The Alexandrine Bulls and the Treaty of Tordesillas

Most conveniently for the Spanish cause, the spiritual arm was represented by the less than spiritual Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI in August 1492. The Borgias were a Valencian family, and Alexander, already much beholden to Ferdinand and Isabella, needed their support in his efforts to create an Italian principality for his son Cesare: hence he was ‘like wax’ in their hands, to the extent that they could write to Columbus saying that if he thought it necessary one of the bulls would be modified.[6] The Spanish sovereigns at this time were at Barcelona, in close touch with Rome; requirements could be sent from Spain and a bull received there in six or seven weeks. Hence the camera apostolica became almost an extension of the Spanish Court, which secured a rapid succession of bulls virtually liquidating Portuguese claims. The first of these, Inter caetera, is dated 3 May 1493 but was prepared in April, and being based on preliminary information is vague in its terms, merely granting to Spain all discoveries in the West. Much more serious for Portugal was the second Inter caetera, nominally dated 4 May but actually issued in June—after the Spanish sovereigns had been thoroughly briefed by Columbus. This drew the famous ‘Papal Line’ running from Pole to Pole ‘to the west and south to be distant one hundred leagues’ from any of the Azores or Cape Verdes, a definition which at first glance reflects no credit on the papal chancelry's drafting, since there is a difference of nearly eight degrees of longitude between the extreme points of these groups. Beyond this line no person of whatever rank, ‘even imperial and royal’, was to trespass without the express permission of the ‘Catholic Kings’ Ferdinand and Isabella, under pain of excommunication; but the rights of any Christian prince in possession beyond the line were preserved. But Alexander VI and his legists were not so ‘sloppy’ (Mattingly's word) as to define an area as lying west and south of a meridian only; a latitude must also have been assumed. Vast confusion has arisen from the indiscriminate use of the phrase ‘No Peace beyond the Line’; Mattingly wittily shows that this ‘proverbial’ saying ‘suddenly bursts into full bloom’ in the twentieth century! The ‘Line’ was latitudinal, originally perhaps that of Cape Bojador (26°N) but finally becoming fixed as the Tropic of Cancer.[7]

The last of the series, Dudum siquidem (26 September) was extreme: it simply swept away all rights previously granted by the Papacy and not yet taken up by actual occupation,

so as to secure to you [the Catholic Kings] all islands and mainlands

whatsoever that are … discovered and to be discovered, are

or were or seem to be … now recognised as being in the waters of

the west or south and east and India.[8]

- 28 -Moreover, without Spanish permission no person whatsoever was to enter these comprehensive regions, even for fishing. Portugal was not mentioned by name, but, though her rights had been confirmed by Sixtus IV as recently as 1481, Dudum siquidem most explicitly set aside all previous papal awards. Nowell may be rather too picturesque in asserting that ‘a small reconnoitering expedition’ was held to have given Spain the entire non-Christian world, while after a century of effort Portugal was left with her Atlantic islands and the African forts at Arguin and El Mina; she still had the African route, if she could exploit it quickly enough—and she was already far on the road. But even though the Portuguese may have been reasonably sure that Columbus had discovered not Asia but a New World, the line in the Atlantic was itself restrictive, and the New World might not be a barrier to Spanish westwards penetration of the Orient. Indeed, thirty years later Columbus's son Fernando relied on Dudum siquidem to assert Spanish rights over everything east of the Cape of Good Hope; but by then that was no longer practical politics even for a Columbus.[9]

João II very sensibly declined to enter into a hopeless competition at Rome; he seems simply to have ignored the bulls, thus neither admitting their authority nor defying the Church. If Rome was in Ferdinand's pocket, highly placed personages at the Spanish Court were in his, and kept him well informed of its moves. He chose a direct approach: the hasty reaction of early 1493 was succeeded by skilful negotiation, from the position of strength afforded by Portugal's strategic situation, herself athwart the seaways from Spain to the Antilles and in possession of bases in the Azores and Madeira. The assertion à l’ outrance of Spanish claims might well be too costly, and the second expedition of Columbus, a much larger royal investment than the first, at risk either going or returning. A proposal to delimit spheres along the latitude of the Canaries, Portugal taking all to the south, was rejected by Castile; for one thing, Columbus's new islands lay south of this line, though the Portuguese were as yet unaware of this.[10] The suggestion may however have led to the proposed longitudinal line of the second Inter caetera, and—with Columbus away on his second voyage—it became apparent to reasonable Spaniards that Dudum siquidem was not so much a trump card as a too obvious fifth ace. The compromise reached was not quite so advantageous to Portugal as the rejected latitudinal delimitation, but it gave her all she needed—at least until East and West should meet.

This extreme Spanish position once cleared out of the way, agreement was reached with surprising speed and smoothness; neither side paid any attention to Alexander's bulls, which indeed had not even been appealed to in Spanish protests to Henry VII about the Cabot voyages. Nothing could alter the Portuguese geostrategic position, D. João had laid his ground at the Spanish Court with cunning and skill, and his diplomats were abler and better briefed than their counterparts. The main provision of the treaty signed in 1494 at Tordesillas, an obscure little town in Valladolid, was the placing of the demarcation line at a- 29 -position 370 leagues west of the Cape Verdes; and Alexander's jurisdiction was specifically set aside.[11]

Neither the Pope's line nor the new one ‘divided the world like an orange’, as is so often stated;[12] it divided Atlantic zones only. After all, nobody had been to the other side of the world since the Polos and the fourteenth century missionaries—certainly nobody by sea and in an official capacity—and there was little point and less possibility of making a precise demarcation of the utterly unknown.[13] Had there been a definite idea of extending the line in the full meridian great circle round the globe, it would not have been to Portuguese advantage to shift it too far to the west, since this might jeopardise their claims in the Orient, when they should reach it. This strengthens the presumption that they had some fore-knowledge of Brazilian lands—officially discovered by Cabral only in 1500—and were prepared to risk the East (they might well feel ahead in the race thither) in order to make certain of securing their western flank in the Atlantic. The Spanish also were content, since if Columbus were right, they were not too distant from their goal.

However, since the whole Luso-Castilian concept of zones of exploitation was predicated on eastwards and westwards voyaging to the Indies and Cathay, and obviously these voyagings could converge, the presumption grew up that the division must apply on the other side of the globe. This, as we shall see, lay at the core of Magellan's position, and when both Spaniards and Portuguese should reach the Moluccas the twain would have met and the question become acute. For the time, however, it was in abeyance.

The Treaty contained a provision for determining the line within ten months, by a joint expedition—Portuguese pilots in Spanish ships and vice versa—which should sail due west from the Cape Verdes for 370 leagues ‘measured as the said parties shall agree’. This would surely have been a most interestingly acrimonious enterprise, but quite impracticable even with the best of good will on both sides, and it quietly lapsed. Nowell draws attention to a probably more significant point; Tordesillas confirmed Alcaçovas, but to make assurance doubly sure D. João secured a supplementary agreement binding Spain not to send or allow any ship to Africa south of Cape Bojador for three years. The inwardness of this is made patent by two dates: the Catholic Kings ratified Tordesillas on 2 July 1494; Vasco da Gama cleared the Tagus on 8 July 1497.