The strange case of the Principality of Pontinha

Due to their isolated nature, island nations tend to exhibit a heightened sense of the bizarre. I am well aware of this from my home country, with its Byzantine cultural norms and eccentric Monarchy. Madeira is no different, a notable example being the existence of the Principality of Pontinha.

Founded by the now Dom Renato Barros I, a former art teacher, Pontinha is a micronation based around an islet on Funchal’s harbour. It was purchased for just shy of £20,000 from the Blandy family, who had themselves purchased the land from the city of Funchal in order to fund a redevelopment of the port in 1903. Barros himself has speculated that if his son, or maybe anyone rational for that matter, had been responsible for this money he would have bought a Ferrari.

In a recent and equally strange twist, perennial candidate and infamous oddball Assembly member José Manuel Coelho successfully sought asylum on Pontinha in 2017. It seems fitting that two of the most outlandish inhabitants of the island in Barros and Coelho would end up cohabiting, of sorts.

Pontinha was one of the first places I visited upon arriving in Madeira, and I was dismayed by the weirdness of it, the blending of a very limited vanity project with legitimate state-building, such as Coelho’s asylum and the introduction of Bitcoin as the official currency. However the typical reaction of Madeiran’s when I mentioned Pontinha, a deflated sigh and a knowing roll of the eyes, reminded me very strongly of the reaction of the British when our stranger curiosities are raised in conversation.