In Endeavour’s wake: Madeira, 12 September 1768.

Green and mountainous Madeira is in view and we have time just to finish our crew’s tour.

Joseph Banks and the scientific Team

The Royal Society obtained the permission to send, at his own expense, Joseph Banks, a renowned botanist and natural scientist. Banks funded several others to join him: the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, the Finnish naturalist Herman Spöring, two artists, a scientific secretary, and a retinue of several personal servants and two greyhounds.

Banks and his staff will be ones of the main characters of our journey, with their naturalist observations: while they were in Australia, Banks, Daniel Solander and Herman Spöring Jr. made the first major collection of Australian flora, describing many species new to science.

Spoiler: Solander’s return to Britain with Cook and Banks made him the first Swede to circle the globe. Herman Spöring Jr instead was not so lucky to come back home, since he died of dysentery complications related to food poisoning. He was buried at sea on January 24, 1771.

Almost 800 specimens were illustrated by the artist Sydney Parkinson and appear in Banks’ Florilegium. He had to work in difficult conditions, living in a small cabin surrounded by hundreds of specimens.

Spoiler: he also died at sea on the way to Cape Town of dysentery contracted at Princes’ Island off the western end of Java. Parkinson is commemorated in the common and scientific name of the Parkinson’s petrel Procellaria parkinsoni.

 

In the meantime Endeavour and the crew are docking in Madeira Island on the 12th of September 1768.

Madeira is a Portuguese volcanic archipelago situated in the north Atlantic Ocean, southwest of Portugal, and its bigger island is named Madeira Island, with its main city Funchal.

Knowledge of some Atlantic islands, such as Madeira, existed before their formal discovery and settlement, as the islands were shown on maps as early as 1339. In 1418, two captains under service to Prince Henry the Navigator, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, were driven off course by a storm to an island which they named Porto Santo (English: Holy Harbour) in gratitude for divine deliverance from a shipwreck. The following year, an organised expedition traveled to the island to claim it on behalf of the Portuguese Crown. Subsequently, they called the larger island Madeira. The first Portuguese settlers began colonizing the islands around 1420 or 1425.

The islands, in their history, were above all producers of grain, sugarcane and wine; while in the 19th century they became a renowned thermal touristic destination thanks to their healthy climate (famous was the Empress Elisabeth of Austria – Princess Sissi – stay in Madeira to recover from a tuberculosis crisis).

Madeira Island is the top of a giant shield volcano that rises six kilometers from the ocean floor to reach an altitude of 1,862 meters above sea level. When Portuguese explorers arrived there, they were so impressed with the thick forest covering the steep, mountainous island that they called it Ilhe de Madeira, Island of Wood.

Madeira captured from S3 OLCI instrument

The image on the right shows that deep green forest survives intact on the steep northern slopes of the island, but in the south, where terrain is gentler, towns and the light green colour of agriculture are more dominant.

The forest of Madeira is known as Laurissilva, a forest that is similar to high-altitude tropical rain forests (“cloud forests”). Laurissilva is a relic of the forest that once thrived across southern Europe and North Africa, but which disappeared as the last ice age ended and the regional climate became hotter and drier, surviving only on Macaronesia biogeographic area. Madeira’s mild, subtropical climate and isolation preserved the laurel forest as it became extinct elsewhere.

The surviving Laurissilva is both a natural reserve and a World Heritage Site. The remaining forest covers about 15,000 hectares, making it the largest Laurissilva forest in the world. About 90 percent of the forest is believed to be old growth, primary forest, says the United Nations. The Laurissilva includes a wide diversity of plants, including a number of rare ferns and flowering plants.

The impressive presence of trees and plants, however, exposes the islands to fire risk too, especially during hot and dry summer months, as happened on the 8th of August 2016 when wildfires reached Funchal city, killing four people and destroying over 150 homes.

The fire has been captured by our Sentinels: in the first image, taken from S3-A OLCI instrument, smoke of the fires is clearly visible, while in the GIF made by S2-A products the effect of fire’ passage is evident.

Wildfire smoke captured from S3 OLCI instrument
GIF generated with S2 images, showing the effect of the fires.

 

(Credits: James Cook’s journal and World Wide Web, especially Wikipedia and http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/maps/websites/pacific/cook1/cook1.html)

 

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