Treaty of Tordesillas: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the non-Christian world between the Spanish (Americas) and the Portuguese (Africa and India) at a time when they were the most powerful kingdoms in the world.

Treaty of Tordesillas Definition and Background

The Treaty of Tordesillas was made to settle a dispute between Spain and Portugal before the two nations went to war. You see, during the fifteenth century, those two were competing to get the wealth of India's spices. Portugal was trying to get to India by going around Africa. Spain followed Christopher Columbus, who said that since the Earth was a sphere, they could get to the east by going west. Columbus made his way to the Americas before Portugal could get to India and claimed it all in the name of Spain.

A Sticky Situation

Things would have looked bad for Portugal, but she had protected herself with the Alcacovas Treaty (1479) and the Papal Bull (a degree made by the Pope) Aeterni regis (1481), both of which said that any non-Catholic land south of the Canary Islands was Portuguese. So, when the Portuguese king, John II, found out about Columbus' discoveries in the Caribbean in 1493, he remembered the treaty and claimed them for his people.

Which left Spain in trouble. The Spanish couldn't compete with the Portuguese Navy, which was the greatest in the world at the time. But Pope Alexander VI was Spanish and sympathetic to King Ferdinand of Spain. In the Papal Bull Inter caetera (1493) he declared that all lands south and east of the Azores or Cape Verde were Spain's. In the Papal Bull Dudum siquedem, he specifically included India as Spanish.

A Peaceful Solution

King John II couldn't allow the Papal orders to stand, though, so he started his own talks with the Spanish. The result was The Treaty of Tordesillas, an agreement that moved the Inter caetera line 270 leagues west. It was ratified by Pope Julius II in 1506.

The boundaries laid down by the Treaty of Tordesillas
The Treaty of Tordesillas


Spain got lucky. Portugal received basically all of Central and South America when Columbus had discovered it because of the Alcacovas Treaty. Ferdinand had been lucky that a Spanish Pope was in power, lucky that Alexander VI had made such a lopsided Papal Bull (in terms of the amount of land each country got), and lucky that Portugal had accepted it and negotiated from there.

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