The Treaty of Tordesillas

As soon as Christopher Columbus left King João II’s castle at Santa Maria das Virtudes, the Portuguese king sent a letter to his cousin Queen Isabella and her husband King Ferdinand reminding them of their agreement, the Treaty of Alcáçovas-Toledo.

Abbreviated family tree showing how Isabella and João II were second cousins.

Had Isabella forgotten that her right to be queen of Castile had been exchanged for his right to all lands discovered within the Ocean Sea on the way to the Indies? The islands that Admiral Columbus discovered were his.

João informed the Catholic Monarchs that he was sending a fleet west to the newly discovered lands to claim them for Portugal. Knowing King João was right, Ferdinand and Isabella panicked. They quickly dispatched an emissary to the brand new pope, Alexander VI, who, as we know, was from Ferdinand’s domain, Aragon. Pope Alexander, in turn, organized a meeting to discuss the matter. Negotiations to work the problem out were to be held in a small village in Castile called Tordesillas. Pope Alexander VI sent a representative to mediate.

The discussion went back and forth. Finally, on the 7th of June 1494, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and João II of Portugal signed a new agreement, the Treaty of Tordesillas.

The treaty specified an imaginary meridian line from the top of the world to the bottom, “pole to pole,” 370 leagues [approximately 1184 nautical miles] west of Cape Verde, the westernmost protrusion on Africa already under Portuguese control. Some historians think that King João II already knew about Brazil because he kept trying to extend the western border farther west [the Spanish wanted it at 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands]. It was still four years before Vasco da Gama reached India by sailing under Africa, but, as we also know, King João had Pedro of Corvilhã’s map in hand that detailed the route De Gama’s would take. King João was placing all his eggs in the African trade basket.

All powers concerned believed that the line was down the middle between the western islands Columbus had discovered and the eastern lands the Portuguese had already claimed. Pope Alexander VI added his seal of approval when the document reached him at the Vatican in Rome.

Spain received all lands west “whether mainlands and islands … discovered and yet to be discovered towards India or towards any other region whatsoever” but not yet possessed by any other Christian king or ruler. The inclusion of the word mainlands reveals that even if Spain and Portugal did not know about the huge continents of North and South America, they knew there was something big to the west.

Fortunately for Portugal, Brazil lay east of that line – as did the Azores archipelago. Now it was up to her explorers to investigate what other lands lay within her domain. On the map at the top of this article, you might want to note the location of Newfoundland. Also remember that geographers and astronomers were still trying to figure out how to precisely measure longitude.

Now that Granada had fallen, Spanish and Portuguese soldiers were left with nothing to do. Those who had not been awarded comendos or captaincies hungered for land and fame. Columbus’ news that there was land to conquer and gold to be found westward provided the perfect opportunity for these ambitious men. The new conquistadors would build Spain and Portugal into empires that dominated Europe and the Americas for the next 100 years.

Next Article: Columbus’ Second Expedition