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Savage Islands
Disputed islands
Native name: Ilhas Selvagens
Other names: Selvagens Islands, Islas Salvajes
Selvagem Pequena - 1ago04.jpg
Reef in Selvagem Pequena Island
PT Selvagens.PNG
Location Atlantic Ocean
Coordinates 30°04′N 15°56′W / 30.067°N 15.933°W / 30.067; -15.933Coordinates: 30°04′N 15°56′W / 30.067°N 15.933°W / 30.067; -15.933
Archipelago Savage Islands
Total islands 3, plus various islets
Major islands Selvagem Grande Island, Selvagem Pequena Island
Area 2.73 km2 (1.05 sq mi)
Highest point Pico da Atalaia
Administered by
Autonomous Region Madeira Islands
Claimed by
Population 2
Map of the Savage Islands.

The Savage Islands, also referred to as the Salvage Islands or the Selvagens Islands[1], (Portuguese: Ilhas Selvagens, Portuguese pronunciation: [ˈiʎɐʃ sɛɫˈvaʒɐ̃ĩʃ]; Spanish: Islas Salvajes) consist of an uninhabitable[2] and small archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean roughly midway between Madeira and the Canary Islands at 30°04′N 15°56′W / 30.067°N 15.933°W / 30.067; -15.933. The archipelago comprises two islands and several islets and is the southernmost region of Portugal.[3]

The Savage Islands are administered by the Portuguese municipality of Funchal on Madeira and are part of the freguesia of of Funchal. They are set aside as a nature reserve. There are two reserve zones, one on Selvagem Grande Island and another one on Selvagem Pequena Island.



The Savage Islands are part of the Macaronesian island groups of the North Atlantic Ocean, near Europe and off Morocco, North Africa. The archipelago lies about 230 km (143 mi) from Madeira, and 165 km (103 mi) from the Canary Islands. The total land area of the Savage Islands is 2.73 km2 (1.05 sq mi). The islands are surrounded by dangerous reefs, rendering access difficult and limited to few places; there are no fresh water sources.

The archipelago consists of two islands and several islets, in two groups about 15 km (9 mi) apart:

  • Northeast group - Selvagem Grande Island and three islets: Sinho Islet (Portuguese: Ilhéu Sinho), Palheiro do Mar, and Palheiro da Terra.
  • Southwest group - Selvagem Pequena Island, Fora Islet (Ilhéu de Fora), and a group of very small islets collectively called Norte Islets (Ilhéus do Norte): Alto, Comprido and Redondo.

As with all Macaronesian islands, the Savage Islands are of volcanic origin. On the larger islands, cones of extinct volcanoes are found, such as the Atalaia Summit on Selvagem Grande. Other summits include Tornozelos and Veado. Headlands include Atalaia and Leste on Selvagem Grande, and Norte, Oeste, Leste and Garajaus on Selvagem Pequena.


Selvagem Grande.
Ilhéus do Norte, Ilhéu de Fora, and Selvagem Pequena.

There is evidence suggesting that the existence of these islands was known from early times. They were first indicated on a Venetian chart attributed to the Pizzigani brothers dated from 1367[4]. The islands are considered to be a column branch that extends from Canary Islands at a 3,000 m (9,843 ft) depth.

The Canary Islands were visited by European explorers, including natives of Minorca, since the 14th century. In 1402, Castile began the conquest of the Canary Islands to join them to the Castilian realm. During those years of fighting, Castilian ships did not visit the Savage Islands, thus they did not populate the islands, which were considered uninhabitable. Although the Canary Islands had been inhabited by a primitive population - the Guanches - human beings never set foot in the Madeira archipelago before the Portuguese discoveries and expansion.[2] Thus, this island group presented itself to Portuguese navigators authentically uninhabited.

In 1438, the Portuguese mariner Diogo Gomes de Sintra declared that he had discovered the Savage Islands by chance, while returning to Portugal from the Guinea coast of Africa. He left the first written notice about the geography of Selvagem Grande,[2] the group's main island, which constitutes the first official record of their discovery. However, the islands are not included in the list of possessions of Christ's Order. The Portuguese historian João de Barros includes them in the Canary Archipelago and Gaspar Frutuoso in the second edition of his work Saudades da Terra mentions "These islands, known as Selvagens, apparently were discovered by Castilians, have Castilian owner, as also Madeira and Azores archipelagos (...) which will belong to this glorious and powerful Catholic King, the greatest in the world". This was a convenient addition to the first edition, certainly not made by Frutuoso, with the purpose to flatter King Phillip II of Spain, during the period in which Portugal was united with the Spanish crown.

What is certain is that during the 16th century the Savage Islands belonged to a family from Madeira known as Teixeiras Caiados.[2] How they found themselves under Caiados control is unknown. In 1560 they were given to João Cabral de Noronha.[2] After 1717 they are recorded in wills, inheritances, inventories and other documents. Between 1774 and 1831 taxes were paid to the King. The islands were also recorded in the books of Conservatória do Registo Predial of Funchal.

In 1904 the islands were sold to Luís Rocha Machado.

The Permanent Commission of International Maritime Law gave sovereignty of the Savage Islands to Portugal on February 15, 1938. In 1959, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) became interested in the islands and signed a contract-promise with the owner, Luis Rocha Machado. In 1971 the Portuguese government intervened and acquired the islands, converting them into a nature reserve. The Savage Islands Reserve was created as part of the Madeira Natural Park; it is one of the oldest nature reserves of Portugal and it also includes the surrounding shelf to a depth of 200 m. In 1976, permanent surveillance began, and in 1978 the reserve was elevated to the status of Nature Reserve.

In 2002, part of the nature reserve was nominated to UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. They are currently included in the tentative World Heritage Site list.

Today the Savage Islands have a permanent team of wardens from Madeira Natural Park (On Selvagem Grande there is a permanent research station with two wardens year around while Selvagem Pequena is manned usually by two wardens between May and October). These are the only human inhabitants on the islands.

Timeline of sovereignty dispute

  • 1881 – During a meeting of the Maritime Signalization Commission the Spanish government requested that Portugal cooperate with the installation of a lighthouse in the islands. The Portuguese commission recognized the importance of the lighthouse to the sea route to the Canary Islands, but could not contribute to the project at that particular moment due to the involvement in the Portuguese coast signalization, which was absorbing all available funds. The Spanish Foreign Affairs Ministry stated during the meeting that " is not clear if the sovereignty of the island belongs to Spain or Portugal".
  • 1911 – In September the Portuguese government received an official communication from the Spanish government in which it was stated that Spain would build a lighthouse in the islands and had decided to include them in the Canary archipelago. Portuguese administration protested and it was agreed not to take any actions that might endanger a friendly solution to the dispute.
  • 1913 – Admiral Schultz Xavier conducted a survey of the Selvagem Grande Island and recommended Pico da Atalaia as the best location for the lighthouse.
  • 1929 – Rear Admiral Gago Coutinho clarifies, in a document, that the islands were always under Madeira administration, and therefore, were Portuguese.
  • 1932 – The Portuguese government legislated over the islands and declared them under a special regimen of hunt in favor of the owner.
  • 1938 – The Permanent Commission of International Maritime Law declares Portugal as the legitimate sovereign over the islands on February 15. A hydrographic survey mission proceeded to survey the islands and established several geodesic survey points.
  • 1972 – Two Spanish fishing boats, San Pedro de Abona and Áries, are arrested near the islands for illegal fishing.
  • 1975 – Canary Islands sailors disembark in the Savages and there they waved a Spanish flag, but the administration did not support them.
  • 1976 – A Spanish fishing boat, Ecce Homo Divino, is stopped for illegal fishing.
  • April 8, 1996 – Spanish F-18 fighters flew over the islands.
  • August 2, 1996 – A helicopter Puma SA-330J from the Spanish Air Force simulated a landing on Selvagem Grande Island, committing a double infraction: violation of the Portuguese air space and flying below 200 m over the reserve.
  • October 16, 1996 – Spanish F-18 fighters flew over the islands, but this time were filmed by the Portuguese RTP TV channel. Following these actions, the Portuguese Foreign Affairs Ministry protested.
NRP Schultz Xavier anchored near Selvagem Pequena Island
  • May 1997 – The Portuguese Ministry of Defense signed an agreement with the Spanish government to restrain these actions.
  • August 1, 1997 – The flybys occurred again. The Portuguese Foreign Affairs Ministry reminded the Spanish government of the agreement.
  • September 24, 1997 – Spanish fighters again flew over the islands at low altitude. The Spanish ambassador to Portugal apologized for the actions. Portugal reinforced the islands with the Portuguese Navy.
  • June 23, 2005 – Four Spanish fishing boats were captured 28 nm south from the islands, in the Portuguese-claimed Exclusive Economic Zone, far from Portuguese territorial waters.
  • July 8, 2005 – One of the guards in Selvagem Grande Island and a biologist came face to face with a group of Spanish fishermen. A group of 10 marines were placed on the island for a month.[5]
  • June 2007 – One Spanish fighter again flew over the islands at low altitude[6].


  • 1970 – On July 21 the Italian ship Fluvia sinks close to the islands.
  • 1971 – The Norwegian Oiler Cerno deviated from course to the islands to wash the tanks and ran aground on the Selvagem Pequena Island. Three months later the Oiler Morning Breeze sank near Selvagem Grande Island.
  • 1973 – The merchant vessel Splendid Breeze sinks near the islands.
  • 1976 – Yacht Demeter sinks near the islands.

Climate and environment

Petrel in its nest in Selvagem Pequena

The temperatures in the Savage Islands exceed those in Madeira and the sea temperature remains comfortable all year round. There is almost no rainfall (desert climate, i.e. around 150 mm). Jacques-Yves Cousteau once said he found the cleanest waters in the world there. Although there are commercial tours available, all visitors require special authorization from the Madeira Natural Park, the regional environmental authority.[3]

The scientific and natural interest of this tiny group of islands lies in its marine biodiversity and unique flora as well as the sea birds that breed there. The White-faced Storm-petrel, the Bulwer's Petrel, and the Roseate Tern breed and nest on the islands and are the subject of annual scientific expeditions.

The Savage Islands host 150 species of plants, most of them creepers. The richest islands in flora are the Selvagem Pequena and Fora Islet as they have never suffered the introduction of non-indigenous animals or plants. These islands also have many endemic species of plants, some endemic snails and also a unique gecko (Tarentola boettgeri bischoffi).

See also


  1. ^ Ilhas Selvagens (Selvagens Islands) - UNESCO World Heritage Centre
  2. ^ a b c d e Carvalho, Luis and Leitão, Nuno, A Noção "Estratégica" das Ilhas Selvagens (in Portuguese)
  3. ^ a b UNESCO World Heritage Sites entry for “Ilhas Selvagens” (Selvagens Islands)
  4. ^ Albuquerque, Luis and Vieira, Alberto, The Archipelago of Madeira in the 15th Century, Funchal, Centro Estudos História Atlântico, 1988
  5. ^ Marinha reforça presença nas Selvagens após incidentes com pescadores, Jornal O Público, 2005, June 12
  6. ^ Espanhóis violam espaço aéreo nas ilhas Selvagens Correio da Manhã, June 18, 2007.

External links

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