.

In later years the Fort of São José was used as a coal depository and warehouse, even though it was considered one of the most important reference points in Europe and the New World in 1921.

In October 2000, the fort was purchased by a Madeiran whose intention was to restore it to its full splendour, having once been such an important landing point in the age of discovery. In order to restore the fort, archaeological work is currently being carried out within the premises and visits are now allowed, although the Portuguese government is unfortunately blocking any attempts to get funding for the work. A tour includes four small partitioned areas, the natural conduit and the solitary confinement section.

The fort at Madeira in 1845
The fort at Madeira in 1846 by George Schnery

The fort at Madeira today

The reduced fort today, with the harbour wall joining it to the mainland

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Main Sources

Barros, Renato - Forte São José web site

Council for Kentish Archaeology - One man's battle to save a fort, published in the CKA official organ



Images and text copyright © Renato Barros, with Jackie Speel. An original feature for the History Files.