Joao Goncalves Zarco was a Portuguese Explorer who served under Henry the Navigator.
He was a pivotal character in the expansion of Portuguese discovery off their coast and the coast of Africa. He is credited with establishing various settlements, including the Madeira Islands.
Life as a Mariner
There is little known of Joao Goncalves Zarco. He was born around 1390, and it is believed his family was Jewish, an interesting fact in light of the fierce anti-Semitism that characterized the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula. This hatred of Jews had become particularly fierce as Portugal, Aragon, Castile, and other kingdoms had fought to reconquer the region from the Muslims who had held it since 711; yet the Zarco family, who came from the Portuguese city of Tomar, seemed to flourish in Catholic Portugal.
João Gonçalves Zarco himself became a noble in the house of Prince Henry, and thus, it is not surprising that the latter would have chosen Zarco to command one of his school's first voyages. (Henry himself never actually took part in any of the expeditions he organized.)
He commanded the caravels that guarded the coast of Algarve from the Moors, who posed a serious threat.
Although he did not lead, he was present at the conquest of Ceuta. This victory would mark the beginning of the Portuguese empire on the continent of Africa.
He followed this success with the discovery of Porto Santo in 1418 and, shortly after, rediscovered the island of Madeira.
These two discoveries again marked a significant beginning for the Portuguese as they began to expand in power due to their expansion and new wealth.
He founded the city of Câmara de Lobos. He was granted, as a hereditary leader, half the island of Madeira. Together with his fellow fleet commanders, Tristão Vaz Teixeira and Bartolomeu Perestrelo (Father-in-law to Christopher Columbus), he started the colonization of the islands in 1425.
In his role as a knight of Prince Henry's house, he participated in the siege of Tangier in 1437, which ended in failure.
Zarco and the Madeira Islands
The discovery of the Madeira Islands made Portugal one of the premiere European powers during that time. It would become a springboard that would aid eventual explorers Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, and Pedro Alvares Cabral to push further south and west, which would lead to the lucrative Asian trade and the discovery of Brazil.
However, the Madeira Islands had been discovered prior to Zarco and had been lost in history, probably due to the Black Death.
Genoa, a stout maritime power during the Middle Ages, knew of the Madeira Islands and had maps depicting them made in 1351, about 70 years before Zarco's rediscovery. Genoa was hit hard by the Black Death, scaled back its expansion, and did not seem eager to share its discoveries with the rest of Europe.
However, the Madeira Islands may have been discovered as far back as Ancient Phoenicia.
His parents were Gonçalo Esteves Zarco and his wife Brites de Santarém (daughter of João Afonso de Santarém (himself the son of Afonso Guilherme de Santarém, the son of Guilherme de Santarém, son of another Afonso Guilherme de Santarém) and wife Filipa Lopes de Couros, male-line ancestors of Frei Luís de Sousa). His father was the son of Estêvão Pires Zarco, son of Pedro Esteves Zarco, son of Estêvão Gonçalves Zarco, son of Gonçalo ... Zarco.
He married Constança Rodrigues, daughter of Rodrigo Lopes de Sequeiros and wife, and had:
- João Gonçalves da Câmara (d. Funchal, Madeira, 26 March 1501), married to Dona Mécia de Noronha, daughter of Dom João Henriques de Noronha (bastard son of Alfonso, Count of Gijón and Noroña) and wife Beatriz, Lady de Mirabel and sister of Dom Garcia Henriques, and had issue, and also one bastard son by an unknown mother
- Rui Gonçalves da Câmara, 3rd Donatary Captain of São Miguel Island, married to Maria de Bettencourt, natural daughter of Maciot de Bettencourt by Teguise, without issue, he had a bastard son by one Maria Rodrigues and three more children by an unknown mother
- Garcia Rodrigues da Câmara married to Violante de Freitas and had issue
- Beatriz Gonçalves da Câmara, married to Diogo Cabral, and had issue
- Isabel Gonçalves da Câmara, married to Diogo Afonso de Aguiar, o Velho (the Old), and had issue
- Helena Gonçalves da Câmara married to Martim Mendes de Vasconcelos and had issue
- Catarina Gonçalves da Câmara, married to Garcia Homem de Sousa