Treaty of Tordesillas: The 1494 Decision Still Influencing Today’s World

Posted on April 12, 2012
By Stephen R. Brown

The bull Inter Caetera and several other bulls from the same era form the basis of the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal. The treaty was, among other things, a catalyst in the development of the modern concept of the freedom of the seas—the unhindered use of the world’s waterways for trade and travel. Other legal concepts that inform the modern international law of the sea also stem indirectly from the Treaty of Tordesillas: the right of innocent passage, the definitions of territorial waters, internal waters, a nation’s exclusive economic zone and the definition of the continental shelf. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force as a binding international convention on November 16, 1994, owes its origin to the conflict and debates in the centuries following the Treaty of Tordesillas. Although not every signatory country has ratified the convention, only twenty of the world’s countries have refused to recognize or sign it, and it is the closest the international community will likely ever come to consensus on governing an enormous part of the natural world that is common to nearly all. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is the culmination of a legal and philosophical process that began in the late fifteenth century, when Portuguese mariners discovered a sea route to India and the Spice Islands by sailing around Africa, and Columbus first crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

When Columbus returned to Spain in 1493 after a seven-month voyage, Spanish society was transfixed by his tales of primitive peoples inhabiting islands far to the west. Spaniards were particularly interested in the golden ornaments and jewellery worn by the kidnapped “Indians” of Cuba and Hispaniola. Gold meant wealth and power. There was, however, a complication. Columbus’s successful return infuriated King João II of Portugal, who claimed that a series of papal decrees clearly intended that any new trade routes to heathen lands belonged to him alone. The king soon began outfitting a fleet to cross the ocean and claim the “Indies” for Portugal. With war imminent, the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella sent an official envoy to the papal court in Rome to argue their case.


Pope Alexander VI, also head of the notorious Borgia clan, issued the first Inter Caetera, which proclaimed “by the authority of the Almighty God” that Ferdinand and Isabella and their heirs in perpetuity were to have the exclusive right to travel in, trade with and colonize Columbus’s new-found lands. The bull forbade “all persons, no matter what rank, estate, degree, order or condition to dare, without your special permission to go for the sake of trade or any other reason whatever, to the said islands and countries after they have been discovered and found by your envoys or persons sent out for that purpose.” With the stroke of a pen, the pope created an imaginary line dividing the world on a north-south axis in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. All territory east of the line of demarcation was to be Portuguese, and all territory to the west was to be the sole domain of Spain. The punishment for violating the papal proclamation was excommunication.

Spain and Portugal affirmed the papal decrees of the Inter Caetera in the treaty signed in t he Spanish town of Tordesillas in June 1494 . But they moved the line of demarcation between the Spanish and Portuguese zones of influence several hundred miles farther west. This placed an as-yet-undiscovered Brazil in the Portuguese half of the world, as well as protected Portugal’s African trade route from any European competition. The world was now officially divided. Although it was initially believed that Columbus had discovered the eastern extremity of Asia, it soon became apparent that the world was much larger than supposed, and that the pope had given to Spain and Portugal far more territory than anyone could have imagined.

The official reason for the Inter Caetera was to prevent war between the two most powerful Christian nations of the era and to reward them for their crusading work. The treaty of 1494, though initially successful in preserving the peace, eventually backfired and had far-reaching implications, beyond anything imagined by Alexander VI. It was to have a profound influence on world history, steering European nations on a collision course and insidiously emerging as the central grievance that stimulated nearly two centuries of espionage, piracy, smuggling and warfare. By the mid-sixteenth century, the line of demarcation had propelled Spain and Portugal to global superpower status. Prior to the Reformation, few in Europe dared to fully and openly challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, Portugal quickly grew rich from the monopoly on the eastern trade route to India and the Spice Islands, or “Spiceries.” Spain, unopposed in the Americas, was given free rein to conquer the rich cultures of the Aztec, Mayan and Inca Empires and to begin shipping vast cargoes of gold and
silver bullion back across the Atlantic.

If England, France and the Dutch Republic had accepted the pope’s authority to manipulate the commercial activities of nations and determine the fate of empires, the history of exploration, commerce and colonization would have involved only Spain
and Portugal. But during the sixteenth century, Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the world for the first time to settle the dispute over where the line of demarcation ran on the far side of the world; English privateers, inspired by the legendary mariner Francis Drake, preyed on Spanish shipping in the Caribbean and the Pacific; and the Dutch Republic fought Spain and Portugal both for independence and for control over the global spice trade.

Just as technology and knowledge were about to open the waterways of the world after Columbus’s heroic voyage, the Treaty of Tordesillas sought to restrict access to two favoured nations. It began the epic struggle for the freedom of the seas: would global travel and commerce be controlled by autocratic decree, or would seas be open to the ships of any nation?

Freedom of the seas was a distinctly modern notion, championed in the early seventeenth century by the Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius. In 1608, the twenty-five-year-old Grotius published a tract entitled Mare Liberum, “The Free Sea.” Addressed to the “rulers of the free and independent nations of the Christian world,” it laid out the legal argument disputing the right of Portugal and Spain to claim sole ownership of the world’s waterways. So long as the treaty had legitimacy, Grotius argued, the oceans of the world would be scenes of endless conflict.

Originally conceived and written as justification for a Dutch privateer’s assault on a Portuguese merchant ship in the East Indies, Grotius’s powerful arguments laid to rest the tired justifications of the Treaty of Tordesillas and the papal proclamation from which it derived its moral and legal legitimacy. Grotius propounded that the freedom of the seas was at the heart of communication; that no nation could monopolize control over the seas because of their vast size and ever-changing limits and composition. Although other thinkers soon waded into the discussion with diverging opinions and refinements to Grotius’s concept of extreme universality, the debate he sparked sounded the death knell for the concept of the closed sea. His arguments have since become the foundation for modern international and maritime law.

Occasionally, decisions and events that appear unimportant in their time have a profound and unintended influence on the course of world history. This was the case for the Treaty of Tordesillas. Despite the involvement of famous kings, princes and the pope, the origins of the treaty were a prosaic set of events entirely at odds with its impact on global political, geographical, commercial and legal history. The story that spans centuries begins with the striving ambition, greed and tribal-like alliances between Christopher Columbus, his two sets of rival patrons—King João II of Portugal and the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile and Aragon—and the Spanish Pope Alexander VI. Pride, passion, enmity and petty quarrels between this privileged and powerful clique, stimulated and enflamed by Columbus’s hubris, led to a simmering, centuries-long global conflict that stemmed from the pope dividing the world in half in 1494.

* * *
Afer the moral and spiritual foundation of the Treaty of Tordesillas was eroded by the Protestant Reformation, its intellectual foundation was increasingly challenged in the sophisticated legal and philosophical treatises of the seventeenth century. It would not be long before even the Spanish and Portuguese admitted their defeat. During the intervening decades Spain’s and Portugal’s ability to monopolize global travel and trade was in serious decline. It died a slow death, however. Only military power remained; but
it was hard to seize the moral high ground without the convictions or righteousness to justify the use of force when blatant self-interest was the only motive.

A series of treaties in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries slowly eroded the pillars of the Spanish and Portuguese entitlement to half the world. By the terms of the Munster Treaties, first with the Netherlands in 1648 and then with England in 1667, these nations agreed that they would “not navigate nor trade in any of the ports, sites, forts, camps or castles possessed by the King of Spain in the West Indies.” This treaty also established that it would remain “unlawful to land, enter or remain in the ports, bays and shores of either one with warships and soldiers in suspicious numbers without the authorization of the one to whom the ports, bays and shores belong to except in the event that they are forced to do so by stormy weather, or of necessity, or to avoid the perils of the sea.” In the American Treaty of 1670, between England and Spain, the Spanish agreed to recognize the legitimacy of the British colonies in North America while reaffirming the exclusivity of the Spanish territories as being off-limits for trade and travel to all English ships. The Spanish government simply didn’t have enough ships to both harass foreign interlopers and guard its annual treasure fleets. In 1750 the Treaty of Madrid recognized Portuguese sovereignty over the large part of Brazil that extended west beyond the line of demarcation and essentially replaced the Treaty of Tordesillas as the significant international agreement between the two nations; there was no need to address the territories on the far side of the world, because they had been beaten out of those places by the English and Dutch. The Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1777 which reaffirmed and refined the Treaty of Madrid between Spain and Portugal in defining their respective global territories, was far less pretentious as neither nation sought to write in clauses that would attempt to control the behaviour or rights of other nations.

But while Spain abandoned its claims to North America, treaties in Europe seldom had any impact on the chaos and growing political instability in the Caribbean. By the mid-seventeenth century, Spain had lost control of the region. In an era famous for the
pirates of the Caribbean—the buccaneers and Henry Morgan—Spanish colonial authorities could not guarantee the safety of their citizens, regardless of government ordinances and decrees or papal proclamations. Spanish warships were almost exclusively devoted to protecting the bullion barges, while Spanish maritime commerce was almost destroyed—Spanish merchants could not possibly compete with the smugglers. Spanish colonies could neither have goods shipped to them from Europe nor find a market for their hides, indigo, sugar, cocoa, tobacco and log wood. Reduced to bankruptcy, many settlers abandoned their colonial towns and moved on. While the large colonial ports (Santo Domingo on Hispaniola and San Juan on Puerto Rico) were still thriving, most of the interior of the islands and vast tracts of the coastline were completely devoid of Spanish inhabitants.

English, Dutch and French colonies, meanwhile, were thriving on all of the islands of the Lesser Antilles and other islands in the Caribbean. In 1655 English forces captured Jamaica, which then became the unofficial base for thousands of English, Dutch and French pirates, who occasionally became licensed privateers when war erupted. The island was never returned to Spain, despite the high language of the many treaties and documents attesting to Spanish exclusivity in the Caribbean; language in Europe was one thing, whereas actions across the ocean were another altogether. The Dutch West India Company was also gearing up its activities at this time, founding Manhattan as a base for assaults on Spanish shipping in the Caribbean.

As Spanish sea power waned, other European colonies grew more prosperous. The vast mountains of bullion that paid for Spain’s prominence in Europe was only as secure as the ships that carried them thousands of miles across the Atlantic, through waters ringed by dangerous reefs, infested with pirates and privateers, and prone to disastrous and unpredictable storms. If anything, the plunder of Spanish ships and illegal trade in the West Indies became more common throughout the seventeenth century, once it became known that Europe’s most powerful nation was also its most vulnerable. Even while peace reigned in Europe, the buccaneers paid little heed to conventions and treaties; they simply plundered Spanish shipping. And European governments ignored
their activities, so long as their depredations were restricted to the Spanish.

The eighteenth century was just as bloody as the seventeenth, with a near-continuous series of wars. The internecine struggles of Europe were exported around the globe: wars over politics, dynastic succession, trade, religion and the power struggles of empire building. But the Treaty of Tordesillas, while laying the cultural and political foundation for these ongoing conflicts, had ceased to be the defining justification for them, and so it passed from history as a direct inspiration and motivation for historical actions. The world had moved on. It was meaningless that two centuries earlier the head of one of the many factions of Christian Europe had divided the world between two favoured nations. Like a modern patent, the strength of the papal proclamation was only as valuable as the beneficiaries’ willingness and ability to defend it, and with the decline of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires the treaty lost its champions while gaining many enemies.

The one notable exception, however, occurred when Spain listed the papal donation as one of the foundations for its claim to the sovereign right to exclusive possession and control over Pacific America and its waterways in the 1790s. When a Spanish officer
ceremonially laid claim to western Vancouver Island in 1789, he read aloud the official document provided to him by his political masters that based the Spanish claim to sovereignty over the coast from California to Alaska “by reason of the donation and the bull Expedio Notu Proprio of our Most Holy Father Alexander VI, Pontiff of Rome, by which he donated to the Most High and Catholic Monarch Ferdinand V and Isabella his spouse . . . one half of the world by deed made at Rome on the 4th day of May in the year 1493, by virtue of which these present lands belong to the said Royal Crown of Castile and Leon.” The nations with which Spain contended for sovereignty over Pacific America at this time—Britain, Russia and the new nation of the United States—not surprisingly, merely raised their eyebrows at these claims of underlying authority. Perhaps even more novel was the later invocation of the power of the Treaty of Tordesillas to lay spurious territorial claims by countries other than Spain or Portugal. In the twentieth century, the treaty has been dredged up by Chile as justification for sovereignty over Antarctica, with lines being drawn directly south from the eastern and western boundaries of the nation in a triangular claim over those distant and uninhabitable lands. Argentina has also listed the Treaty of Tordesillas as the foundation for its claim that the Falkland Islands form part of its sovereign territory because they fall in the Spanish half of the world. Both nations made the unprecedented assertion that they had inherited from Spain the benefits and rights of the treaty after their wars of independence.

But even though the Treaty of Tordesillas has lapsed from public discourse and few people have heard of it, its lingering impact is still evident in the world today. Apart from its obvious role in establishing the foundation for both the Portuguese and Spanish Empires in the sixteenth century, the division of the world coincided with the Protestant Reformation as one of the key political forces meshing with the religious forces that prompted northern European countries such as England and the Dutch Republic to
reject the Vatican’s authority to determine secular affairs. It blocked possible reconciliation between European religious factions because accepting the secular and spiritual authority of the pope would have denied other nations a role in international exploration, travel and commerce. The intellectual arguments inspired by the Treaty of Tordesillas, beginning most famously with Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum, began the philosophical progression towards the modern concepts of the freedom of the seas and international relations, and ultimately led to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. More prosaically, for centuries the treaty has directed the colonial actions of nations and has resulted in the political geography of the world as we know it today.

The Treaty of 1494 had a significant impact on the colonial, cultural and political shape of the world by determining the pattern of European colonization not only in Central and South America, but also in North America and Southeast Asia. While Spain and Portugal explored and colonized the territories dedicated to them by Pope Alexander VI and chose to remain largely within equatorial regions and waters, England, France and the Netherlands were forced to extend their trade and travel to regions far from Spanish or Portuguese interests. By the time these nations were ready to defy the church and challenge its division of the world, Spain and Portugal had entrenched themselves and stamped their culture, religion and language on the societies they had conquered in their respective halves of the world. France therefore went to the St. Lawrence valley in Canada, England went to New England and Virginia, while the Netherlands occupied central-eastern North America and eventually Indonesia, where it attacked and assumed control over much of Portugal’s overseas empire.

Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking nation in the Americas because its eastern bulge protruded beyond the line of demarcation. The Philippines, while technically in the Portuguese half of the world, was conquered and colonized by Spain during the era when Portugal was ruled by Spain and before mariners could accurately calculate longitude, giving the island nation its distinctive culture and religion. If the ports and cities of the non-European world had not been selectively allocated in 1494 but had remained open to the ships of any European nation, the colonial and mercantile history of the world, for better or for worse, would have been quite different. It is hard to conceive of another political decision that has had as great an impact on the makeup of today’s world as Pope Alexander VI’s bulls and the Treaty of Tordesillas.

The most fascinating, unusual and important stories in history are capable of multiple interpretations. They do not necessarily fit into the neat, compartmentalized borders of periods or places. The story of the Treaty of Tordesillas provides insights into the human mind and politics that are still valid today. The most monumental events in history often have their origins in the most homely, prosaic and domestic of behaviours. The Trojan War was fought over the apocryphal beauty of Helen, wife of the powerful Spartan king, Menalaus. She was kidnapped by Paris and taken east across the Aegean Sea, to the mighty city-state of Troy. The battle to defend their king’s honour and recapture Helen pitted thousands of warriors of the Greek states against the armies of Troy and engulfed the ancient Aegean world in a terrible and destructive conflagration that lasted a decade and gave rise to many famous myths and characters.

It is sobering to think that the impetus for the division of the world in the fifteenth century was likewise the petty squabbling of a select group of powerful and privileged aristocrats, heightened and inflamed by the unexpected success of a rogue adventurer—not to mention the role of a young princess in defying her half-brother the king, by refusing to marry her aging step-uncle and instead eloping with her sixteen-year-old champion and prince. The battle for the Castilian succession that pitted Isabella and Ferdinand, and their supporters, against Isabella’s allegedly illegitimate half-sister and the king of Portugal—and the resulting animosity between Spain
and Portugal—was one of the key forces that led Pope Alexander VI to divide the world in 1493, laying the foundations for the generations of war that followed. Growing from such a tiny and mundane seed, the division of the world has directly influenced the actions of generations of kings and emperors, explorers and popes, pirates and statesmen. It has indirectly affected the political, religious and cultural geography of the world and shaped the lives of millions of people to this day.

The Treaty of Tordesillas began in ignorance and simony, yet the physical challenge to its imposition and the intellectual struggle against such unjust and arbitrary absolutism led to the beginning of something more universally equitable: the loosening of the monopoly over the use of the world’s waterways, an increase in mutual communication and traffic between peoples, and the development of universal laws to guide the relations between nation states in the international arena. These guidelines and international agreements have been, and will hopefully continue to be, a foundation for the further development of responsible and civilized agreements, customs and regulations between nations that will defuse potential international quarrels and reduce the likelihood that personal animosity between a small group of people will lead the world into war.

If we are given the choice, we have no desire to return to a world where trade and travel are privileges granted at the whim of a single state or two, and all the piracy, smuggling and war that would undoubtedly result. Instead we must direct our energies to upholding
and refining the evolving global framework of regulations for governing international common spaces—a framework that represents the real wisdom we have inherited from the epic saga of the division of the world in 1494.


Excerpted from 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half by Stephen R. Brown.

Copyright © 2011 by Stephen R. Bown.

Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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