Treaty of Tordesillas

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Treaty of Tordesillas

Between 1418 and 1492, Portugal was the dominant maritime power in the Atlantic Ocean, sending numerous naval and military expeditions to explore the African coast, enforce colonial claims, and find a sea route around Africa to the rich markets of the Indies. Bolstered by Christopher Columbus's (1451–1506) accounts of his voyage in 1492, Spain claimed sovereignty over the lands Columbus touched, which Columbus believed included the East Indies, the object of Portuguese mercantile ambitions. It was clear that conflict would soon arise over the rival claims of Spain and Portugal to lands previously unclaimed by Europeans. To prevent serious conflict between their expansionist nations, the wary monarchs of Spain and Portugal divided the non-Christian world outside Europe in the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494).

The papal bull (edict) Inter Caetera ("among other works," often incorrectly spelled as "coetera") laid the framework for the Treaty of Tordesillas. Spain and Portugal were major Catholic powers and the possibility of a clash between them was of great concern to leaders of the Catholic Church. In response, the Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) issued Inter Caetera on May 4, 1493; the bull established a line of demarcation running north-south through the Atlantic Ocean, 100 leagues (about 345 statute miles or 556 kilometers) west of the Cape Verde Islands. With the exception that lands already claimed by a Christian sovereign would remain under that ruler's control, the pope granted Spain possession of undiscovered territories west of the line and awarded Portugal possession of undiscovered territories east of the line. Spanish interests heavily influenced the bull, which threatened to exclude Portugal from Asia: After Columbus's return the Spanish believed East Asia lay a little west of the pope's line.

Protesting the specifics of the papal edict while endorsing its assumption of Spanish and Portuguese global dominance, King John II (1455–1495) of Portugal negotiated with King Ferdinand (1452–1516) and Queen Isabella (1451–1504) of Spain to move the line west. John argued that the pope's line extended around the world, limiting Spanish influence in Asia. In the course of a year the line was renegotiated and the agreement was formally ratified by both nations in the Castilian town of Tordesillas (Spain) on June 7, 1494. The treaty shifted the papal line to a meridian 370 leagues (about 1,277 statute miles or 2,056 kilometers) west of the Cape Verde Islands.

Pope Julius II (1443–1513) gave the treaty formal papal sanction in a bull of 1506. In all of these diplomatic developments, other European nations were expressly denied access to new overseas territories with the result that England, France, and the Netherlands utlimately rejected the pope's legal authority to divide undiscovered regions and the legitimacy of Spanish and Portuguese territorial claims based on it.

In any case, at the time that the treaty was negotiated, only a very small area of the world had actually been explored by Europeans, and the exact position of the boundary line was unclear due to the difficulty of establishing longitude accurately. Spain ultimately claimed most of the Americas and the easternmost parts of Asia, while Portugal claimed Brazil and most of the lands around the Indian Ocean. The Treaty of Saragossa (1529) formally extended the demarcation line around the entire globe.

see also Columbus, Christopher; Empire in the Americas, Portuguese; Empire in the Americas, Spanish; Religion, Roman Catholic Church; Religion, Western Perceptions of Traditional Religions.


Bell, Christopher R. V. Portugal and the Quest for the Indies. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1974.

McAlister, Lyle N. Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492–1700. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

"Tordesillas, Treaty of." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Edited by Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk, Vol. 2, 1009–1010. Detroit: Gale, 1999.

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Treaty of Tordesillas

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