Joao Gonçalves Zarco was a knight in Prince Henry the Navigator’s court, during the Portuguese “Age of Exploration” in the early 1400’s. Joao Zarco led the first fleet to discover uninhabited lands in Europe, fueling the exploration age that spread through all ocean countries in Europe. In 1418 Zarco and his crewmates came across the 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, so they could begin colonization. It was on a return expedition in 1419 the more large island of Madeira was discovered. In honor of the services rendered by these brave knights, the two islands were divided between the Captain’s to rule in the name of the crown as Donatary Captains. The islands and their governorship was to be passed down to the first male as a hereditary title awarded by the King of Portugal. Madeira’s island was divided with Funchal’s capital city being given to Joao Goncalves Zarco while giving him a royal coat of arms and the name Da Câmara dos Lobos. The name Câmara dos Lobos was given because it was the first place where the explorers made land in Madeira. It is from there that they saw many seawolves all over the coastline, so Câmara dos Lobos was granted to the family who now just using the “Da Câmara ” portion for the last 500 years. João Zarco then married Constança Rodrigues having six children. His 2nd son Rui Gonçalves Da Câmara, who was hosting the Donatary-Captain of Sao Miguel and Santa Maria islands at his residence in Madeira, became good friends. Due to the ruler’s wife’s illness 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 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 Dr. Joao Soares D’algebaria with the captaincy of Santa Maria, which he had inherited from his maternal uncle Gonçalo Velho Cabral, the discoverer of the Azores islands. In many situations like this, the 14th-century minor nobles rose ranks 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. By the decree of the Marquis of Pombal with the King’s approval, they abolished the Donatary-Captaincy system in the Azores & Madeira islands. The stroke of a pen ended over 300 years of several noble families controlling each of the nine islands in the Azores. They continued to influence the Portuguese court and were significant 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. In many cases, they 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
The Palace of the Counts of Ribeira Grande which is located in the Capital of Portugal in Lisbon is in the process of being transformed into a hotel since it is no longer owned and occupied by the family since the abolishment of the Monarchy in 1910.