Madeira History - Ponta do Garajau
The local Madeiran population have always referred to the prominent headland that is situated on the southern coast just 5km east of Funchal as the Ponta do Garajau.
That an area of outstanding natural beauty should be known by more than one name is no surprise, for it obviously engenders affection in those who know it.
However what will surprise many is that the Ponta do Garajau has a disturbing and unsavoury past. A sinister secret from a previous time and culture that many would prefer remains forgotten.
British Influence on Madeira
The British association with Madeira extends back for more than three centuries. During that time, the relationship has been based on a number of interconnecting influences. Global politics, commerce, medicinal issues and tourism have all played their part in that relationship.
Indeed, the historical importance of the British influence on Madeira is plainly evident even today.
Many street names, corporate identities and products display a British heritage. The formal gardens of numerous Quinta manor houses bear all the hallmarks of a traditional English country garden. And, many of things we automatically associate with modern Madeira, the wine, the famous Reid's Palace Hotel, the lacework, their passion for football - all owe a debt to long since departed British patrons.
British Burials - A Dilemma
In the years before the 1770's, there existed an edict that no person of any faith other than that of the Roman Catholic Church was allowed to be buried in Madeiran soil.
To understand the rational behind this law you have to be aware that most of the Roman Catholic population, upon death, were interred beneath the floor stones of the cathedrals and churches that dominated local culture.
Many of the British who lived and died in Madeira were Protestant and thus denied a Christian burial.
Unfortunately, before the age of fast air transport and cold storage facilities, there was no other practical option than to dispose of corpses promptly and locally on the island.
An account from 1689 records the unfortunate circumstances that occurred following an attempted English burial in Funchal:
An English merchant dying, all the other merchants of the same nation, willing to inter the body decently, and yet to avoid the rigorous impositions of the Inquisition, determined to have it carried in the night over the rocks into the mountains. However, their design was discovered by that jealous tribunal, and they were watched to the place of interment. Scarce had the corpse been laid in the dust when they were surrounded by the corregidors and officers of justice, assisted by a large body of armed men, who immediately dug up the body, exposed it to public insults, and then threw it into the sea, with all possible marks of infamy and disgrace.
The dilemma for the families of the deceased was thus: Exactly how should they commit the mortal remains of their loved ones to a final resting place that would not upset the local population?
Ponta do Garajau - A Dark Secret
The Brazen Head - with its mystical association of giving answers to obtuse problems - provided a solution.
The headland at Ponta do Garajau had ideal geological features to serve the purpose. The peninsula was narrow and had high sea cliffs on either side with sheer drops into relatively deep waters.
The mortal remains of the recently deceased were thus taken to the tip of the peninsular and consigned to the waves in, what can only be described as, a the most undignified manner.
A trip along to the tip of Brazen Head suddenly became a journey from which many British never returned.
The more affluent families among the ex-patriot community often used a small boat. Rowing out to a spot just beyond the farthest extent of Ponta do Garajau, their loved ones departed this world in more serene circumstances - even if the outcome remained the same.
The corpses and coffins were weighted and sunk to the sea bed. Leaving the waves of the Atlantic Ocean the sole unfocused spot where future generations could pay their respects.
Ponta do Garajau gives up its role
It is a regretful episode in history that thankfully came to an end with the official granting of a British cemetery in the 1770's. The British, being somewhat less illiberal than their hosts, not only buried their own in this cemetery, but also allowed the inclusion of other nationalities and creeds.
In 1851, Edward William Harcourt recorded his thoughts concerning the new Madeiran policy of allowing foreign nationals to be interred on the island:
Religious toleration, which always accompanies the progress of a more healthy policy, has now granted to the English in Madeira two places of burial for their dead. One is used by those constantly resident in the island, the other contains the bodies of those who, seeking for health in a foreign land, have there found rest forever. The cypress droops over the stranger's grave, and many a flower decks his lonely tomb.
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