The Western Invasion: Dividing the World

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The Western Invasion: Dividing the World


The Treaty of Tordesillas. Though its consequences were ultimately indirect, the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal had an enormous effect on European warfare in North America during the sixteenth century. The agreement evolved out of the earlier Treaty of Alcaçovas (1479), which had recognized exclusive Spanish and Portuguese spheres of interest in West Africa and the islands of the eastern Atlantic. Christopher Columbuss discovery of the New World in 1492 upset that arrangement, however, because the Alcaçovas accord contained no provision for newly found territories. To resolve the dispute, Spain and Portugal asked for a ruling from Pope Alexander VI. The pontiff responded by issuing a papal bulla formal directive from the Popethat divided the non-Christian world into two spheres demarcated by a line running north to south through the Atlantic Ocean. Spain, according to the Popes decree, acquired a monopoly on trade and exclusive control of all territory not ruled by a Christian prince in the sphere west of the line; Portugal gained identical

privileges in all territories to the east. The two Iberian powers formally accepted the Popes division of the globe by signing the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. With papal approval, therefore, Spain and Portugal had divided the world into two absolutely exclusive spheres into which the vessels of other European states were forbidden from sailing.

Challenges. Not surprisingly, the other nations of Western Europe took issue with the Iberian powers division of the globe. Francis I of France, in particular, disputed the Spanish and Portuguese contention that the Tordesillas agreement barred other European states from trading or colonizing in the New World. Asking to see the clause in Adams will that excludes me from a share in the world, he rejected their claims to exclusive spheres and instead advanced the doctrine of freedom of the seas. England likewise took issue with the Hispano-Portugese division of the world, especially after a majority of its citizens became Protestants. British monarchs such as Elizabeth I consequently championed the competing doctrine of effective occupation, which held that all Europeans could operate freely in any territory not directly controlled by a Christian prince.


The Spanish practice of transporting wealth from the New World in an annual treasure fleet emerged out of a combination of mercantilist economic beliefs and the threat of pirate attacks. Each year two flotillas sailed from Seville to the Caribbean. Dubbed the galeones, the Tierra Firma fleet sailed to the ports of Cartagena and Portobello in the Viceroyalty of Peru. The other fleet, the flota, sailed to Veracruz in the Viceroyalty of New Spain. After exchanging Spanish manufactured goods for the gold and silver of the New World, the two flotillas rendezvoused in Havana for the perilous return trip. The combined fleet that sailed back to Seville each year carried 20 percent of Philip IIs royal revenue and transported the wealth on which Spains military and diplomatic power rested. It consequently was a factor in virtually every military encounter between European nations in North America during the sixteenth century.

Sources: Max Savelle, The Origins of American Diplomacy: The International History of Angloamerica, 14921763 (New York: Macmillan, 1967);

J. Leitch Wright, Anglo-Spanish Rivalry in North America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971).

No Peace beyond the Line. The French and British challenge to the Hispano-Portugese division of the world bore fruit through a series of treaties signed in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The most important of these was the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), which ended the Hapsburg-Valois Wars and transformed dramatically the nature of the spheres established by the Treaty of Tordesillas. At the outset of the negotiations, the diplomats found themselves at an impasse between Frances demand that it enjoy the right to establish colonies and trade in the New World and Spains adamant refusal to sanction formally any violation of its sphere. The negotiators resolved this dispute through a modus vivendi that granted France the right to trade and colonize unoccupied parts of the Spanish sphere and Spain the right to attack French ships or settlements in territories it occupied. Conflict in the New World, the agreement further stipulated, would not upset peaceful relations between the two nations in Europe. The Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis thus changed the line established in the Treaty of Tordesillas from one that divided exclusive Spanish and Portuguese zones into one that demarcated two spheres governed by radically different international customs, conventions, and laws. More to the point, the agreement between France and Spain established the principle that there was no peace in the New World and the doctrine that war beyond the Line did not produce hostilities in Europe. The treaty thus largely divorced conflict in North America from war in Europe.


Max Savelle, Colonial Origins of American Diplomatic Principles, Pacific Historical Review, 3 (1934): 334350;

Savelle, The Origins of American Diplomacy: The International History of Angloamerica, 14921763 (New York: Macmillan, 1967).