The Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494

Treaty of Tordesillas | Courtesy of 123RF

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).”

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This Post Has 27 Comments

  1. I think the Treaty of Tordesillas is very interesting and very unfair, in my opinion. I knew the Pope drew an imaginary line, therefore, the west speaks Spanish and a small area from the east speaks Portuguese. I knew the focal points of the treaty but I also learned many new details. For instance how they measured in leagues and the papal bull, Dudum Siquidem. Very unfair! I also found the images very helpful.

  2. I speak Spanish thanks to an imaginary line haha. Although this treaty did not favor Portuguese expansion, there could be a case made for the Spanish receiving more land, even though they were not aware of how much land was to be found. The Portuguese had already begun spreading their influence in Asia, and to do that they needed men. The Spanish on the other hand, had a greater population, that could more easily hold these new territories, and populate them.

  3. I did not know that one of the Borgias were a part of the Treaty of Tordesillas! That really blows my mind. It’s really unfair for Portugal (in my opinion) since they only got Brazil in the end. However, they didn’t know what was beyond that line so it was anyone’s guess back then. It’s quite interesting that they used different treaties to try to claim the Americas and how they struggled to create the Treaty of Tordesillas. This article painted this picture perfectly and really brought out the information as intended.

  4. I never realized that Spain and Portugal were such big rivals in the 1400’s exploration scene. I thought it was very clever of the Spanish monarchs to petition to Pope Alexander VI. Always helps to have friends in high places, especially the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who can just issue new papal bulls to aid you on your conquests for new lands and spices.

  5. Nice Article! I must admit I had heard of the treaty of tordesillas and im learned about it in high-school but I completely forgot about the details of it so your article was a nice refresher. I thought you did really good when it came to highlighting the key points. I can tell you put a lot of time and effort into your article.

  6. This was a very interesting read. Prior to reading this, I did have some knowledge about the Treaty of Tordesillas and the agreements between Spain and Portugal about the separation of territories East and West of the Canary Island. However, this article did an excellent job at providing new information such as the treaties and papal bull’s that preceded this treaty. It was great to look at the mind frame that both religious and political authority figures were put under, especially when dealing with territorial matters, even more so during that time. Funny enough, if either power went westward or eastward, depending on their agreed territories, enough they would eventually meet and be placed in the same position of another territorial dispute. Overall, this article was very informative and organized. Good Work!

  7. Elizabeth Garibay

    Great article! Your article was very informative and catchy. Its crazy how the church had a great say in the decision of putting these two countries of Spain and Portugal at a division. Its also eyeopening how Spain benefited from the treaty leaving Portugal with less land. The Treaty of Tordesillas was a must happen because of the feud between the two and their way of claiming everything as their own. Overall it was very Interesting to read, great article!

  8. Natalia Zuniga

    Great article! I only ever knew the basics and just an overview of the Treaty of Tordesillas but was surprised to learn more. It crazy how much more the Spanish gained then the Portuguese. I can tell you did a lot of research and really found a lot of research. Greta job and can not wait to read more of your articles.

  9. Hello, Sergio this is a very nice piece and properly detailed. I am fascinated by the immense power that the Popes of that time had that Monarchies used to call upon them to resolve even disputes concerning territories claimed by each other. Also Like the way you use imagery to tell your story it gives a perspective of the timeline when this things occurred. This story of The Treaty Of Tordesillas Of 1494 shows just how much the world in this early times was a wild west kind of place where everyone was scrambling for riches and glory by using all kinds of tactics.

  10. Very good article, it was full of a lot of great information that I am sure took some time to research. You were able to organize your thoughts very well and carried a great flow throughout your writing. I had zero prior knowledge of the Treaty of Tordesillas and the significance it carried in the distribution of land between Spain and Portugal. Again, very well done!

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