Tordesillas, Treaty of

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After early New World colonization efforts by the Vikings around a.d. 1000 several centuries passed before European explorations of the area were renewed. By 1450 political, economic, and technological changes were taking place, which made distant exploration more feasible and desirable. The Renaissance spawned interest in scientific inquiry and human control over the natural environment. Political centralization transformed the Middle Ages' small-localized principalities, ruled by rival noble families, into nation-states. Rulers gained great power following the decline of the Catholic Church's influence. Monarchs with centralized political power accumulated funds to finance exploration. Earlier overland exploration, highlighted by Marco Polo's journey to Cathay in the late thirteenth century, had whetted Europe's appetite for trade with the Orient. Wealthy fifteenth century Europeans desired goods available in the East, including jewels, porcelain, and spices.

The established overland routes came under control of other groups along the way, including Turkish Muslims, who gained control of the main route in the 1450s. The newly created nations of Western Europe, including England, Portugal, Spain, and France, became interested in seeking alternative routes for conducting trade with the East. With technological advances in shipbuilding and navigation, Portugal began exploration of trade routes by sea, and in 1487 charted an ocean route around Africa to India. Jewels and spices began arriving in Portugal, making Lisbon the new trade center for Europe.

With interest in overseas exploration heightened, explorer Christopher Columbus (14511506) sought a sponsor so that he might pursue a theory that contact with the East could be established by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean. After Portugal refused to finance him, Spain provided financial support and ships, and Columbus set sail in late 1492. After ten weeks of sailing Columbus came to an island he named San Salvador. Though actually landing in what is now known as the Bahamas, Columbus proclaimed he had discovered the western route to the East. Excitedly, Spain claimed control over the discovery.

Portugal and Spain, the two leaders in fifteenth century exploration, had a short time earlier in 1479 and 1480 reached agreement that Spain would control the Atlantic region around the Canary Islands, and Portugal would hold rights to lands discovered south of the Canary Islands and west of Africa. In 1481 the Pope issued a charter called Aeterni Regis officially recognizing the agreement. Portugal, however, argued that the islands Columbus encountered were actually islands in the Atlantic Ocean previously claimed by their own explorers.

Because Spain and Portugal were the two primary Catholic powers, requests for resolution to the serious dispute went directly to Pope Alexander IV. The Pope issued a decree in May 1493, creating an imaginary north-south line separating the claims of Spain and Portugal. The line was drawn on maps 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, situated off the coast of Senegal on the West Coast of Africa. Spain was to assert exclusive control of lands west of the line, Portugal to the east. Excluded were lands already claimed by other European nations.

With further exploration, Portugal soon realized that Spain got the better of the deal and that the line's placement even threatened their exploration routes around Africa. Portugal returned to the Pope seeking a revision. In June 1494, Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors meeting at Tordesillas in northwestern Spain moved the line 270 leagues further west. The exact position of the line, however, was never very clear since the league unit of measure varied among countries at that time. Also, the Cape Verde Islands are 60 leagues wide, leaving doubt as to whether the distance to the line was to be measured from the east coast of the islands or the west. The Treaty of Tordesillas was later validated by Pope Julius II in 1506.

Columbus made three additional voyages between 1494 and 1502, exploring the Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad. Not until later was it concluded that Columbus' findings were not in the East. Portugal maintained its interest in seeking a route around Africa, and navigator Vasco da Gama (14691525) reached India in 1498. Meanwhile, subsequent voyages by Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500 east of the line established by the treaty led to the discovery of Brazil. Inland exploration westward from the Brazilian coast penetrated well beyond the line, but there was no opposition from Spain. As a result, Portugal established claim to a vast region of South America.

As the following century revealed, the Treaty of Tordesillas greatly favored Spain economically. West of the line Spain asserted claims over Mesoamerica, including the wealthy Aztec society, and Andean South America, containing the Inca. The Spanish colonies yielded incredible wealth with finds of silver and gold. Portuguese found very little such wealth. Other cultural implications of the division also extended far into the future with Latin America and the Caribbean being Spanish-speaking regions west of the line, and Brazil being the one nation with Portuguese as its official language. Treaty influences, however, were limited as other European countries never recognized the agreement and proceeded with their own explorations and claims of discovery in the western hemisphere.

Topic overview

Money and credit arrangements underlay the great expansion of trade. . . Spaniards brought back gold, pearls, jewels, and - above all - silver from their American colonies. . . Altogether it has been estimated that between 1500 and 1650 some 181 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver arrived in Europe from the Spanish colonies. . . The scope and the scale of long-distance trade changed greatly. . . (as) lines of credit and exchange had to be lengthened to accommodate the greater distances and times involved. . . (T)he European economy was poised to take advantage of the expanded trade.

william phillips and carla r. phillips, the worlds of christopher columbus, 1992.

See also: Aztec, Inca, Mesoamerica


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

Bulmer-Thomas, Victor, and Laurence Whitehead. The Colonial and Post-colonial Experience: Five Centuries of Spanish and Portuguese America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Dos Passos, John. The Portugal Story: Three Centuries of Exploration and Discovery. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.

McAlister, Lyle N. Spain and Portugal in the New World, 14921700. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Smith, Roger C. Vanguard of Empire: Ships of Exploration in the Age of Columbus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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Treaty of Tordesillas

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