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João Gonçalves Zarco
João Gonçalves Zarco, 1.º capitão donatário do Funchal - Nicolau Ferreira (atr.), c. 1790.png
A posthumous portrait attributed to Nicolau Ferreira, c. 1790
1st Donatary-Captain of Funchal
In office
Monarch John I
Edward I
Afonso V
Succeeded by João Gonçalves da Câmara
Personal details
Born c. 1390
Kingdom of Portugal
Died 1471
Nationality Portuguese
Occupation Explorer, colonial administrator
Known for Settler of the Archipelago of Madeira

João Gonçalves Zarco (c. 1390 – 21 November 1471) was a Portuguese explorer who established settlements and recognition of the Madeira Islands, and was appointed first captain of Funchal by Henry the Navigator.


João Gonçalves Zarco
A statue of Zarco stands on the Avenida Arriaga, one of the main streets in the Madeiran capital of Funchal.

Zarco was born in Portugal, and became a knight at the service of Prince Henry the Navigator's household. In his service at an early age, Zarco commanded the caravels guarding the coast of Algarve from the incursions of the Moors, was at the conquest of Ceuta, and later led the caravels that recognized the island of Porto Santo in 1418 to 1419 and afterward, the island of Madeira 1419 to 1420. He founded the city of Câmara de Lobos. He was granted, as hereditary leader (Capitania), half the island of Madeira (the Capitania of Funchal, being its first Captain-major). Together with his fellow fleet commanders, Tristão Vaz Teixeira and Bartolomeu Perestrelo, he started the colonization of the islands in 1425. In his role of knight of Prince Henry's house he participated in the siege of Tangier, in 1437, which ended in failure. He died at Funchal.

Ancestry and descendency

His parents were Gonçalo Esteves Zarco and 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)
  • Rui Gonçalves da Câmara, 3rd Donatary Captain of São Miguel Island
  • 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

Possible Jewish ancestry

There are discussions as to whether João Gonçalves Zarco could have been of Jewish Converso origin. Zarco was a prominent Jewish family from Santarém and Lisbon. Mossé Zarco was King João II's tailor. There was also a Portuguese doctor named Joseph Zarco, whom some authors claim to be Joseph Ibn Sharga, the great kabbalist, and a sixteenth-century poet named Yehuda Zarco. Augusto Mascarenhas Barreto suggested that Christopher Columbus could have been of Jewish descent from Portugal and his real name was Salvador Fernandes Zarco. Isabel Violante Pereira also attributes Jewish ancestry to João Gonçalves Zarco.

In culture

The novel of Arkan Simaan, L'Écuyer d'Henri le Navigateur (Harmattan, Paris, 2007), deals with Zarco's life.

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