Forte Sao Jose

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Things to do


Date of travel

May, 2019

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This is the Principality of Pontinha. Never heard of it? That’s hardly surprising as it is a small fortress built in the C15th on a small islet, known as the Islet of San Diego off the coast of Madeira but now attached to it by the harbour causeway.

It is regarded to be the oldest fortification as the island and is thought to be where João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira first settled when they arrived on Madeira. They built a temporary shelter, reached by steps cut into the rock face. The present building dates from the mid C18th and was known as the Fort of Saint Joseph or the Battery of Pontinha, as it was situated at the end of the port. It was used by the British during the Napoleonic Wars as a barracks and a prison.

At the end of the C19th it was leased by the Blandy family (wealthy British wine exporters) who installed a steam crane used to load and unload goods in the harbour. They bought the fort in 1903 when it was put up for sale by the Portuguese government who were in need of funds to improve the harbour. Much of the fortress was destroyed when the harbour road was widened in the 1950s.

In 2000 the fort was put up for sale again and was bought by an a Madeira art teacher, Renato de Barros for €25,000. The fortress is the size of a small house and is built on three levels. It still contains a stone staircase, vaulted ceiling, doorways and a well. It doesn’t have running water of electricity.

According to Barros, when the fort was sold a royal charter had been issued granting the landowners both possession and “dominion” (which Barros interpreted as sovereignty) over the land. In 2007, he declared independence from Portugal, forming the Principality of Pontinha and adopting the title of Prince Renato of Piontinha. The Principality had just four citizens – Prince Renato, his wife, son and daughter. Mind you the Portuguese Government haven’t bothered to recognise this.

The fort was sold again in 2017 due to Renato’s insolvency and its current status is unclear. There were plans for an archaeological survey and the possibility of it opening as a museum but funding for this seems to have been withdrawn.

In May 2019 it was fenced off and there were signs of work being done. There was no obvious entry.

Admire this from the outside and enjoy the story!

All my pictures of Madeira are “here.”:


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