From the mid-1960s to the mid 1970s, thousands, including my parents, emigrated from the Portuguese island of Madeira for economic reasons, never to return. In doing so, they severed a link with their heritage for all their future descendants - descendants destined to be intimately entwined with a land they will never truly know . For me this severance was deepened when, whilst I was still young, my father passed away, leaving no links to his side of the family. My mother followed in 2009.
In 2014, following the birth of my first child, I returned to the island determined to heal this fracture with the past, realising that a failure to know our heritage is a failure to know a key part of ourselves. What, at some future point, would I be able to tell my daughter of our family's past? Of her grandfather, almost nothing beyond the hazy memories of a child.
On Madeira, I found a land unrecognisable from the one I had known through my parents' stories. From the mid-90s, European Union. money had been thrown at Portugal to bring a rural, underdeveloped nation into 21st century Europe. In Madeira, this had largely been spent on mass construction projects: huge high-speed roads, shopping centres in every town and olympic sized swimming pools gracing small villages. Whilst times were good few worried about the wider implications of what was being done. But 2008’s economic collapse caused the money to stop flowing in almost overnight. No one disagrees that the island was in dire need of development, but what they are asking is whether this development was pursued in the best way? As one young man I spoke to told me: ‘What we needed was balanced investment to create a sustainable economy based on our heritage. What we got was concrete’. As a result, history looks set to repeat itself as young Madeirans find themselves forced leave the island in search of a better life.
Retreating from this modernity, I traversed the breadth of the island on foot along the old paths and waterways that would have served as the main thoroughfares for my parents and their ancestors... searching for the Madeira that they would have known, in turn hoping to come to know my parents better themselves. As I went, I searched out my father's family. In them I hoped to find traces of a man I had hardly known.
The Madeira I found was a land transformed from the one my parents had known, one that had absentmindedly trampled over its heritage in a blind rush for progress, and one now desperately searching to rediscover its own identity as a result.
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