Madeira Pirate Attacks

Pati’s Weekly bite 5 – Story of Madeira Pirate Attacks

Anywhere I went in Madeira, I heard endless stories about how vulnerable the Island used to be to pirate attacks. I found it fascinating, so I decided to do a little research. Here is what I found about the Madeira Pirate attacks.

The Madeira Islands suffered numerous violent attacks by pirates. Many solutions had to be put in place for Madeira and its people to defend themselves or hide from those charges. And many of those solutions survived to this day.

Most famous Madeira Pirate attacks

The cruellest of all Madeira Pirate attacks took place in August 1617 by an Algerian fleet of eight ships. Hundreds of residents were taken to Algiers, leaving behind only a handful of survivors who hid in caves in the hills and secret basements of their houses.

Another cruel attack took place in 1566 when the French pirate Bertrand de Montluc attacked Funchal with three galleons of thousand men. They plundered, killed and destroyed for 15 days.

The first true defensive bastion (Fort São José) wasn’t built until the eighteenth century. Therefore the residents of the island had to help themselves with the resources available to them. Often – unsuccessfully. 

Madeira’ vulnerability to pirate attacks was mostly caused by its geographical isolation and the length of the beach. This made landing with the ships easy but also challenging for inhabitants to defend themselves.

How Madeiran people defended themselves from those pirate attacks?

São Tiago Fortress was built to defend the city from future attacks. The Fort is still standing at the top of Old Town Funchal and can be visited as its been transformed into a museum. 

Madeira Pirate Attacks - São Tiago Fortress
São Tiago Fortress, Funchal

One of the most critical surveillance points was Pico do Facho – A mountain located on the edge of the seaside town of Machico.

Once pirates were spotted from the top of the mountain, it would be signalled by day through bundles of branches and at night by burning torches and bonfires. Succeeding fires were then set aflame on peaks all the way to Funchal, giving the capital a good few hours’ warning before the attack. Hence the name – Pico do Facho (‘Peak of the Torch’).

Story of Nuns Valley (Curral das Freitas)

Nuns Valley (Curral das Freitas) is a village sitting at the bottom of a huge cauldron nestled within almost vertical mountains in the heart of the Madeira island.

Nuns Valley (Curral das Freitas) - Story of Madeira Pirate Attacks
Nuns Valley (Curral das Freitas) - Story of Madeira Pirate Attacks

When the French pirates attacked Madeira in 1566, the nuns from the Santa Clara convent fled from their homes and found refuge here, where they also brought the convent treasures.

The village is very isolated; therefore, locals mainly live off what they grow. The local chestnuts are delicious and are used in everyday cooking. I was also told that chestnuts were used in cooking before the rice was introduced to the island.

These days, ‘Nuns Valley’ has a grand annual celebration. Every year locals celebrate the ‘Chestnut Festival’ – a festival that originated when the local parish had a remainder of chestnuts. The chestnuts were used in various dishes like soup, cakes, liqueur and many more. If you are in Madeira in November, make sure you attend this festival of food, music, dancing and wine.

For me, Nun’s Valley is one of the most spectacular sights of nature I have seen in Madeira. If you visit, make sure you start with Eira do Serrado viewpoint (at nearly 1100m above sea level) and then walk down to the Valley for some chestnut liquor and chestnut cheesecake!!!!

Story of Madeira Pirate Attacks

The Madeira Pirate attacks are now long gone, yet the history of those events is still alive, and you will find remnants of it all over the island. It is an essential part of Madeira’s history and greatly shaped it over the years.


  1. My family research suggests a Thomas Mace was given a Legion of Honour medal from the Governor of Madeira for helping to ward off an attack by pirates some time in the 1800s. He lived in Madeira and was a lodging house keeper in Funchal. Can anyone help to verify this?

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