Joao Gonçalves Zarco was a knight in the court of Prince Henry the Navigator during the Portuguese “Age of Exploration” in the early 1400’s. Joao Zarco led the first fleet to make a discovery of uninhibited lands in Europe; fueling the age of exploration that spread through all ocean countries in Europe. In 1418 Zarco and his crew mates came across land while sailing along the African coast. The island of Porto Santo was discovered 600 km off the coast of Morocco. After reporting his findings to the King he was ordered to return to the island to get more details about its size, location etc and begin colonization. It was on a return expedition in 1419 the larger island of Madeira was discovered and in honour of the services rendered by these fearless knights the 2 islands were divided between the Captain’s to rule in the name of the crown as Donatary Captains; a modern-day Viceroy.
The islands and their governorship was to be passed down to the first male as a hereditary title awarded by the King of Portugal. The island of Madeira was divided with the capital city of Funchal being given to Joao Goncalves Zarco, while giving him a royal coat of arms and the name Da Câmara de Lobos. The name Câmara dos Lobos was given because it was the first place where the explorers made land in Madeira and saw a bunch of seawolves all over the coastline so Câmara dos Lobos was given with the family just using the “Da Câmara ” portion for the last 500 years.
João Zarco then married Constança Rodrigues having 6 children. It was his 2nd son Rui Gonçalves Da Câmara who was hosting the Donatary-Captain of Sao Miguel and Santa Maria islands at his residence on Madeira, where they became good friends. It was due to the illness of the rulers wife that kept them in Madeira so long due to the dry, warm climate that seemed to be an ideal climate for her health. In 1474 Dr. Joao Soares D’Algebaria agreed to sell his captaincy rights of the island of Sao Miguel to Rui Gonçalves Da Câmara. Once it was approved by the King and Queen of Portugal that land and governorship passed to the Da Câmara family, leaving them in control of two of Portugal’s most strategic outposts. This left Joao with the captaincy of Santa Maria, which he had inherited from his maternal uncle Gonçalo Velho Cabral; the discoverer of the Azores islands. It was many situations like this that the 14th century minor nobles rose considerably throughout the Portuguese court, taking them to the 17th century as a powerful Portuguese family with holdings throughout the entire Atlantic region, India, Goa and Brazil.
The Da Câmara family soon spread to the Island of Sao Miguel and began controlling its holding on the islands. For over 300 years the Donatary-Captains of Sao Miguel passed down from generation to generation under the Da Câmara family until September 2 1766. It was by the decree of the Marquis of Pombal with approval of the King that they abolished the Donatary-Captaincy system in the Azores & Madeira islands. By the stroke of a pen over 300 years of various noble families controlling each of the 9 islands in the Azores ended. The titles that were given to the various members of the Da Câmara family were kept with the dowries still paid on behalf of the crown. They continued to have influence over the Portuguese court and were major benefactors to the Azorean high society and culture. Many of the heirs and descendants of Joao Zarco have gone on to the highest political posts throughout Portugal’s vast empire, and in many cases created great fortunes with their monopoly over various political posts.
List of Dontary Captains of the Island of Sao Miguel
- Gonçalo Velho Cabral (Discoverer of the Azores)
- Dr.João Soares De Albergaria (Sold to Rui Gonçalves Da Câmara in 1474)
- Rui Gonçalves da Câmara
- João Rodrigues da Câmara
- Rui Gonçalves da Câmara
- Manuel da Câmara
- Rui Gonçalves da Câmara II *Count of Villa Franca
- Manuel da Câmara *Count of Villa Franca
- Rodrigo da Câmara *Count of Villa Franca
- Manuel Luís Baltazar da Câmara *Count of Ribeira Grande
- José Rodrigo da Câmara *Count of Ribeira Grande
- Luís Manuel da Câmara *Count of Ribeira Grande
- José da Câmara Teles *Count of Ribeira Grande
- Joana Tomásia da Câmara *Countess of Ribeira Grande
* Titles Given- Counts of Villa Franca, Counts of Ribeira Grande