How Madeira fueled the American Revolution

Jefferson toasted, Hancock smuggled, and Washington greeted voters with a healthy glass of Madeira.  But how did this tiny island beverage come to be colonial America’s top wine?  Why, the perfect combination of luck, timing, and political prowess – of course!  But to understand the importance of Madeira in American history, we must first start at the beginning.

Just off the coast of Morrocco , Madeira was perfectly suited for colonization in the 1400s due to the island’s proximity to East Indies shipping routes.  Portugal seized the opportunity to compete with the Italian monopolies of the time and enticed British merchants to use their newly colonized island as a port of export. They simultaneously began planting sugarcane, wheat, and Malvasian grape vines to supply their merchants.  Word of the island traveled throughout Europe, thus enticing a young Christopher Columbus to venture to the archipelago, take up harvesting sugarcane, marry the governor’s daughter, and learn the local seafaring trade – all leading up to his infamous journey to the “new world”.

Madeira port of call for 4th Voyage of Columbus
Madeira port of call for 4th voyage of Christopher Columbus

At the time, most European wines spoiled during the hot and rough voyages to the East Indies or the Americas.  After a series of happy accidents, it was later discovered that Madeira could survive by adding Brandy as a means to fortify the wine.  Also, the high temperatures of the carribean not only greatly improved the flavors of Madeira, but also made it virtually indestructible.  A win-win to thirsty colonials!

Thanks to a royal marriage and an exclusive trade treaty with Britain in the 1600s, Madeira monopolized the American wine market and became the #1 wine for almost 100 years.  Solidly a fan favorite among those angsty colonials, John Hancock and his shipping empire sparked a few key moments to begin what would later be known as the American Revolution.

MadeiraEasily one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, John Hancock inherited a great shipping empire and fortune from his late uncle. Much like him, John smuggled various goods into the colonies to turn a quick and steady profit – including Madeira.  With taxes on the rise after the Seven Years War, Britain sought to tighten it’s hold on all monies coming in and out of the American ports. With tensions and taxes rising, Hancock was quick to boast about his efforts to evade collectors.  These rumors eventually made their way to British authorities, leading to a seizure of Hancock’s ship Liberty and a lawsuit against him for unpaid taxes paid on one large shipment of Madeira wine – sparking riots in Boston. Having the means and connections to do so, Hancock enlisted a top lawyer/future president, John Adams as his defense attorney. Thanks to Adams’ politicking and fine grip on the needs of the new world, all charges were dropped against John Hancock, dealing one of the first major blows to British rule in the colonies and thus fueling the beginnings of a revolution.

Quickly setting his sights on politics, John easily became the protegee of revolutionary leader Samuel Adams, and used his reputation, wine, and wealth to make friends with early colonial leaders – most of whom had a taste for Madeira.  After the dust settled on the revolutionary war, almost every celebration was toasted with Madeira wine – General George Washington toasted in NYC after the British evacuated and wine enthusiast Thomas Jefferson toasted at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Rumor has it, with campaign funding from John Hancock and a plethora of Madeira at the polling locations, Washington became the first President of the United States, and ceremonially toasted his inauguration with none other than Madeira wine.

Resources: National Archives, Massachusetts Historical Society – The Adams Papers, John Hancock Heritage,  Madeira: The islands and their wines – Book by Richard Mayson, Project Gutenberg