Treaty of Tordesillas

John Florens | Apr 24, 2023

Table of Content


The Treaty of Tordesillas (Portuguese: Tratado de Tordesilhas) was a compromise signed in the town of Tordesillas, located in the present-day province of Valladolid, Spain, on June 7, 1494, between the representatives of Isabella and Ferdinand, kings of Castile and Aragon, on the one hand, and those of King John II of Portugal, on the other. The treaty established a division of the areas of navigation and conquest of the Atlantic Ocean and the New World (America) by means of a line located 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, in order to avoid a conflict of interests between the crowns of Spain and Portugal. In practice, this agreement guaranteed the Portuguese kingdom that the Spanish would not interfere in its route to the Cape of Good Hope, and vice versa, the former would not interfere in the recently discovered Antilles.

Although the Treaty of Tordesillas is known as the boundary agreement in the Atlantic Ocean, on that day another treaty was also signed in Tordesillas, delimiting the fisheries of the sea between Cape Bojador and the Río de Oro, and the limits of the Kingdom of Fez in North Africa.

Unesco awarded it the distinction of World Heritage in 2007 in its "Memory of the World" category as a document shared between Spain and Portugal.

The Treaty of Alcáçovas

The Treaty of Tordesillas was preceded by the Treaty of Alcáçovas, signed on September 4, 1479 between Kings Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon and King Alfonso V of Portugal, which sealed the peace that put an end to the War of the Castilian Succession. Besides serving to formalize the end of the belligerence, the pact contained other clauses concerning the policy of external projection, at a time when Castilians and Portuguese were competing for the dominion of the Atlantic Ocean and the coasts of Africa. Through the distribution of this treaty, the Crown of Castile received the Canary Islands, while the Kingdom of Portugal obtained the recognition of its dominion over the islands of Madeira, Azores and Cape Verde, and over Guinea and in general over the African coast "all that is found and is found, conquered or discovered in the said terms, beyond that which is found occupied or discovered".

Nearby antecedent: Columbus' first voyage

In 1492, the kings of Castile and Aragon authorized Christopher Columbus to undertake a maritime expedition sailing westward across the Atlantic Ocean to the Spice Islands. Two caravels took part: the Pinta, the Niña and the nao Santa María, commanded by Martín Alonso Pinzón, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón and Juan de la Cosa, respectively.

At the end of the 15th century, Eratosthenes' measurement of the circumference of the Earth was known, but some considered Claudius Ptolemy's calculation of 180 000 stadia to be valid, giving a circumference of 28 350 km. The actual circumference of the Earth is 40 120 km, with a difference from Ptolemy's calculation of 11 770 km, and between the American and Asian coasts there is a maximum arc of approximately 11 200 km. Taking into account this error of measurement, and the fact that since Marco Polo's arrival in China the eastern coastal profiles of Asia were known in Europe, Columbus expected to find the coast of Cipango exactly at the present location of the West Indies. It should not be forgotten that Eratosthenes' measurement of 252,000 stadia, much closer to reality, was also known, a measurement that was used in the report requested from the University of Salamanca to rule that Columbus' voyage was impossible.

Evidently Columbus stuck to Ptolemy's measurement, so the ships left Palos de la Frontera on August 3, 1492 and headed for the Canary Islands. On September 16 the vessels reached the Sargasso Sea and on October 12 arrived at the island of Guanahani, in the American archipelago of the Bahamas. Columbus continued his voyage through the Caribbean Sea, reaching Cuba on October 28 and Hispaniola on December 6. On December 24, the Santa Maria ran aground on the coast of Hispaniola and with its remains Fort Navidad was built.

The expedition set out on its return voyage on January 16, 1493, and a few days later a storm separated the two ships. The Pinta, under the command of Pinzón, arrived in Bayonne (Galicia) at the end of February and announced the discovery to King Isabella and King Ferdinand. Meanwhile, the Niña, on which Columbus was traveling, stopped on February 17 at the Portuguese island of Santa Maria in the Azores, and on March 4 arrived in Lisbon, after a 7-month and 12-day voyage. There he was interrogated by King John II and informed of his discoveries. Immediately the Portuguese monarch claimed ownership of the new lands, alleging rights derived from the Treaty of Alcáçovas. Isabella and Ferdinand, for their part, denied this claim, arguing that navigation had always been to the west, "and not to the south of the Canary Islands". On the 15th Columbus returned to the port of Palos and the following month he was received in Badalona by the kings.

The Alexandrine Bulls

To assert Castilian sovereignty over the territories recently found by Columbus, Isabella and Ferdinand requested help from Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), who had been elected in August 1492 and with whom they had a long relationship of mutual favors. The pope issued four bulls, known as the Alexandrine bulls, dated between May and September 1493: the first Inter caetera, the second Inter caetera, the third Eximiae devotionis and the fourth and last Dudum siquidem. In them he established that the lands and seas west of the meridian located 100 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde would belong to the crown of Castile. Excommunication was decreed for all those who crossed this meridian without the authorization of the kings of Castile.

After Columbus' return and his passage through Lisbon in March 1493, King John II of Portugal claimed that the discovered islands were south of the Canary Islands and interpreted that the Treaty of Alcáçovas awarded them to him, although according to other interpretations the treaty only referred to the African coast. John II ordered to prepare a squadron to verify this, for which he retained two Portuguese pilots who had returned with Columbus from the Indies. The arrival of an emissary from the Catholic Monarchs asking him to send ambassadors to Barcelona to discuss the matter caused him to provisionally suspend the expedition. However, in a letter written in August 1493 Columbus informed the king and queen that the Portuguese had sent a caravel from Madeira to the west.

John II sent to his rival monarchs Dr. Pero Dias and his secretary Rui de Pina, while in May 1493 the bulls Inter Caetera were known, which -especially the second one- were very favorable to the Castilians and dismayed the Portuguese king. Portugal was excluded in practice from the American enterprises, since the imaginary line of demarcation drawn by papal design relegated it to the African coasts, leaving the New World exclusively for Castile. The Catholic Monarchs defended the new situation with the same firmness that the Portuguese had defended the Treaty of Alcáçovas, since their situation was no longer precarious, since they could count on papal support and the peace signed with the King of France.

Subsequently, the Catholic Monarchs and the Lusitanian monarch negotiated a bilateral treaty. Diplomatic delegations met for several months in Tordesillas. According to the Portuguese chronicler García de Resende, John II had a very effective espionage network formed by people close to the Catholic Monarchs, whose identity is not known, and by a system of couriers on horseback who quickly brought news to Lisbon. The Portuguese ambassadors received secret reports from Lisbon about the negotiating position of the Castilians, together with direct instructions from King John.

Finally, the delegates of both monarchies reached an agreement that took the form of a treaty, signed on June 7, 1494, today known as the Treaty of Tordesillas. On the part of the Catholic Monarchs signed Enrique Enríquez de Quiñones, major steward of the kings, Gutierre de Cárdenas, major commander of the Order of Santiago and royal accountant, and Dr. Rodrigo Maldonado; on the Portuguese side signed Ruy de Sousa, his son Juan de Sousa and the magistrate Arias de Almadana. A period of one hundred days was set for its ratification by the respective monarchs; the Catholic Monarchs ratified it on July 2, 1494 in Arévalo, and John II did so on September 5, 1494 in Setúbal. The originals of the treaty are kept in the General Archive of the Indies in Seville (Spain) and in the National Archive of the Torre do Tombo in Lisbon (Portugal).

The Treaty indicated that its confirmation would be requested by the Holy See but also clearly stipulated that neither party could be dispensed from complying with it by alleging papal "motu proprio". Pope Alexander VI never confirmed the Treaty and had to wait for Julius II to do so by means of the bull Ea quae pro bono pacis in 1506.

The essence of the Treaty consisted in the agreement of a new demarcation line, which, having its ends at both geographical poles, would pass 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The great difference with the demarcation established in the papal bulls was that the eastern part of South America, the eastern end of Brazil, was now attached to the area of action of Portugal, which made it possible to submit to its sovereignty when in 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral arrived at the Brazilian coasts.

In his History of Spain, Ramón Menéndez Pidal described the Treaty of Tordesillas as the first modern treaty in European history because, for the first time, alongside the diplomats who conducted the talks, there were two groups of experts (Spanish and Portuguese) who provided technical advice to the former.

The reason for the treaty was expressed as:

The limit was established as follows:

The allocation of jurisdictions was:

The parties undertook - with an obligation to deliver if they failed to do so - not to send expeditions into each other's jurisdiction:

Spanish ships were granted free navigation in the waters of the Portuguese side to travel to America:

Bearing in mind that Columbus' second voyage was in progress, it was also agreed that if by June 20, 1494 the navigators of Castile and Aragon discovered any island or mainland between 250 and 370 leagues from pole to pole from Cape Verde, it should be left for the Spanish kings. This did not happen since Columbus did not approach South America in his first two voyages.

The second treaty signed at Tordesillas on June 7, 1494 fixed a 3-year ban on the Spanish during which they could not fish in the waters between Cape Bojador and Rio de Oro and further south, but they could raid the adjacent Muslim coast. North of Cape Bojador both countries could fish and raid the coast. The zones of influence in the Kingdom of Fez were delimited in the town of Cazaza to the east.

The Treaty of Tordesillas only specified the line of demarcation as a straight line from pole to pole 370 leagues due west of the Cape Verde Islands, nor did it specify in degrees of meridian, nor how many leagues fell within a degree, nor did it identify the island from which the 370 leagues were to be counted. It did not specify the line in degrees of meridian, nor how many leagues fell within a degree, nor did it identify the island from which the 370 leagues were to be counted. The treaty stated that these matters would be established by a joint expedition that was never carried out.

When the agreed period of ten months expired without the experts of both parties meeting, on April 15, 1495, it was agreed that the meeting would take place in July 1495 at some border point, but it was not carried out either. The demarcation of the boundary was never carried out and each party interpreted the treaty at their convenience.

The navigators of the time did not agree on how many leagues there were in a degree of meridian, among the Spaniards there were opinions between: 14 and 1.

Although the Portuguese knew how to navigate by determining latitude, Columbus and the other Spanish navigators navigated using the compass. At that time it was believed that, if one navigated over the earth's surface maintaining a fixed direction with the compass, the trajectory traveled was a great circle, and a ship following a fixed course would make it around the world returning to the starting point. This concept is reflected in the use of the word right in the treatise. Pedro Nunes was the first to point out the falsity of this belief and to discover the loxodromic lines, which he presented when he published in 1537 in the volumes: Treatise on Maritime Navigation and Treatise on Some Doubts of the Time on Maritime Navigation. By following a fixed course one cannot return to the starting point and the trajectory approaches one of the poles asymptotically. The maps of the time show the distortions caused by this error by drawing a line that only passed through the poles at the meridian of origin, for example the Planisferio de Cantino of 1502, which is the oldest known Portuguese representation in which the line of Tordesillas appears. The demarcation line was located halfway between Cape San Roque, the extreme northeastern point of South America, and the estuary of the Amazon River, at approximately 42°30'W and is distorted leaving in the Portuguese hemisphere all of Greenland, Newfoundland and part of Labrador. To the south it goes further west into South America, leaving Cape Santa Marta to the east. The error of drawing the maps based on magnetic bearings, which is the existing knowledge at the time of signing the treaty, was favorable to the Portuguese, who thus expanded their territories in Brazil, so it was sustained in their maps and claims.

The first Spanish opinion on the position of the treaty line was that of the Catalan Jaume Ferrer de Blanes in 1495, made at the request of the kings of Castile and Aragon. Ferrer considered that the line of demarcation should be established from 18° (from 20 and 5

In Juan de la Cosa's map of 1500 appears a line from pole to pole titled liña meridional that passes through the Cape Verde Islands. Some speculate that it could be the first known graphic representation referring to the Treaty of Tordesillas, in case it was the line of origin from which to count the 370 leagues.

In 1518 the Spaniard Martin Fernandez de Enciso located the line at 47°24'W, but he believed that the Earth's sphere was 7.7% smaller than it is, so his line passed at 45°38'W.

Badajoz and Elvas Meeting of 1524

Because of the dispute over the Molucca Islands, between March 1 and May 31, 1524, experts from both crowns met, among them for Spain the navigators Tomás Durán, Sebastián Gaboto and Juan Vespucio, who gave their opinion to the Junta de Badajoz-Elvas that was established to rule on the dispute. They specified that the line should be at 22° from 9 miles west of the center of the island of San Antonio, the most westerly of the Cape Verde Islands (they argued that in one degree it was 17.5 leagues). The terrestrial sphere considered then was 3.1 % smaller than the present one, so the line fixed at 47°17'W corresponds in reality to 46°36'W. The map used by the Spanish side was the Totius Orbis Descriptio Tam Veterum Quam Recentium Geographorum Traditionibus Observata Novum by Juan Vespucio, printed in Italy in 1524. The Portuguese presented to the Junta de Badajoz-Elvas a map in which the line was marked at 21°30' west of San Antonio. The meetings ended without reaching an agreement.

Treaty of Zaragoza

The Treaty of Tordesillas did not indicate a line as the maximum meridian circle, only a straight line from the north pole to the south pole. The concept of antipode or opposite hemisphere was not taken into account at that time, but years later both parties tried to use the treaty to delimit their zones of influence in Asia. The Treaty of Saragossa was signed on April 22, 1529 between Spain and Portugal, where Charles I and John III reigned respectively, and fixed the spheres of influence of Portugal and Spain at 297.5 leagues east of the Moluccas Islands. This line of demarcation was therefore near the 135°E meridian.

Junta de Badajoz and Elvas of 1681

When the Portuguese founded the Colonia del Sacramento on the left bank of the Rio de la Plata in 1680, the governor of Buenos Aires reacted by razing the colony, for which Portugal complained to the Spanish Crown. On May 17, 1681 a provisional treaty was signed in Lisbon that reproduced the meetings of Badajoz and Elvas of 1524, since commissioners from both sides were to be appointed to meet alternately in Badajoz and Elvas to issue an opinion within two months on the position of the line of Tordesillas, submitting to an award of Pope Innocent XI if a solution was not found.

The board deliberated between November 4, 1681 and January 22, 1682. The Portuguese commissioners pretended that the 370 leagues should be counted from the western end of San Antonio Island and the Spaniards from the center of San Nicolas Island. It was agreed that the points through which each of the two proposed lines would pass should be verified and once determined, the island of origin would be established.

The second difficulty arose when they did not agree on which charts would serve as reference, the Spaniards pretended that they were those made by Dutch cartographers, while the Portuguese pretended to use their own charts, those made by Pedro Nunes, Juan Texeira and Juan Texeira de Albornoz. According to the Dutch charts, Colonia del Sacramento was in Spanish territory, but according to the Portuguese charts, the line could pass: 13 leagues to the west (if San Antonio Island was taken) or 19 leagues to the east (if San Nicolas was taken).

There being no agreement, it was decided to transfer the decision to the pope. Spain sent the Duke of Jovenazo to Rome, but Portugal sent no one and the pope let the one-year term for the decision elapse.

Portugal transgressed in its colonization of the American continent the demarcation of the Treaty of Tordesillas by advancing gradually from Brazil to the west and south of South America before the Treaty of Madrid of 1750 which annulled the Tordesillas line.

In 1532 the Portuguese King John III created the system of hereditary captaincies to colonize Brazil, he donated to Pero Lopes de Sousa the captaincy of Santana that extended from the island of Mel in the Cananéia group to Laguna, which much later was considered in Portugal as the extreme point of its territory in South America, that is, where they believed that the line of Tordesillas passed.

Although much of this was due to the existing difficulty in the fifteenth century for the determination of longitude, the Portuguese transgressed by far the boundaries indicated by the line of Tordesillas justifying their attitude in the difficulty to fix the longitudes (location of the meridians) due to the imprecision of the instruments of the time (then to indicate the longitudes or meridians were made approximate calculations in which the most appropriate resource used to be the slider; It was not until the middle of the 18th century that England developed precise chronographs (Harrison's chronometer invented in 1765) which, together with the sextants, made it possible to locate the position of the meridians quite precisely).

These difficulties caused that in diverse Portuguese maps the mouth of the Río de la Plata and even the Strait of Magellan appeared as located to the east of the line of Tordesillas, that is to say, as territories of Brazil. In other cases, the maps were falsified by shifting the land to the east to include it in the Portuguese zone, as may have occurred in Caverio's Planisphere drawn between 1504-1505.

Moreover, for sixty years the treaty ceased to have any legal meaning, since between 1580 and 1640 Spain and Portugal had the same Spanish monarch in an aeque principaliter dynastic union under the House of Austria, and the kings granted Portuguese explorers captainships and concessions in the Amazon basin. Thus, from 1580 onwards, Portuguese traders and settlers were able to establish themselves without worry beyond the aforementioned meridian, penetrating deep into the Brazilian jungle. Thus, when Portugal gained its independence in 1640, it retained the possessions acquired until then much further west than the demarcation of the Treaty of Tordesillas by virtue of the precept uti possidetis ite possideatis.

During the third voyage of Amerigo Vespucci to the New World, on February 15, 1502, the Portuguese expedition under the command of Gonzalo Coelho, upon reaching the approximate latitude of 25º 35' S, which corresponds to the island of Cardoso in the group of Cananéia, held a meeting to decide whether to continue the journey through the Spanish dominions, where Amerigo Vespucci took command of the expedition. In 1767, a piece of marble measuring 80 by 40 by 20 centimeters was found on the beach of Itacuruçá on the island of Cordoso, embedded in the ground and sculpted with the coat of arms of Portugal. Magnaghi believes that the column could only have been placed by Vespucio's expedition of 1502 to mark the line of Tordesillas, although others suppose that it was Martim Afonso de Sousa in 1531. The frame remained on the island until 1841, when the Minister of the Brazilian Empire, Baron de Capanema, removed it and took it to the Imperial Museum in Rio de Janeiro. There is a replica in the same place where the original piece was found at 25°06′27.44″S 47°53′43.43″W.

The Treaty of Madrid of 1750, signed between the Kingdom of Spain and the Kingdom of Portugal annulled the Treaty of Tordesillas and any other complementary treaty:

However, the Treaty of Madrid was annulled by the Treaty of El Pardo of 1761, which reestablished the Tordesillas line until it was definitively abandoned by the Treaty of San Ildefonso of October 1, 1777.

Most of the current Brazilian historical maps show the demarcation line at 48° 42'W passing near the cities of Belén de Pará and Laguna, where a commemorative monument or treaty frame was built in 1975. The line corresponds to where Santana's captaincy ended according to the donation letter of January 21, 1535.

Hispano-American maps generally show the line passing through Cananeia, coinciding with the capitulation signed on August 21, 1536 between Queen Juana and Gregorio de Pesquera Rosa, by which he was granted benefits over 50 leagues of coastline: the land inside that begins from where they say the Cananea hazia the river of Santa Catalina.

In 2007 Spain and Portugal inscribed the treaty with Unesco as documentary heritage recommended for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register of the Memory of the World Program. Together with the General Archive of Simancas, which obtained this recognition in 2017, they are the only two historical documentary heritages from Valladolid that are part of this register.


  1. Treaty of Tordesillas
  2. Tratado de Tordesillas
  3. Boorstin, 1983, p. 178
  4. El Tratado de Tordesillas formará parte del proyecto Memoria del Mundo, La Voz de Galicia (19/06/2007)
  5. ^ Spanish: Tratado de Tordesillas [tɾaˈtaðo ðe toɾðeˈsiʎas]; Portuguese: Tratado de Tordesilhas [tɾɐˈtaðu ðɨ tuɾðeˈziʎɐʃ].
  6. ^ 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.[5] 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.[6] Modern scholars agree that the geographic stade was the Roman or Italian stade, not any of several other Greek stades, supporting those figures.[7][8] 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.
  7. ^ Assuming the treaty reckoned its "350,000 ducats" as the era's Spanish ducados rather than Venetian ducats, this would have represented about 1220 kg of pure gold.
  8. Colombo tomara-as pelo Japão
  9. Istanbul. In: Encyclopaedia Britannica 2013. Ultimate edition. 2012, ISBN 978-3-8032-6629-3, OCLC 833300891, DVD-ROM (englisch).
  10. Kastilien. In: Duden. Das Neue Lexikon. Band 5: Indi-Lau. Bibliographisches Institut & F. A. Brockhaus AG, Mannheim 1996, ISBN 3-411-04303-2, OCLC 722722580, S. 1758.

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