Madeiran migrants

Madeira: over immigranten en emigranten

If you’re a bit familiar with Madeira, you know that a lot of old houses are empty, slowly decaying, collapsing and falling into ruin eventually. Especially if you come a bit further from the capital Funchal. There are reasons for that. Until the nineteenth century, one of the pillars of the island economy was sugar cane. But we all know that sugar cane was supplanted by sugar beet and the importance of small-scale cultivation of sugar cane slowly disappeared. That’s why this story is a bit about our house, and a bit about Madeiran migrants. Immigrants in Brazil, Venezuela and South Africa, emigrants as in Madeirans who left the island because there were no economic prospects.

Without sufficient means of subsistence, people began to move away slowly in the first half of the twentieth century, because the grass in Brazil, Venezuela and South Africa seemed much greener than the withering plumes of sugar cane in Madeira. I specifically mention these three countries, because apart from migration to the Portuguese mainland, these were the main destinations for the Madeiran migrants. Of those countries, only Brazil turned out to be a sustainable choice in the long run.

Venezuela is, of course, an economic and political nightmare these days, but South Africa is even worse, because the Madeiran migrants there are neither seen as black nor as white, so they are discriminated from both sides everywhere. That is why many second, third or later generation Madeiran migrants have returned to the island in recent years. Sometimes they are lucky and the family that stayed behind has maintained the abandoned houses and they find they have a place to live.

We know about this phenomenon, as, during the renovation of our house, Noud was able to rent a house to live in temporarily. It belonged to a Portuguese family here, and it was not for sale, because a cousin was expected back from South Africa and he would need a place to live. Ten years have passed, and the cousin has yet not come back. But the house is still in reasonable shape and very charming, with a typical terrace upstairs, and we’re still looking for the characteristic threshold tiles that are no longer for sale anywhere.

The charming little house, being kept in shape for a Madeiran migrant coming back!
Lovely tiles! the house is still habitable for emigrants that come back to Madeira
Emigrants left, but they might come back.

An example of a really deserted and dilapidated house is one in our own ‘Impasse’. The house is decaying more and more, and now it really doesn’t seem safe to enter it. But a few years ago I looked there, and inside it seemed as if the house with everything in it had been left behind. That’s understandable. The Madeiran migrants couldn’t take much with them when they left, and there was no interest in buying such houses – very remote at the time, because the expressway wasn’t there yet. I then put my imagination to work and imagined what that must have been like for the leaving residents. I did that by means of an ‘artefact’, so ugly it’s beautiful, which now adorns our old bread oven, and the story is on my storytelling site Petersspinsels and it has the title ‘Overseas‘.

Het artefact. Toen de eigenaars wegtrokken konden ze dit niet meenemen.

But the ultimate reason for this story is a special event last Saturday. Noud is in the kitchen. I pour our guest Reina a glass of wine – and take one myself while I’m at it. Then Reina says: there are people in front of the house. I go outside and see a group of no less than 7 people standing in front of the house. Apparently three couples of a slightly advanced age, and a young man. The young man speaks to me and asks if he should speak Portuguese or English. I tell him he can choose either, and English it was, with a clear South African accent. Then, one of the older men takes over. “I was born in this house.” He points to the middle window on the first floor. “in that little room. In 1948.” Older man number two: “And me too. And I came first”!

They’re in the picture at the top of the page. The smallest is the youngest, we understand. They left for South Africa a long time ago with their parents. Typical example of Madeiran migrants. I can’t help but ask if they want to see the house. Of course they would love to, and they apologize for the invasion. One of the wives asks if she can take pictures, and of course she can. We do a tour of the house. The room where the men were born has merged into the guest room now. But the place where it was is very recognizable, it’s the part where the beds are now.

De mannen zijn in dit deel van het huis geboren. Toen ze nog niet weggetrokken waren was dit een klein kamertje.

They tell me there’s another brother, but he’s too old and frail to come here now. We understand that he lives in a little house higher up in our valley near the B&B Colina da Fajã. When the family emigrated to South Africa they sold the house, but the new owner also emigrated, to Argentina. The third gentleman in the company was not born here.

But he did ask if the neighbors are still there. I: “You mean “O Sardinha”? Yes, that one, he says. That’s my cousin. Tell him Gualdino said hello when you see him next. The men also tell me there used to be a small second house on the grounds. It had two rooms upstairs and storage downstairs. And that the “toilet” consisted of a wooden outhouse in front of the house, with a bucket in it. That makes many unpleasant visions disappear in which ‘everything’ was done somewhere on the grounds!

Gradually, some more pieces of the history of the house fall into place. So it is indeed true that the last inhabitants are emigrants. Bbecause when we bought the house you could see that it had been uninhabited for a very long time. The owners from whome we bought it didn’t want to live there. Their parents intended it as a place to retire in their later years. Sadly, they just didn’t make it long enough.

The visitors take plenty of pictures, and we refer them to our rental website, on which there are pictures of what the house was like when we found it, and what it is like today. Suddenly many stories of the old days surface, too many and too confusing to absorb, really. One of the ladies promises that she will contact us via the website and write down all those stories. So, hopefully, there will be a sequel to this story, if she keeps her promise.

She probably will, because she told us that they had walked past the house a couple of times. But she always found it closed and that nobody seemed to be here. That is true we think, because they are often here in the summer. And then the house is rented out and the tenants are often out during the day. Anyway, they left happy and content that the two men were able to see their birth house again. We never thought our house had a history linked to Madeiran migrants, but it turns out it has. When the promised sequel comes, we will be able to fill in a large piece of history. And there will certainly be a new page on the website with that story. So, hopefully, to be continued.

We love to hear from you. Please leave any thoughts you have on this article in the comments-section below.


By Peter Groen

Peter was born in Amsterdam in 1949. He has a history in PR and copywriting. Now, part time resident of the Island of Madeira of over 10 years, he writes about Madeira, its culture, its overwhelming nature, its food and drink, and about everything concerning travel to and on this beautiful island.


  1. Hi Pierre,
    It is impossible to say how much it will cost to do up an old house, as it depends entirely on the state it is in when you find it. It also depends on how much you can do yourself. If you can, it is always best to find a house that is habitable as it is, as you will then have all the necessary permits. When you want to renovate, you can take your time and do it one room at a time.
    At present, you may find it difficult to locate a constructor who is willing to take on the job, as there is a lack of them now and a lot of construction has been going on, seeing the Madeira was one of the few safe places during the pandemic, with relatively many liberties. Also, there is a shortage of materials as it seems the demand is high.

    If you can, again find something habitable allowing you time to do any renovation whenever the market has calmed down.

    1. Thanks a lot for your advise….

      We will use this information to go further with our investment project.

      Have a good day

  2. Hi péter,

    I am very impression with all the work you did.

    I am interresred in bilingue an old house in funchal and i am wondering how much it may cost to renovate and restructure à 160m2 house.

    Can you give me an approximative cost?
    Thanks à lot for your kind help

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