The Treaty of Tordesillas

In last week’s overview of Carnival, I noted that the celebration had different spellings in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking parts of the world. I received a question asking why some parts of Latin America spoke Spanish while others spoke Portuguese (not to mention why English, French, Dutch, and other European languages are also prevalent). The roots of this distinction can be traced to the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494, which theoretically divided the non-European world between the two powers of the Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal.

A Spanish galleon, as would have been used to transport men and goods across the sea in the 1500s. Thyes / CC BY-SA (;

In the late 15th century, Spain and Portugal were the dominant maritime powers of Europe. Other nations had navies and plans for expansion, but the Portuguese had established trading posts in Africa and were expanding into Asia, while the Spanish sought new trade routes across the Atlantic. In that context, Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the west provided the Spanish with a counterbalance to the Portuguese overseas empire to the east.1 While neither Spain nor Portugal knew what the lands of the Americas held at the time, both saw the region as a potentially valuable place to expand their empires, prompting diplomatic conflicts when both claimed lands in the so-called New World.

In 1493, after Columbus returned to Spain to inform his employers that he had “discovered” land on his voyage, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella petitioned the Pope for exclusive rights to settle and colonize the lands Columbus had claimed. Pope Alexander VI was Spanish-born and supportive of the monarchs’ claim, so he granted Spain dominion over all lands more than 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. He also granted them all lands belonging to India that might be discovered in the future in this papal bull, known as the Inter caetera.2 While the Portuguese were not explicitly named in the document, they were assumed to dominate any land east of the established line and west of India–namely, Africa. The Portuguese protested this line of demarcation, insisting that it prevented them from sailing wide around West Africa to reach the distant parts of their empire in southern Africa.3 Following a meeting in the northwestern Spanish city of Tordesillas, Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to move the line west by another 270 leagues. This new line would be approved by Pope Julius II in 1506.

A map of the Atlantic showing the two lines signifying the borders between empires. Source:

The Inter caetera, as well as the later Treaty of Tordesillas, was vague but demonstrably pro-Spanish. Columbus’s voyage had found land, true enough, but the geography of this new landmass remained largely unknown in Europe. Pope Alexander VI’s line was intended to grant Spain dominion over all the new territories that would eventually be mapped in the Americas, but further exploration and the amendment of the agreement would result in the Americas being split. After additional voyages, it would be discovered that the original line separating west from east, or Spanish from Portuguese, gave the Portuguese a sliver of Brazilian coast while granting the Spanish the rest of the Americas. After the line was moved to the west, much more of Brazil became Portuguese territory, although the border was impossible to trace through the dense Amazon growth.4 In the 1700s, the two nations signed a further agreement granting Portuguese control of Brazil and acknowledging Spanish rule over the Philippines.5

In many ways, the Treaty of Tordesillas laid the groundwork for the cultural landscape of Latin America today, and its effects go far beyond the Spanish and Portuguese presence in the Americas. Brazil, a Portuguese colony for centuries before its independence, is the only South American country with Portuguese as an official language. Most other countries on the continent speak Spanish, although Suriname, Guyana, and French Guyana are exceptions because of their colonization by other European countries. Mozambique, Angola, Goa, Macau, and Yemen all existed as “approved” Portuguese colonies in southern Africa and Asia for decades or centuries, although the only Portuguese overseas possessions today are islands of the northwest coast of Africa. On the other hand, Spanish influence in the Americas was sanctioned by the Treaty of Tordesillas, as were possessions in the Pacific Ocean, most notably the Philippines. While Spain never held Indian lands, large parts of India were ruled by the Portuguese during the decades of the Iberian Union, in which Portugal and Spain merged politically.  

File:16th century Portuguese Spanish trade routes.png
Portuguese (blue) and Spanish (white) trade lines in the century or more after the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas. Source:

Despite their important effects on the development of the Americas and Asia, the agreements between the Iberian nations also face their share of criticism for their treatment of non-Iberian peoples. For one, any treaty between just two countries that proposes to split multiple continents between the two cannot take into account the great ethnic and cultural diversity of those regions. In one sense, this manifests in criticisms of the Treaty of Tordesillas’s Eurocentrism, but even that description falls a little short: the other European countries were excluded from the agreement, and few European navies respected the lines drawn in the treaty. This is part of how the Caribbean, North America, and parts of South America fell into the spheres of other European nations, like France and Great Britain.

The callous disregard of native peoples and non-European empires is a valid critique, as well. The splitting of continents by lines of longitude reminds me of the straight-line borders of many nations drawn by French and British diplomats without regard for cultural and religious boundaries. The act of dividing landmasses without understanding their geographical limits, nor respecting the autonomy and culture of the people already living there, is an act of arrogance on par with the divvying up of Africa and the partitioning of the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Granting European rulers a divine mandate to force their own colonial systems onto peoples as diverse as the Inca, Bantu, and Chinese devastated the self-sufficiency of these areas and stunted the growth of their cultures. No matter how important the Treaty of Tordesillas was for the development of European empires, its profoundly damaging effect on the native population must be recognized, as well.

  1. Lyle McAlister, Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492–1700, 73-75.
  4. Frances Gardiner Davenport, ed., European Treaties bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648, 107-111.

Published by Alexander

I have always been a student of history: in undergrad I explored both Philosophy and History as double majors, while my MA program was in Global History. My primary focus is Latin American history, with a particular interest in Chilean history. I am highly interested in examining the world around me and working to ensure that it is an equitable place for all to live. I am currently furloughed from my work in Residence Life at a small, private university, so I'm using my time and energy to explore my passions and carve out a niche for myself in the world of academia. My hometown is Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but I've lived in a few East Coast states and Oklahoma during my lifetime. My major passions include baseball, naval history and culture, and exploring and adventuring with my Queensland Heeler named Sylens. You can usually catch me listening to pop or rock music, reading historical fiction and nonfiction, or playing strategic board and video games.

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