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Hemingway in Madeira

“A couple of famous characters visited Madeira... and most likely never set foot on it!” — David J Whyte


The first was Napoleon Bonaparte on his way to exile on the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena. Rumour has it that the British Consul, Henry Veitch invited the ex-Emperor to visit the island - against the strict orders of his British captors!

“The other is Ernest Hemingway!”


Hemingway sailed to Madeira in 1954, that’s for sure. But there’s very little detail about his visit and it’s unclear if he even got off the ship! Let’s look a little closer…


Hemingway, the WWI Ambulance driver

Ernest Hemingway was a larger-than-life character, a macho mix of John Wayne and Genghis Khan! Hemingway displayed his growing bravado at the age of 18 when at the outbreak of World War I he volunteered to drive an ambulance on the Italian front for the Red Cross.

Hemingway in an American Red Cross hospital - 1919

A year later, an Austrian mortar shell exploded near the young volunteer causing more than 200 shrapnel wounds. Despite his significant injuries, the earnest ambulance man dragged an Italian soldier to safety and was awarded the Italian Silver Metal of Bravery for his action, one of the first Americans to be so honoured. After a 6-month layup in an Italian hospital, he was invited by a friend to stay on the island of Madeira to further recoup from his wounds. Madeira’s ‘sun and air’ (so to speak) were long recognised for their recuperative powers. But Hemingway declined and returned instead to his parent’s home in Oak Park, Illinois.


When WWII arrived, Hemingway was in his forties and his novel ‘For Whom The Bells Toll’, based on his Italian experiences was already a success, The writer travelled to London in the spring of 1944 as a war correspondent and then on to France working for the weekly ‘Colliers Magazine’. In typical Hemingway style, the novelist got stuck into the thick of things. He was a little late in arriving but Hemingway threw himself into action! He flew missions with the RAF, boarded the landing craft to Omaha Beach on D-Day and became actively involved with the French Resistance! As far as his ‘war correspondence’ duties, he kept those to a minimum sending back only 5 articles, just enough to keep him in Europe. Instead, he actively engaged in the war effort against the Geneva Convention's rules for a civilian to take up arms. Nevertheless, for his efforts, Hemingway was decorated with the Bronze Star Medal, the highest military award available to a civilian.

Hemingway and Col. Charles T. Lanham in Germany 1944.


It was in the 1950s that the writer and his first wife Mary, on their way back to Cuba on the Italian battleship Francesco Morosini finally made it to Madeira. And from there the story gets a bit vague! It’s well documented that the ship’s captain and Mary Hemingway came ashore and visited the Madeiran district of ‘Monte’ and the Austrian emperor’s grave there before riding a wicker toboggan back into town, not the type of activity ‘macho man’ Hemingway might have engagedespecially in a ‘huffy’ mood. However, an article appeared in the local Funchal newspaper the very next day claiming that the famous writer had disembarked and spent time with a ‘most fortunate’ journalist!


I’ve read through the article translated from Portuguese and I reckon it’s highly suspect! The journalist waxes lyrical about Mr Hemingway’s books, literary style and war experiences, which were well documented then. But there’s no discussion of his actual Madeiran visit! There was a mention of the journalist’s attempt to interview the writer on the ship only to be told, “Mr Hemingway does not receive gentlemen of the press.”

Ernest and Mary Hemingway on safari in Kenya, Africa, 1953-1954 where they were involved in not just one but two aeroplane crashes before travelling to Madeira.

The spurious tale goes on to say that the journalist and his photographer met Mr Hemingway by a pool in Funchal and that he had also come down the mountain in ‘one of the native carts’. Mary Hemingway certainly had that experience and documented it in her memoirs but it seems to me the journalist took ‘liberties’! For instance, where are all the photographer’s images? How come there is no mention of Hemingway’s impressions of the island etc? One can only assume there’s a degree of artistic license at work. A work of fiction indeed? It seems journalists needed to fill in column inches - even in those days. And besides that, every day is a slow news day in Madeira… Long may that last…!

David J. Whyte


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