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March 5, 2017

The Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494

The fifteenth century saw many changes for the nations of the “Old World.” It was the beginning of the age of exploration, and with that exploration came the exportation of their cultures, religion, and political power across vast, unexplored territories. What followed would be centuries of wars, treaties, and technological improvements that accelerated European dominance over Africa, the Americas, and parts of Asia. Two specific powers emerged during this early period as rivals: Portugal and Spain, with the latter eventually eclipsing the former through economic and political means. One event that helped propel Spain ahead of its competitor and gain numerous advantages was the treaty of Tordesillas.

The story, however, begins with Portugal taking the initial lead. In the early-fifteenth century, Portugal had begun to colonize several small islands in the Atlantic Ocean and some islands along the West African coast. It was not until 1488 that Bartolomeu Dias, appointed by King John II of Portugal, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened the way for Portuguese merchants to trade directly with India, and eventually with the East Indies.1 Spain also sought to establish trade with the East Indies, but only after a different route became possible subsequent to the voyages of Christopher Columbus.

Upon his arrival to the Americas, Columbus claimed all of the lands he visited for Spain. On his return, the Italian explorer stopped in Portugal and met with John II. After having learned of Columbus’ discoveries and the claims he had made for Spain, the Portuguese monarch grew upset and made his own claims to these lands. The king cited two pieces of writing as justification: the Treaty of Alcáçovas (1479) and the papal bull, Aeterni Regis (1481). These documents declared that Spain would control the surrounding area of the Canary Islands (near the coast of present-day Morocco) and Portugal would possess all of the lands to the west and south of this location.2 King John II believed that the lands discovered by Columbus were in the areas under Portuguese control as set forth by the 1479 treaty and the 1481 papal document. However, the Spanish monarchs, worried about their neighboring country’s claims, petitioned the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Alexander VI, to acknowledge their own claims to these lands.

Portrait of Pope Alexander VI, by Cristofano dell’Altissimo | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Pontiff Alexander VI (Roderic Borgia), a native of Aragon and personal friend of Ferdinand II, agreed with the Spanish monarchs and recognized their claims to these “new” territories.3 On May 4, 1493, in an effort to forestall future territorial disputes between Spain and Portugal, he issued a new papal bull, Inter Caetera Divinae, which formed an imaginary line running straight from the North and South poles. This line was located 100 leagues (345 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands, which gave Spain control over all the territories west of this line, and Portugal gained control over those east of the line. The pope, however, specified that those lands already claimed by Christian sovereign powers would remain under their control.4

Spanish interests in the spice trade heavily influenced the position of the line since the monarchs believed the islands rich in spices were west of where Columbus had landed.5 If this had been the case, then Portugal would have effectively been excluded from trade with East Asia, giving all access to Spain. But Pope Alexander VI went even further with another papal bull, Dudum Siquidem, issued September 26, 1493, which gave Spain the right to claim lands discovered while traveling westward even if they fell in the Portuguese areas but had not yet been possessed by Portugal.6 John II was made furious by these bulls and threatened to send a fleet to Hispaniola to prevent the Spanish from colonizing those new areas. Thus, began new negotiations overseen by the same pope in 1494.

The lines of demarcation | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

After much discussion and debate, the two Catholic powers agreed to place the imaginary line 370 leagues (1,277 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands. Just like in Inter Caetera Divinae, Spain would possess all areas west of the line and Portugal all those east of the line. The treaty was ratified June 7, 1494 by both parties in the Castilian town of Tordesillas, and it was later recognized by Pope Julius II (successor of Alexander VI) in a papal bull in 1506.7 The treaty did have some flaws though, since it never clarified a standard for a league, (units of measure varied among the two countries), and it failed to mention which side of the Cape Verde Islands the measuring distance would start from.8 This led to a difficulty when establishing borders between the two colonial powers, because no one knew where the exact location of the line lay. The Treaty of Tordesillas was also rejected by England, France, and the Netherlands since the treaty excluded them from exploring the New World.9 As history later revealed, the treaty greatly benefited the Spanish monarchs and their economy. King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I gained vast amounts of colonial territory, which included colossal deposits of silver and gold. All of this eventually raised the prestige of Spain and made it the dominant power in Central and South America for centuries.

  1. Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, 2014, s.v. “Spain and Portugal Sign the Treaty of Tordesillas.”
  2. Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, 2000, s.v. “Tordesillas, Treaty of.”
  3. Iberia and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, 2005, s.v. “Tordesillas, Treaty of (1494).”
  4. Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, 2014, s.v. “Spain and Portugal Sign the Treaty of Tordesillas.”
  5. Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450, 2007, s.v. “Treaty of Tordesillas,” by Alexander M. Zukas.
  6. Iberia and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, 2005, s.v. “Tordesillas, Treaty of (1494).”
  7. American Eras: Primary Sources, 2015, s.v. “Treaty of Tordesillas (Excerpt).”
  8. Iberia and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, 2005, s.v. “Tordesillas, Treaty of (1494).”
  9. American Eras: Primary Sources, 2015, s.v. “Treaty of Tordesillas (Excerpt).”

Tags from the story

King John II of Portugal

Pope Alexander VI

Treaty of Tordesillas

Recent Comments

Nicolas McKay

This was a fantastic article Sergio. People know of the race to discover and claim as much land as possible back then, but not many people think of the political aspect of it. I find it interesting how the pope used a simple line to divide the world for these two mighty empires to conquer. At first glance this decision seems flawed and not detailed enough to work, yet it succeeded anyway. This was ne of those few moments where having a religious head of state truly worked out for the betterment of two nations. Well done once again.



9:08 am

Ana Gonzalez

Great article Sergio! Your article was interesting and well-researched. I think it’s strange how people in history decided that they owned territory simply because they claim to have discovered it. Portugal and Spain explorers like Columbus, would simply arrive in a place, claim it and they exploit its resources for their country. In this time period, the Treaty of Tordesillas was definitely necessary since these two powers were going around claiming and fighting themselves for land. Thank you for the article!



9:08 am

Mario Sosa

At the time the treaty was made, Portugal must have felt victorious on securing land in the new world. Now, it seems hilarious that Portugal ended up getting the short end of the stick in this treaty. Had the Portuguese known just how far the new world stretched, they would have never accepted the terms. Very good, keep up the great work.



9:08 am

Bailey Rider

This is a fantastic article Sergio! It’s so interesting that the Treaty of Tordesillas came after so many other treaties issued by the pope. It was also cool to learn about how even after the Treaty of Tordesillas, there was still confusion and difficulty because of the difference in the way that they measured leagues and also how the Treaty didn’t specify who would get the Cape Verde Islands! Of course it makes sense that England, France, and the Netherlands wouldn’t recognize the Treaty since it completely left them out. Thanks for the well written article!



9:08 am

Jennifer Pogue

Great article! I truly enjoy your writing style and it is clear you did your research. It is crazy how they claimed to own the new land just because they “discovered” it. I think it is even crazier how the pope decided to make a line and that was how it was divided! There was no real thinking behind it, and the people all went along with it. It truly shows how much they respected the Catholic religion. Keep up the good work!



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