Madeira and the Colonies: The Wine that Toasted the Declaration of Independence

Madeira is an island located off the coast of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean.  It was discovered accidentally in 1418 by a Portuguese explorer.  The name Madeira means wood in Portuguese, and initial reports spoke of an uninhabited garden paradise.  To make space for settlement and cultivation, much of the island was burned in a fire which, legend has it, lasted for seven years.

Owing to its strategic location, Madeira quickly became an important port for ships to get supplies before the long journeys to Africa, India, and the Americas.  Wine was crucially important to a shipping port.  Water could not stay potable on a ship for several months, so wine was required for safe hydration.  It had the ancillary benefits of relaxing the crew during their long passage, serving as excellent ballast, and being a valuable commodity to be sold at the destination.

Almost immediately, Madeirans began growing grapes and making their own wine.  The quality wasn’t very good, so spirit was added to ensure that it would be safe to drink on the long sea journey.  Something remarkable happened.  Winemakers who tasted their wine after it returned from a long journey were shocked at how much better the wine was.  The heat of the ship’s hold, combined with the continuous rocking, had the effect of cooking the wine, imparting a delicious caramel quality.

The Colonies, receiving wine from Madeira after it’s long, flavor-enhancing journey, developed a particular fondness for it and, in the latter portion of the 18th century, consumed a quarter of the island’s total wine production.  However, coinciding with this new thirst, the British government passed the 1765 Stamp Act, levying taxes on, among other things, wines from Madeira.  

One side’s patriot is another’s smuggler, and into this role stepped John Hancock.  On May 9, 1768, Hancock’s ship, the Liberty, ended its journey from Madeira in Boston Harbor.  The next day, British customs agents inspected the ship, expecting to find over 100 Madeira wine pipes, as the barrels were called.  They found only 25, for which Hancock promptly paid the duty owed.  One month later, simmering speculation that the cargo had been secreted off in the middle of the night led the British to impound the Liberty.  This, in turn, sparked violent riots in the streets of Boston, with customs officials needing to flee for safety into Castle Williams.

Hancock himself was tried before the Vice Admiralty Court.  His defense attorney, John Adams, was able to fend off a conviction, and the case was dropped without explanation.  It is fitting that eight years later, John Hancock, then President of the Continental Congress, used Madeira to toast a more historic occasion, the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

Madeira wine continued to serve as witness to many triumphs of America’s infancy -- George Washington's inauguration, Betsy Ross’ sewing of the American Flag, Thomas Jefferson’s decision to establish the nation’s capitol in Washington D.C., and even the composition of the Star Spangled Banner.  Although the nation’s enthusiasm for Madeira has, lamentably, waned in the intervening two centuries, its enthusiasm for arguing about taxes continues unabated.