Treaty of Tordesillas Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Treaty of Tordesillas gave the Papacy the authority to divide New World discoveries and possessions between Spain and Portugal and in effect sanctioned the conquering, exploitation, and religious conversion of the New World’s indigenous inhabitants.

Summary of Event

When Christopher Columbus returned to Europe from his first voyage to the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal began to dispute which nation had jurisdiction over the new lands. King John II of Portugal claimed that earlier papal bulls had donated any discoveries to his domains. Ferdinand and Isabella sought mediation by Pope Alexander VI, who issued a series of bulls favorable to Spain in 1493. When Portugal refused to accept them, the two governments negotiated the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, which gave both nations a sphere of discovery and colonization. More important, the papal bulls and treaty also provided Spain with a religious rationale for its conquest and colonization of the New World. Exploration and colonization;Spain of the New World Tordesillas, Treaty of (1494) Alexander VI Columbus, Christopher Ferdinand II (1452-1516) Isabella I John II (1455-1495) Columbus, Christopher John II (king of Portugal) Ferdinand II (king of Spain) Isabella I (queen of Spain) Alexander VI Calixtus III

On March 5, 1493, Columbus arrived at Lisbon on his return voyage, and King John invited the admiral to visit the Portuguese court Exploration and colonization;Portugal of Africa . Columbus did so on March 9, and described his discoveries. King John raised the possibility that the islands lay within jurisdiction of Guinea, accorded to Portugal by both papal charters and its agreement with Castile in the Treaty of Alcáçovas (1479) Alcáçovas, Treaty of (1479) . These documents gave Portugal dominion over the Azores, Madeira, and discoveries of non-Christian lands south of the Canary Islands in Africa. The papal bull Inter Caetera Inter Caetera (Calixtus III) (1456) of Calixtus III (Alexander VI’s uncle), for example, confirmed Portuguese rights to lands south of Cape Bojador and Cape Nao and extending to the Indies. In the Treaty of Alcáçovas, negotiated by Castile and Portugal in 1479, Castile recognized its neighbor’s African claims in return for Portugal acknowledging Spanish sovereignty over the Canary Islands.

In his conversation with John II, Columbus reported that he had reached the Indies, adding to the Portuguese king’s desire to claim the new discoveries. Yet the news speedily reached Ferdinand and Isabella, before the admiral arrived in Spain, and they did not wait for Columbus before asserting their claims before Pope Alexander VI. Meanwhile, Columbus arrived at Palos de la Frontera on March 15 and continued on to Seville, where he arrived two weeks later. There he received orders from Ferdinand and Isabella to meet them in Barcelona and did so in late April. By that time, the monarchs’ negotiations with the Papacy were already bearing the desired fruit.

Alexander VI was, in fact, inclined by nationality and geopolitical concerns to favor the Spaniards’ cause, since Alexander was a Valencian by birth. Furthermore, Ferdinand’s armies helped protect the papal states from attack by the French under King Charles VIII. Alexander could not afford to defy the Spanish king and queen, and he did not. On May 17, a papal bull entitled Inter Caetera Inter Caetera (Alexander VI, April, 1493) reached Spain. It was drawn up in mid-April, although it is customarily dated May 3, 1493. Alexander imposed responsibilities on the Spanish monarchs because of their discoveries.

Your duty, to lead the peoples dwelling in those islands to embrace the Christian profession; nor at any time let dangers or hardships deter you therefrom, with the stout hope and trust in your hearts and Almighty God will further your undertakings.

He then continued to reward them with title to the discovered lands.

Do by tenor of these presents give, grant, and assign forever to you and your heirs and successors, kings and queens of Castile and Leon, all and singular the aforesaid countries and islands thus unknown and hitherto discovered by your envoys and to be discovered hereafter, provided however they at no time have been in the actual temporal possession of any Christian owner.

The bull also recognized Portugal’s African claims.

Alexander VI soon issued three additional bulls, which attempted to clarify his territorial concessions to Ferdinand and Isabella, despite objections by the Portuguese. Eximiae Devotionis Eximiae Devotionis (Alexander VI) (May 3, 1493) reiterated the decisions of the first bull and explicitly gave the Spanish crown the same rights over its new discoveries that Portugal enjoyed in Guinea. Inter Caetera Inter Caetera (Alexander VI, May, 1493) went further, drawing a line north to south to separate Portuguese and Spanish spheres of exploration and colonization. It decreed that the line of demarcation lay 100 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. Spain received the exclusive right to trade west of the line and to occupy lands there. Only territories occupied by other Christian powers prior to Christmas of 1492 were excepted. Angry at Alexander’s favoritism to the Spanish, John II began gathering a fleet for the purpose of taking Columbus’s discoveries. Nonetheless, he also tried to negotiate with the Spanish monarchs. They responded by soliciting another bull, Dudum Siquidem Dudum Siquidem (Alexander VI) (September 26, 1493). It confirmed Alexander’s previous concessions to the Spaniards and gave them jurisdiction over all western discoveries, even extending to India. The bull denied John’s claims to any lands Portugal did not already hold.

Alexander’s mediation between the Spanish and Portuguese failed, in large part because of his obvious partiality to the former. Representatives of the monarchs met in Tordesillas and began direct negotiations, which resulted in the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed June 7, 1494. Both parties achieved their aims in part. The Portuguese, for example, believed the line of demarcation lay too close to the Azores and would limit their exploration in the south Atlantic. Their diplomats successfully insisted that it be moved to a point 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The Spanish diplomats accepted this proposal, and in compensation the Portuguese recognized Spain’s claims to the islands Columbus had discovered. The treaty further stipulated that within ten months the two parties should send ships west from the Cape Verde Islands to establish the precise location of the line.

Neither monarchy immediately sent ships and experts to establish the precise location of the line. Furthermore, to measure from the Cape Verde Islands was too vague, as those islands ran nearly three degrees in longitude. Nor was their agreement among geographers and cartographers as to the circumference of the earth or the length of a degree. In 1500, the Portuguese discovered the “hump” of Brazil, which clearly lay on their side of the line. The Treaty of Tordesillas thus supported Portugal’s claim to its only American colony. Two years later, the “Cantino” map based on Portuguese geographic information clearly depicted the line of demarcation. During the next half century, several geographers proposed locations for the line, generally placing it east of the mouth of the Amazon River. Only after Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage did Spain and Portugal try to settle the line’s location on the opposite side of the globe. A treaty signed at Zaragoza on April 22, 1529, placed the line 297 leagues east of the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. Spain thereby surrendered its claims to the Spice Islands, although it later conquered and colonized the Philippines Philippines;colonization of , which lay on the Portuguese side of the line.


Besides mediating territorial tensions between Spain and Portugal, the papal bulls and Treaty of Tordesillas provided Spaniards with what they deemed to be sovereignty over Spanish America and the indigenous inhabitants of those lands. Ferdinand and Isabella clearly assumed that Alexander’s donation gave them clear title to the lands and made the indigenous peoples their subjects and vassals. The Laws of Burgos (1512) and the Requirement (1513) based Spanish rule of the Americas on the papal donation. Even Spaniards who championed indigenous rights, such as Bartolomé de Las Casas, believed the title was legitimate. Colonization;Spain of the Americas

More controversial, however, was the question of whether sovereignty obligated Spain to spread Christianity to the New World and whether it also conferred upon Spaniards the right to conquer the indigenous peoples, demand tribute and labor from them, or even enslave them. The papal donation and Treaty of Tordesillas unfortunately provided a cover for conquest and exploitation in the Americas.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davenport, Frances Gardiner, ed. European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and Its Dependencies. Vol. 1. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1967. Contains the papal bulls conceded to Portugal, those made by Alexander VI, and the treaties between Spain and Portugal. All are presented in the original language with English translations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dickason, Olive Patricia. “Old World Law, New World Peoples, and Concepts of Sovereignty.” In Essays on the History of North American Discovery and Exploration. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988. Traces the development of medieval European legal ideas about territorial sovereignty and how those concepts affected conquest and colonization of the New World.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hanke, Lewis. The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965. Studies the debates between Spanish legalists and humanitarians over whether Alexander VI’s donation gave Spain power to conquer indigenous peoples and forcibly convert them to Christianity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harley, J. B. Maps and the Columbian Encounter. Milwaukee: Golda Meir Library of the University of Wisconsin, 1990. Discusses the European understanding of overseas exploration and settlement and examines the “Cantino” map of 1502.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kamen, Henry. Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Surveys the roles played by Ferdinand and Isabella in the fashioning of Spain’s global empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parry, J. H. The Age of Reconnaissance. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. A classic survey of European overseas expansion from 1450 to 1650 that places the Treaty of Tordesillas in historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell-Wood, A. J. R. Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: A World on the Move. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. A history of the expansion of the Portuguese empire, with particular attention to the individuals involved in the voyages that culminated in a Portuguese presence in the four corners of the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003. A decidedly conservative and Eurocentric history of Spanish colonialism during Ferdinand and Isabella’s rule.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

1500-1530’s: Portugal Begins to Colonize Brazil

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

1537: Pope Paul III Declares Rights of New World Peoples

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

1552: Las Casas Publishes The Tears of the Indians

1565: Spain Seizes the Philippines

Categories: History