Post-classical history








“Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith . . .

Christopher Columbus . . . with divine aid and with the utmost diligence sailing in the ocean sea, discovered certain very remote islands and even mainlands that hitherto had not been discovered by others; wherein dwell very many peoples living in peace, and, as reported, going unclothed, and not eating flesh . . .

We . . . give, grant and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever . . . all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole, namely the north, to the Antarctic pole, namely the south . . . And we make, appoint, and depute you and your said heirs and successors lords of them with full and free power, authority, and jurisdiction of every kind.”

POPE ALEXANDER VI, Inter Caetera, May 4, 1493

“THIS PAPAL Bull has been, and continues to be, devastating to our religions, our cultures, and the survival of our populations,” claimed the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, an international organization intended to “cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities.” It issued the claim in 1994 in support of the U.S.-based Indigenous Law Institute’s campaign to have the Vatican formally revoke the bull Inter Caetera. The institute’s on-line petition, signed by about nine hundred people, is equally strong in its language and passionate in its convictions. The preamble states, “We recognize that this initiative would be a spiritually significant step towards creating a new way of life, and a step away from the greed and subjugation in a history that has oppressed, exploited and destroyed countless numbers of Indigenous Peoples throughout the world.” The Vatican responded to some of these requests and assertions in 2010, during the ninth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, but its response was evasive and indefinite.

What explains this interest in a five-century-old document issued by the head of one of the world’s major religions? Who has even heard of Inter Caetera, and why does it have any relevance today?

A papal bull is a form of decree or command or proclamation issued by the pope. It is named after the special leaden seal (the bulla) that was used to establish its authenticity. Originally a bull was used for any type of public announcement, but by the fifteenth century it was reserved for more formal or solemn communications, such as excommunications, dispensations and canonizations. Examples of historic papal bulls include Ad Exstirpanda in 1252, allowing for the torture of heretics by the medieval inquisition; Decet Romanum Pontificem in 1521, excommunicating Martin Luther; and Inter Gravissimas in 1582, recognizing and sanctioning badly needed calendar reform.

The bull Inter Caetera and several other bulls from the same era form the basis of the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal. The treaty was, among other things, a catalyst in the development of the modern concept of the freedom of the seas—the unhindered use of the world’s waterways for trade and travel. Other legal concepts that inform the modern international law of the sea also stem indirectly from the Treaty of Tordesillas: the right of innocent passage, the definitions of territorial waters, internal waters, a nation’s exclusive economic zone and the definition of the continental shelf. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force as a binding international convention on November 16, 1994, owes its origin to the conflict and debates in the centuries following the Treaty of Tordesillas. Although not every signatory country has ratified the convention, only twenty of the world’s countries have refused to recognize or sign it, and it is the closest the international community will likely ever come to consensus on governing an enormous part of the natural world that is common to nearly all. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is the culmination of a legal and philosophical process that began in the late fifteenth century, when Portuguese mariners discovered a sea route to India and the Spice Islands by sailing around Africa, and Columbus first crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

When Columbus returned to Spain in 1493 after a seven-month voyage, Spanish society was transfixed by his tales of primitive peoples inhabiting islands far to the west. Spaniards were particularly interested in the golden ornaments and jewellery worn by the kidnapped “Indians” of Cuba and Hispaniola. Gold meant wealth and power. There was, however, a complication. Columbus’s successful return infuriated King João II of Portugal, who claimed that a series of papal decrees clearly intended that any new trade routes to heathen lands belonged to him alone. The king soon began outfitting a fleet to cross the ocean and claim the “Indies” for Portugal. With war imminent, the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella sent an official envoy to the papal court in Rome to argue their case.

Pope Alexander VI, also head of the notorious Borgia clan, issued the first Inter Caetera, which proclaimed “by the authority of the Almighty God” that Ferdinand and Isabella and their heirs in perpetuity were to have the exclusive right to travel in, trade with and colonize Columbus’s new-found lands. The bull forbade “all persons, no matter what rank, estate, degree, order or condition to dare, without your special permission to go for the sake of trade or any other reason whatever, to the said islands and countries after they have been discovered and found by your envoys or persons sent out for that purpose.” With the stroke of a pen, the pope created an imaginary line dividing the world on a north-south axis in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. All territory east of the line of demarcation was to be Portuguese, and all territory to the west was to be the sole domain of Spain. The punishment for violating the papal proclamation was excommunication.

Spain and Portugal affirmed the papal decrees of the Inter Caetera in the treaty signed in the Spanish town of Tordesillas in June 1494 . But they moved the line of demarcation between the Spanish and Portuguese zones of influence several hundred miles farther west. This placed an as-yet-undiscovered Brazil in the Portuguese half of the world, as well as protected Portugal’s African trade route from any European competition. The world was now officially divided. Although it was initially believed that Columbus had discovered the eastern extremity of Asia, it soon became apparent that the world was much larger than supposed, and that the pope had given to Spain and Portugal far more territory than anyone could have imagined.

The official reason for the Inter Caetera was to prevent war between the two most powerful Christian nations of the era and to reward them for their crusading work. The treaty of 1494, though initially successful in preserving the peace, eventually backfired and had far-reaching implications, beyond anything imagined by Alexander VI. It was to have a profound influence on world history, steering European nations on a collision course and insidiously emerging as the central grievance that stimulated nearly two centuries of espionage, piracy, smuggling and warfare. By the mid-sixteenth century, the line of demarcation had propelled Spain and Portugal to global superpower status. Prior to the Reformation, few in Europe dared to fully and openly challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, Portugal quickly grew rich from the monopoly on the eastern trade route to India and the Spice Islands, or “Spiceries.” Spain, unopposed in the Americas, was given free rein to conquer the rich cultures of the Aztec, Mayan and Inca Empires and to begin shipping vast cargoes of gold and silver bullion back across the Atlantic.

If England, France and the Dutch Republic had accepted the pope’s authority to manipulate the commercial activities of nations and determine the fate of empires, the history of exploration, commerce and colonization would have involved only Spain and Portugal. But during the sixteenth century, Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the world for the first time to settle the dispute over where the line of demarcation ran on the far side of the world; English privateers, inspired by the legendary mariner Francis Drake, preyed on Spanish shipping in the Caribbean and the Pacific; and the Dutch Republic fought Spain and Portugal both for independence and for control over the global spice trade.

Just as technology and knowledge were about to open the waterways of the world after Columbus’s heroic voyage, the Treaty of Tordesillas sought to restrict access to two favoured nations. It began the epic struggle for the freedom of the seas: would global travel and commerce be controlled by autocratic decree, or would seas be open to the ships of any nation?

Freedom of the seas was a distinctly modern notion, championed in the early seventeenth century by the Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius. In 1608, the twenty-five-year-old Grotius published a tract entitled Mare Liberum, “The Free Sea.” Addressed to the “rulers of the free and independent nations of the Christian world,” it laid out the legal argument disputing the right of Portugal and Spain to claim sole ownership of the world’s waterways. So long as the treaty had legitimacy, Grotius argued, the oceans of the world would be scenes of endless conflict.

Originally conceived and written as justification for a Dutch privateer’s assault on a Portuguese merchant ship in the East Indies, Grotius’s powerful arguments laid to rest the tired justifications of the Treaty of Tordesillas and the papal proclamation from which it derived its moral and legal legitimacy. Grotius propounded that the freedom of the seas was at the heart of communication; that no nation could monopolize control over the seas because of their vast size and ever-changing limits and composition. Although other thinkers soon waded into the discussion with diverging opinions and refinements to Grotius’s concept of extreme universality, the debate he sparked sounded the death knell for the concept of the closed sea. His arguments have since become the foundation for modern international and maritime law.

Occasionally, decisions and events that appear unimportant in their time have a profound and unintended influence on the course of world history. This was the case for the Treaty of Tordesillas. Despite the involvement of famous kings, princes and the pope, the origins of the treaty were a prosaic set of events entirely at odds with its impact on global political, geographical, commercial and legal history. The story that spans centuries begins with the striving ambition, greed and tribal-like alliances between Christopher Columbus, his two sets of rival patrons—King João II of Portugal and the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile and Aragon—and the Spanish Pope Alexander VI. Pride, passion, enmity and petty quarrels between this privileged and powerful clique, stimulated and enflamed by Columbus’s hubris, led to a simmering, centuries-long global conflict that stemmed from the pope dividing the world in half in 1494.

At the heart of the greatest diplomatic and political agreement of the last five centuries were the relationships and passions of a handful of powerful individuals, linked by mutual animosity and personal obligations, quarrels, rivalries and hatreds that were decades old. Yet, ultimately they revolved around a young woman’s stubborn determination to choose her own husband.



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