Top 173 Things in History: #76. Treaty of Tordesillas

Ever since the start of the World Cup, I’ve been waiting for a showdown between Spain and Portugal. But my two-and-a-half weeks of impatience doesn’t even compare to how long the Portuguese have waited for this: It is a chance at revenge 516 years in the making.

It was this month in 1494 that Portugal and Spain decided to update their global colonial claims with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which in principle divided the world between the two Iberian nations. I know, heady stuff, but it’s not like it wasn’t somewhat justified at the time. Columbus had just reached the New World under Spain’s flag, and Prince Henry the Navigator–arguably one of European history’s most famous princes*–had established a strong exploratory culture in Portugal earlier in the century. Amerigo Vespucci, like Columbus an Italian, sailed for the Portuguese and was the first to discover that this South America continent was pretty big, at least from north to south.

* Off-the-top-of-my-head-and-surely-missing-some-pretty-important-people list of the most famous princes in European history:

4. Prince Henry the Navigator

3. Prince Hal

2. Machiavelli’s hypothetical prince

1. Prince Hamlet**

**The list for the U.S.:

3. Prince Fielder

2. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

1. Prince

The problem is that Portugal, in working out the Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain, did not realize how big South America was from east to west. The treaty, a reworking of a papal bull issued by Alexander VI,* was actually a positive move westward for the Portuguese, who gained a wider swath of Brazil with the Line of Demarcation moved west. Of course, the line didn’t move that far west; it essentially gave Portugal half of what would become Brazil and Spain the rest of South America. In the ensuing years, Spain was able to move into and conquer the wealthy civilizations of people such as the Aztecs to expand and fund its empire. This isn’t to say Portugal didn’t have its own empire (they did get to colonize western Africa per the treaty), but their colonies did not house the wealth that Spain eventually encountered in the Americas. It can be argued that Portugal overextended itself as it was anyway, and that a more central line of demarcation in the Americas would have done it little good; it never could have defended all that land. But come on, look at where that line is! John Jay could negotiate a better treaty than that!**

*When was the last time we had a good old papal bull?

**This joke really depends on your stance on the Jay Treaty. Suffice to say, my high school history teacher was con: “Jay had to be drunk, bribed, or blackmailed to sign this thing.”

So now, this afternoon, the Portuguese can finally get their revenge against the Spanish on the pitch. In the process, they can reverse one of history’s repeated flaws, and win the war after losing the treaty.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on June 29, 2010 at 7:21 PM

    I can’t believe you’d insult John Jay’s diplomatic skill. Would the Treaty Of Paris have even guaranteed fishing rights in Newfoundland without his due diligence?


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