Business and Labor

In 1853, Boston Sends Food to Famine-Wracked Madeira – and the Island Says Thanks

When word spread that the poor of Madeira needed food during famine in 1852, wealthy Bostonians sent help. They never expected what they got in return.

Madeira in an illustration from the Illustrated London News, February, 1853.

Madeira in an illustration from the Illustrated London News, February, 1853.

The islands of Madeira, just off the African coast, have a long and prosperous relationship with New England. In the early days of the colonies, ships brought wine from the Portuguese colony to Massachusetts.

Madeiran wine has a unique flavor popular among the American colonists, who had no domestic wine-making industry. At one time, an estimated 95 percent of Madeira went to the American colonies. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington all liked Madeira.

In 1768, John Hancock provoked the anger of the British colonial government when he presented his ship, the Liberty, to the tax examiners. It was one-quarter full, with a cargo of Madeira wine. The rest of the ship, the tax examiner strongly suspected, had been full of Madeira, but secretly offloaded before he could assess a tax. The British seized the Liberty, causing a riot in just one of many disputes between the colonists and the king's men.

Famine in Madeira

With the long history between the two, it's not surprising that news of a famine in Madeira provoked a quick response in Boston. Newspapers reported that the island, famed for its wine, experienced widespread starvation.

"Famine is now come to Madeira. Neither wheat, milho (Indian corn), rice, oats, barley, nor any other grain to be had. There is no bread in the vendas (shops), except for regular customers.

"Money is of no use to the poor -- it will buy nothing. In the north they are giving wine to infants, having literally nothing else.

"The misery of the poor may be imagined. The Zargo is expected with rice from Lisbon, in a day or two, which will be a week's consumption. The suffering will be fearful."

The Governor, reported the newspaper, did all he could. But the islands had no food, 'and people cannot eat salt.' They had money to pay for corn and bread, and any shipowner would find a ready market for his freight.

Man, rather than Mother Nature, had caused the famine. Madeira's customary supplies from Sardinia and Greece went to France and England instead.

No Resources

The poor suffered the most. Madeira's warm climate made it appealing for poor laborers, who could move around the country in temporary shelter because they could always find a warm place to stay. However, that left many with almost no resources to combat a food shortage – especially when prices escalated beyond reach.

Madeirans who could afford to flee the country did so in droves. They wanted better economic conditions and to avoid military service, since they felt no allegiance to Portugal.

Tens of thousands of Madeirans had emigrated to British Guyana in the mid-1800s. After the South American colony abolished slavery, the colonial government offered a bounty for people willing to move there.

For those left behind, life on Madeira could be a paradise in times of plenty. During famine, though, Madeirans found it impossible to survive.

Relief

In 1852, with the famine in full force, a group of Bostonians put together a food drive of sorts. They raised money to fill a ship, the Nautilus, with provisions for the poor of Madeira.

In 1853, the ship arrived. New York and Philadelphia sponsored similar aid ships to help the poor outlast the famine. Further contributions went to The Madeira Relief Fund, an international organization that helped promote economic development of the islands. The fund also provided food aid.

Europeans had a soft spot for Madeira, a popular warm-weather destination for those suffering a variety ailments.

J.H. March, chairman of the fund, said, "Long after those who will be kept alive by it shall have gone to their last homes, the very name of Boston will be almost worshiped in Madeira."

Madeirans, indeed, had warm feelings toward America for many years after the famine. But Madeirans also found a more direct way to show their appreciation. The Nautilus returned to Boston loaded to the top with fine Madeiran wines, a gift of the grateful people of Madeira to Boston.

The wine, a welcome and unexpected thank you, went to the families that donated supplies. For generations, families broke out the Nautilus Madeira on special occasions.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morrison wrote as late as 1922 that, "I have happily ascertained that the "Nautilus Madeira" is not yet fully consumed."

This story about the Madeiran famine was updated in 2018.

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