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This paper is about The Treaty of Tordesillas, a document signed by the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal on 7th June 1494. The agreement aimed to divide newly discovered lands outside Europe between those two powers. I’m not sure what is taught in schools these days about that period of history, but I certainly don’t recall anything or anybody being mentioned beyond Christopher Columbus (an Italian by birth), the 1st Count of Vidigueira, better known as Vasco da Gama (who was Portuguese), and Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, 1st Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca, from Spain), one of the first conquistadors, responsible for claiming Mexico for Spain, who conquered the Aztec Empire, killing the Aztec Emperor Montezuma.

Caption: Original page from the Tratado de Tordesilhas.
Attribution: National Library of Portugal, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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After extensive research, everything you want to know about the Treaty of Tordesillas is covered below. First, a quick overview:


  • Exploration and Expansion: In the late 15th century, European powers, particularly Spain and Portugal, were engaged in maritime exploration and expansion. They sought new trade routes to Asia and discovered new lands in the process.
  • Papal Intervention: Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull known as the Bull of Demarcation in 1493 to avoid conflicts and disputes over newly discovered territories. This bull aimed to divide the non-Christian world between Spain and Portugal.

Key Provisions of the Treaty:

  • Line of Demarcation: The Treaty of Tordesillas revised and clarified the division established by the Bull of Demarcation. It defined a line of demarcation from north to south, 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.
  • Division of Territories: The treaty assigned all lands east of the line to Portugal and all lands west of the line to Spain. This division included not only territories in Asia but also newly discovered lands in the Americas.
  • Adjustment of the Line: The treaty allowed for adjustments to the line in case newly discovered lands fell within the sphere of influence of one of the parties.

Consequences and Impact:

  • Portuguese Control: The treaty confirmed Portugal’s control over significant parts of Africa, Asia, and Brazil (which would later become a Portuguese colony).
  • Spanish Dominance: Spain gained vast territories in the Americas, including most of the continent of South America (but missed out on Brazil).
  • Colonial Empires: The treaty had a significant impact on the colonial empires of both Spain and Portugal. It shaped their territorial claims and influenced the subsequent colonisation and exploitation of the Americas.
  • Exploration and Expansion: The treaty encouraged further exploration and expansion by Spain and Portugal. It spurred the development of their colonial enterprises and set the stage for future conflicts and rivalries between European powers in the New World.
  • Legal Precedent: The Treaty of Tordesillas established a precedent for future agreements and divisions of territories through diplomatic negotiations. It reflected the emerging practice of dividing the world among European powers during the Age of Discovery.

It’s important to note that the Treaty of Tordesillas was neither universally recognised nor respected by other European powers, particularly those not party to the agreement. As European exploration and colonisation continued, new conflicts and disputes over territorial claims would arise. The Treaty of Tordesillas had a significant impact on the division of the New World between Spain and Portugal, shaping the course of history and colonisation in the Americas.

If you were wondering if “Tordesillas” is an Iberian word, let me say you’d be wrong: The word simply refers to the town in Spain where the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed in 1494. The town is located in the province of Valladolid, in the region of Castile and León.

The Bull of Demarcation
The Bull of Demarcation refers to a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. The official name of the bull is “Inter caetera” or “Inter caetera divinai.”

A papal bull is an official document issued by the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. It is named after the bulla or seal, that is traditionally appended to the document.

The objective of The Bull of Demarcation was to resolve conflicts and establish a division of newly discovered lands between the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. It was issued in response to the rivalry between Spain and Portugal over their respective claims to territories outside of Europe, particularly in the Americas.

The key provisions of the Bull of Demarcation were as follows:

  • Line of Demarcation: The bull established a line of demarcation drawn from north to south, running 100 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. This line divided the non-Christian world between Spain and Portugal.
  • Division of Territories: All lands discovered to the west of the line would be under the sovereignty and control of Spain, while lands to the east would be under the authority of Portugal.
  • Papal Authority: The bull asserted the authority of the Pope to assign and regulate the division of newly discovered lands between the Catholic powers of Spain and Portugal. It was issued based on the premise that these lands were inhabited by non-Christian peoples and thus could be claimed by Christian monarchs.

The Bull of Demarcation set the stage for subsequent treaties and negotiations, such as the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 (described in this paper), which modified the division established by the bull. It’s important to note that the Bull of Demarcation was specific to the Spanish and Portuguese rivalry and did not have universal recognition or authority among other European powers. However, it played a significant role in shaping the early colonial enterprises of Spain and Portugal in the Americas and other parts of the world.

Division of Newly Discovered Lands Outside Europe[2]
Instability in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as the fall of the Mongol Empire, encouraged seafaring kingdoms to look elsewhere for a trading route to India. The Kingdom of Castile (Spain) and Portugal had been expanding westward for much of the 15th century. In venturing into the Atlantic, seafarers for these kingdoms arrived in places previously unknown to them or other established nations[3].

The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in Tordesillas (Spain) on 7th June 1494, and ratified in Setúbal (Portugal), divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between the Portuguese Empire and the Spanish Empire (Crown of Castile), along a meridian 370 leagues[4] west of the Cape Verde islands, off the west coast of Africa. That line of demarcation was about halfway between the Cape Verde islands (already Portuguese) and the islands visited by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage (claimed for Castile and León), named in the treaty as Cipangu and Antillia (Cuba and Hispaniola).

The lands to the east would belong to Portugal and the lands to the west to Castile, modifying an earlier division proposed by Pope Alexander VI. The other side of the world was divided a few decades later by the Treaty of Zaragoza, signed on 22nd April 1529, which specified the antemeridian to the line of demarcation specified in the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Despite a considerable lack of information regarding the geography of the New World, Portugal and Spain largely respected the treaty. The other European powers, however, did not sign the treaty and generally ignored it, particularly those that became Protestant after the Reformation. Similarly, the indigenous peoples of the Americas did not acknowledge the treaty, and as the legal foundation for the discovery doctrine,[5] it has been a source of ongoing tension regarding land ownership into modern times.

The Treaty of Tordesillas was intended to solve the dispute that arose following the return of Christopher Columbus and his crew, who had sailed under the Crown of Castile. On his way back to Spain, he stopped at Lisbon, where he requested another meeting with King John II to prove to him that there were more islands to the southwest of the Canary Islands.

After learning of the Castilian-sponsored voyage, the Portuguese King sent a threatening letter to the Catholic Monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, stating that, by the Treaty of Alcáçovas signed in 1479 and by the 1481 papal bull Aeterni regis that granted all lands south of the Canary Islands to Portugal, all of the lands discovered by Columbus belonged, in fact, to Portugal.

The Portuguese King also stated that he was already making arrangements for a fleet (an armada led by Francisco de Almeida) to depart shortly and take possession of the new lands. The Spanish rulers replied that Spain owned the islands discovered by Columbus and warned King João not to permit anyone from Portugal to go there. Finally, the rulers invited Portugal to send ambassadors to begin diplomatic negotiations to settle each nation’s rights in the Atlantic.[6]

On 4th May 1493, Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), an Aragonese from Valencia by birth, decreed in the bull Inter caetera that all lands west of a pole-to-pole line 100 leagues west of any of the islands of the Azores or the Cape Verde Islands should belong to Castile, although territory under Christian rule as of Christmas 1492 would remain untouched.[7] The bull did not mention Portugal or its lands, so Portugal could not claim newly discovered lands even if they were east of the line. Another bull, Dudum siquidem, entitled Extension of the Apostolic Grant and Donation of the Indies and dated 25th September 1493, gave all mainlands and islands, “at one time or even still belonging to India” to Spain, even if east of the line.[8]

The Portuguese King John II was less than pleased with that arrangement, feeling that it gave him far too little land—it prevented him from possessing India, his near-term goal.[9]  By 1493 Portuguese explorers had reached the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope. The Portuguese were unlikely to go to war over the islands encountered by Columbus, but the explicit mention of India was a major issue. As the Pope had not made changes, the Portuguese King opened direct negotiations with the Catholic Monarchs to move the line to the west and allow him to claim newly discovered lands east of the line. In the bargain, King John accepted Inter caetera as the starting point of discussion with Ferdinand and Isabella but had the boundary line moved 270 leagues west, protecting the Portuguese route down the coast of Africa and giving the Portuguese rights to lands that now constitute the eastern quarter of Brazil. As one scholar assessed the results, “both sides must have known that so vague a boundary could not be accurately fixed, and each thought that the other was deceived, [concluding that it was a] diplomatic triumph for Portugal, confirming to the Portuguese not only the true route to India but most of the South Atlantic“.[10]

The treaty was negotiated without consulting Pope Alexander VI and effectively countered his bulls. However, it was subsequently sanctioned by his successor Pope Julius II through the bull Ea quae pro bono pacis of 24th January 1506 and therefore, some sources call the resulting line the “Papal Line of Demarcation“.[11]

Very little of the newly divided area had actually been seen by Europeans, as it was only divided via the treaty. Castile gained lands, including most of the Americas, which in 1494 had little proven wealth. The easternmost part of current Brazil was granted to Portugal when, in 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral landed there en route to India. Some historians contend that the Portuguese already knew of the South American bulge that comprised most of Brazil before this time, so his landing in Brazil was not an accident.[12] One scholar points to Cabral’s landing on the Brazilian coast 12 degrees farther south than the expected Cape São Roque, such that “the likelihood of making such a landfall as a result of freak weather or a navigational error was remote; and Cabral had probably been instructed to investigate a coast whose existence was not merely suspected, but already known”[13].

The treaty was important in dividing Latin America, as well as establishing Spain in the western Pacific. However, it quickly became obsolete in North America and later in Asia and Africa, where it affected colonisation. It was ignored by other European nations, and with the decline of Spanish and Portuguese power, the home countries could not hold many of their claims, much less expand them into poorly explored areas. Thus, with sufficient backing, it became possible for any European state to colonise open territories or those weakly held by Lisbon or Madrid.

Modern Claims under The Treaty of Tordesillas
The Treaty of Tordesillas was invoked by Chile in the 20th century to defend the principle of an Antarctic sector extending along a meridian to the South Pole, as well as the assertion that the treaty made Spanish (or Portuguese) all undiscovered land south to the Pole.[14]

The Treaty of Tordesillas was also invoked by Argentina in the 20th century as part of its claim to the Falkland Islands.[15]

Putting the Record Straight: Discovery of the Americas
The Italian, Christopher Columbus, is often credited with discovering the Americas in 1492, but he was not the first European to set foot on American soil. The story of European exploration and presence in the Americas predates Columbus and involves several earlier explorers and voyages.

One notable example is Leif Erikson. Around the year 1000, Leif Erikson, a Norse explorer from Iceland, is believed to have led an expedition to an area he called Vinland. Vinland is thought to have been located in present-day Newfoundland, Canada. The Norse sagas mention Erikson’s voyages and describe encounters with indigenous people and the establishment of a settlement. While the exact location and details of these Viking settlements remain debated among scholars, it is widely accepted that the Norse had some form of presence in North America long before Columbus.

Caption: Leif Eriksson Discovers America by Hans Dahl (1849–1937).
Attribution: Hans Dahl (1849-1937), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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However, Leif Erikson’s exploration did not have lasting consequences or lead to a sustained European presence in the Americas, whereas Columbus’ voyage is often seen as the catalyst for the age of European exploration and colonisation of the Americas.

In 1492, sponsored by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Columbus set sail from Spain in search of a westward route to Asia. On 12th October of that year, he arrived in what is now known as the Bahamas, landing on an island he named San Salvador. Columbus believed he had reached the East Indies, hence the name “Indies” given to the indigenous people he encountered. He made subsequent voyages exploring the Caribbean islands, the coasts of Central and South America, and parts of the present-day United States.

Columbus’s voyages and subsequent reports of his discoveries sparked European interest in the New World and led to further exploration and colonisation by various European powers. The Spanish, in particular, established significant colonial holdings in the Americas, exploring and conquering vast territories in what is now known as Latin America.

While Columbus’s arrival in the Americas was a pivotal moment in history, it is important to recognise the earlier presence of other Europeans and the indigenous peoples who had inhabited the Americas for thousands of years before their arrival. The story of European exploration in the Americas is complex and multifaceted, with various explorers and expeditions contributing to the knowledge and colonisation of the New World.

Caption: Landing of Columbus at the Island of Guanahaní, West Indies (1846), by John Vanderlyn. The landing of Columbus became a powerful icon of American genesis in the 19th century.
Attribution: John Vanderlyn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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In 1494, representatives of the crowns of Portugal and Spain met to divide the world, whether known or not, between them. At the Treaty of Tordesillas, Portugal was given everything west of a meridian running between the Cape Verde islands in the mid-Atlantic and the new lands which Columbus had discovered. The other, the eastern, side of the world, was subsequently divided 35 years later through the Treaty of Zaragoza.[16]

The division of the Americas between Spain and Portugal occurred due to the Treaty of Tordesillas. At that time, Spain and Portugal were powerful maritime nations seeking to expand their influence and acquire new territories. The treaty was mediated by the Catholic Church, specifically by Pope Alexander VI. It aimed to resolve conflicts arising from the voyages of exploration and discovery carried out by Spanish and Portuguese navigators, most notably Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Hernán Cortés. A first glance, it seems rather odd that Christopher Columbus, an Italian, should busy himself exploring for Spain rather than his own country.

The exclusion of Italy from the division of the Americas can be attributed to several factors.

  • Italy as a political entity did not exist during the Age of Discovery when Columbus voyaged. Instead, the Italian peninsula was divided into numerous city-states and kingdoms, such as Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Naples, each with its own interests and rivalries.

During Columbus’ time, he sought support for his voyages from various European powers, including Portugal, England, and France. However, it was Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain who eventually provided him with the necessary funding and sponsorship for his expeditions.

  • Italy’s fragmented political landscape made it difficult for any Italian state to establish a unified colonial empire or launch large-scale exploration ventures.
  • Italy lacked a centralised government with the resources and authority to sponsor extensive overseas expeditions like Spain and Portugal.
  • At the time of Columbus’s voyages, Spain and Portugal were emerging as dominant maritime powers, driven by their ambitious monarchs and their desire to expand their influence and control over trade routes. The political and economic interests of Spain and Portugal took precedence, resulting in the exclusion of other European powers, including Italy, from the division of territories in the Americas.
  • The Treaty of Tordesillas itself was negotiated between Spain and Portugal, with the mediation of the Catholic Church. Italy, as a fragmented region, did not have the political clout or representation to assert its claims or negotiate a share of the new territories.

It’s important to note that while Italy may have been left out of the initial division of the Americas, individual Italians did participate in subsequent voyages and explorations, serving in the fleets of other European powers and contributing to the overall exploration and colonisation of the New World.

According to the treaty’s terms, a line of demarcation was drawn from north to south, approximately 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The lands to the west of this line were to be assigned to Spain, while the lands to the east were allocated to Portugal. This division primarily applied to territories in the newly discovered lands of the Americas. However, it is important to note that the Treaty of Tordesillas was not universally recognised and accepted by other European powers, particularly those with ambitions to explore and colonise the Americas. The treaty did not have the authority to enforce its terms, and other nations like France, England, and the Netherlands ignored it.

Over time, Spain and Portugal established colonies and trading posts throughout their respective territories in the Americas. Spain focused on Central and South America, including present-day Mexico, Peru, and the Caribbean, while Portugal concentrated on Brazil in South America.

Despite the initial division, the boundaries between Spanish and Portuguese territories in the Americas were subject to further negotiations and adjustments in subsequent years. The boundary changes led to the eventual expansion of Spanish and Portuguese influence beyond the original demarcation line, particularly as other European powers established their own colonies and challenged the Iberian dominance in the region.

While Italy was not directly involved in the division of the Americas, there were several notable Italians who participated in subsequent voyages and explorations in the New World. Here are a few examples:

  • Amerigo Vespucci: an Italian explorer and cartographer, is believed to have participated in voyages to the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. He explored the coast of South America, particularly in present-day Brazil and Venezuela. Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages and the geography of the New World played a role in shaping European understanding of the continent.
  • Giovanni da Verrazzano: born in Tuscany, Italy, he was a navigator and explorer who sailed under the French flag. In 1524, he embarked on an expedition commissioned by King Francis I of France to find a northwest passage to Asia. Verrazzano explored the eastern coast of North America, from present-day North Carolina to Newfoundland, including New York Harbor.
  • John Cabot (aka Giovanni Caboto): was an Italian explorer from Genoa. His 1497 voyage to the coast of North America under the commission of Henry VII of England is the earliest-known European exploration of coastal North America since the Norse visits to Vinland in the eleventh century. Cabot reached the eastern coast of North America, likely landing in Newfoundland or Labrador.
  • Sebastian Cabot: the son of John Cabot, he was also an Italian-born explorer who served under the English and Spanish crowns. He made several voyages to the Americas and played a role in exploring the River Plate region in South America and the Río de la Plata estuary.

These individuals are just a few examples of Italians who participated in subsequent voyages and explorations in the Americas. Their contributions, along with those of other explorers from various European nations, played a significant role in expanding knowledge of the New World and laying the foundation for subsequent colonisation and settlement.

Translation of the Treaty of Tordesillas
The translation of the Treaty between Spain and Portugal concluded at Tordesillas on 7th June 1494, ratified by Spain on 2nd July 1494 and by Portugal on 5th September 1494, is available online at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School website at:

Final words
Imperial rivalries have often been resolved through the prosecution of war. However, the Treaty of Tordesillas is an important exception and provides an example of a rivalry that was resolved without hostilities through the demarcation of areas of influence by the Catholic Church[17].

Of note, and in closing this paper, the Treaty of Tordesillas was only the first time that European powers met to divide the world between them in an orderly and civilised fashion. In the 19th century, Africa and China were divided in much the same way.  More recently, at the end of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union met to determine each other’s respective “spheres of influence.” On none of these occasions were the people who were divided asked for their opinion.[18]

Caption: Mare clausum (‘closed sea’) claims during the Age of Discovery.
Attribution: Nagihuin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

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This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Sources and Further Reading


CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.

Books and Journal Articles:

End Notes and Explanations
  1. Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: [chat] and
  2. Mainly sourced from:
  3. Source:
  4. Explanation: 370 leagues equals 2,193 kilometers, 1,362 statute miles, or 1,184 nautical miles. The figures use the legua náutica (nautical league) of four Roman miles, totaling 5.926 km, which was used by Spain in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries for navigation. In 1897, Henry Harrise noted that Jaime Ferrer, the expert consulted by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, stated that a league was four miles of six stades each. Modern scholars agree that the geographic stade was the Roman or Italian stade, not any of several other Greek stades, supporting those figures. Harrise is in the minority when he uses the stade of 192.27 m marked within the stadium at Olympia, Greece, resulting in a league (32 stades) of 6.153 km, 3.8% larger. Cited at:
  5. Source:  Miller, Robert; LeSage, Lisa; Escarcena, Sebastián (1 August 2011). “The International Law of Discovery, Indigenous Peoples, and Chile”. Nebraska Law Review. 89 (4). Cited at:
  6. Source: Coben, Lawrence A. (2015), “The Events that Led to the Treaty of Tordesillas”, Terrae Incognitae, vol. 47, pp. 142–162. Cited at:
  7. Source: Parry, J. H. (1973), The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement, 1450–1650, London: Cardinal, ISBN 0-297-16603-4. Cited at:
  8. Source: Pope Alexander VI (25 September 1493). Dudum siquidem  (in Latin) – via Wikisource. Cited at:
  9. Source: Coben, Lawrence A. (2015), “The Events that Led to the Treaty of Tordesillas”, Terrae Incognitae, vol. 47, pp. 142–162. Cited at:
  10. Source: Parry, J. H. (1973), p. 194. The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement, 1450–1650, London: Cardinal, ISBN 0-297-16603-4. Cited at:
  11. Sources: [1] Davenport, Frances Gardiner, ed. (1917), p. 107–111,  European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648Washington: Carnegie Institution (Wikisource) Yale Law, with the original Spanish text, notes, and full English translation of the treaty , and [2] Leslie Ronald Marchant, The Papal Line of Demarcation and Its Impact in the Eastern Hemisphere on the Political Division of Australia, 1479–1829 (Greenwood, Western Australia: Woodside Valley Foundation, 2008) ISBN 978-1-74126-423-4. Cited at:
  12. Source: Crow, John A. (1992). The Epic of Latin America (Fourth ed.). University of California Press. p. 136. ISBN 0-520-07723-7. Cited at:
  13. Source: Parry, J. H. (1973), p. 198. The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement, 1450–1650, London: Cardinal, ISBN 0-297-16603-4. Cited at:
  14. Source: “National Interests And Claims In The Antarctic” (PDF). Cited at:
  15. Source: Laver, Roberto (2001). The Falklands/Malvinas case. Springer. pp. 67–69. ISBN 978-90-411-1534-8. Cited at:
  16. Explanation: The Treaty of Zaragoza or Saragossa, also called the Capitulation of Zaragoza or Saragossa, was a peace treaty between Castile and Portugal, signed on 22 April 1529 by King John III of Portugal and the Habsburg emperor Charles V in the Aragonese city of Zaragoza. The treaty defined the areas of Castilian and Portuguese influence in Asia in order to resolve the “Moluccas issue“, which had arisen because both kingdoms claimed the lucrative Spice Islands (now Indonesia‘s Malukus) for themselves, asserting that they were within their area of influence as specified in 1494 by the Treaty of Tordesillas. The conflict began in 1520, when expeditions from both kingdoms reached the Pacific Ocean, because no agreed meridian of longitude had been established in the far east. Source:
  17. Source:
  18. Source and acknowledgement:

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