Letter from Europe

Portugal's Forgotten Islands

Issue no. 2020/23

Picture above: The coast of Selvagem Pequena, the second largest of the arid Savage Islands (photo © Coimbra68 licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0).


Just north of the Canaries lies an island archipelago which belongs to Portugal. Join us as we discover the Savage Islands.

Dear fellow travellers

Why not join us on a quick trip to the Savage Islands? Few have gone before us and there’s not a lot there. On the plus side, though, there’s never been a single case of Coronavirus anywhere on the Savage Islands. Not one!

The Savage Islands belong to Portugal - and are not to be confused with an archipelago of the same name in and around the Hudson Strait in the Canadian Arctic. On Portuguese maps the Savage Islands are shown as Ilhas Selvagens.

We have examined old British atlases and there the rendering of the name varies. Our century-old John Bartholomew atlas is a vintage piece of fine cartography, and there the islands are shown as the Salvage Islands - inviting comparison with the Dry Salvages, a small group of rocky islands off the coast of Massachusetts which lent their name to the third of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.

The Portuguese archipelago is in the North Atlantic and straddles the 30th parallel north of the equator. The Canaries are just a short distance away to the south of the Savage Islands, so the nearest other land beyond the Savage Islands is thus Spanish territory. Much further away, and to the north, is the Portuguese island of Madeira, of which the Savage Islands are effectively an administrative part.

No one lives on the Savage Islands, which consist of two decent-sized islands and a scatter of much smaller rocky islets. Even the largest island, which is called Selvagem Grande, is only a couple of kilometres across. A rocky headland at the southern tip of Fora Islet is the southernmost point of Portugal, though we suspect that a goodly number of Portuguese citizens have probably never heard of the Savage Islands, let alone appreciate Fora Islet’s cardinal status in Portuguese geography.

With the Canaries and Madeira offering safe anchorages for early voyagers, the barren Savage Islands were generally bypassed. And thus has it always remained. Bar for a sparse source of fresh water on the largest island, the Savages are dry and inhospitable. They are eroded ancient volcanoes, mere remnants of once much larger fragments of land.

Portuguese mariners laid claim to the Savage Islands in the 15th century, and ownership passed from one aristocratic family to another, until in 1971 the islands were sold for a nominal sum to the Portuguese government. No one has ever made any effort to settle on or exploit the islands. Over the last 40 or more years, the islands have enjoyed protected status as a nature reserve and the Portuguese government stations a couple of wardens on Selvagem Grande for a few months at a time. It’s surely a lonely posting with only the seabirds for company.

While Portugal’s other islands - Madeira and the Azores - are well documented, very little has been written about the Savage Islands. This is the country’s forgotten archipelago, a rarely visited arid outpost which appeals to seabirds and cartographers. The latter surely wonder why the Savage Islands have never been grouped in with the Canary Islands which are so much closer than Madeira.

Meanwhile, the Bishop of Funchal probably has to be reminded every now and again that his patch includes a scatter of islands far away to the south of Madeira. The diocese was once remarkable for its extent. The Funchal archdiocese was the largest Catholic ecclesiastical province in the world. It once included Portugal’s colonial settlements in Brazil, India and Africa. The Savage Islands are just a remnant - though one that has probably never once been visited by the current bishop or any of his priests.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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