The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494)

The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494)

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On June 7, 1494, the Catholic Monarchs and John II of Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas dealing with the demarcation of their colonial empires by an imaginary line crossing the Atlantic west of the Cape Verde Islands. The other European maritime powers are denied all rights to these new lands. François Ier will ask to see "the clause of Adam's will which excludes him from this sharing". The Amerindian, African and Asian populations are not consulted on this division of the world.

Spain and Portugal share the world

From the middle of the 15th century, Portugal set off on the Atlantic Ocean in search of a new trade route to Asia, and set up trading posts along the African coasts. The passage of the Cape of Good Hope, gateway to the Indian Ocean, by the Portuguese expedition of Bartolomeu Dias in 1488 opened the way to Asia. But quickly, Portugal entered into competition with the rising power in Europe, Spain. In the years 1480-1490, Portugal was forced to cede its territorial claims on the Canary Islands for the benefit of Isabella the Catholic, which was formalized by the Treaty of Alcáçovas concluded in 1479.

It is above all the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus that makes it urgent to establish a dividing line between the areas of influence between the two countries of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1493, a first Bull of Pope Alexander VI fixed the line of "marcation" from pole to pole 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. It was a success for the Spaniards, but the King of Portugal asked the following year that this dividing line be renegotiated. Discussions began in May 1493 in Tordesillas, in the province of Valladolid.

The Treaty of Tordesillas

By the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed on June 7, 1494 between the Catholic Monarchs and John II of Portugal, Spain and Portugal fixed the line of demarcation of their future overseas possessions: this line, which Pope Alexander VI had set in 1493, 100 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde, was postponed, at the request of the Portuguese, to 370 leagues. Any land discovered east of this line was to belong to Portugal; in the West, to Spain. The Treaty of Tordesillas was confirmed by Pope Julius II in 1506 (Bulle Inter Caetera). From now on, all lands subsequently discovered east of the said line will be Portuguese and any territory to the west will belong to the Spanish crown.

The treaty reserves for Portugal the most coveted trade routes, those which lead to the precious spices of the Orient, establishing trading posts along the African coasts and in Asia. The rectification of Tordillas gives Portugal rights to the American continent, where the small Iberian kingdom will establish its only settlement, Brazil. For its part, Spain will be able to constitute a huge empire from Mexico and Peru and will rise to the rank of first European power. The silver and gold flowing from America will allow it to finance its wars in Europe while stimulating the economy of the old continent.

A quickly contested treaty

From the 16th century, notches were made by the two nations in the Treaty of Tordesillas. The Portuguese colony of Brazil will extend well beyond the line of marcation, and in Asia Spain seizes the Philippines and Ternate, yet in the Portuguese sphere. The line of marcation and all related agreements were abolished in 1750 by a treaty settling a dispute over the southwestern border of Brazil. The treaty of 1750 was in turn abrogated in 1761. Further disagreements between the two countries were settled by another treaty in 1779.

The maritime nations of northern Europe (England, France and the Netherlands) gave little value to the various treaties signed by Spain with the papacy and Portugal and, from 1520, their merchant ships s' introduced more and more frequently into the Caribbean Sea, supplying the large islands with African slaves. In the 17th century, Portugal and Spain in decline could only helplessly witness the emergence of new colonial empires in their areas of influence delimited by the Treaty of Tordesillas.


- NEBENZAHL Kenneth, Atlas of Christopher Columbus and the Great Discoveries, Bordas, 1993.
- LEBRUN François, L'Europe et le monde, A. Colin, 2008 (5th ed.).
- MEYER Jean, Europe and the conquest of the world: 16th-18th century, A. Colin, 2009 (3rd ed.), 367p.

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