Drawing a line down the middle of a car’s backseat has long been a tool of harried parents as a feeble means to keep the peace between scrappy children.
Surprisingly, the invisible line can work, at least until one sibling or the other begins to poke a toe over the line, beginning the battle anew.
Now imagine if those two squabbling siblings in the backseat were the royal houses of Spain and Portugal and instead of a backseat the invisible line meant to keep them from fighting separated Earth into two, with one half given to Portugal and the other to Spain. That is the scenario Pope Alexander VI – the horribly corrupt Rodrigo Borgia, the central figure in the TV series The Borgias – created with the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas.
Pope Alexander VI used the treaty and this invisible demarcation line located at 46 degrees west longitude to give Spain control of the New World, “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492, while Portugal received control of all undiscovered lands east of the line to keep the two most powerful nations in Europe from going to war.
The Treaty of Tordesillas is a story of unintended consequence that Canmore author and historian Stephen Bown, who is being recognized for his work during the Mayor’s Spotlight on the Arts Friday (Sept. 30,) at the Canmore Miners’ Union Hall, has chronicled in his latest book 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half.
“I love unintended consequences,” Bown told the Outlook. “I always look for that when I’m looking for new ideas, something that happened that was unexpected.”
Bown, whose previous books have chronicled topics such as scurvy, gunpowder and the story of George Vancouver, said the result of these decisions were usually beyond what was expected.
Instead, the Treaty of Tordesillas, while keeping the peace between two of Europe’s powerhouses, created a long list of unexpected consequences that influenced the lives of millions of people and the history of nations throughout the world.
Nearly every outcome in modern history has been influenced in some manner by this treaty. For example, the fact the treaty gave the Spanish the sole right to exploit the Americas led, of course, to the sad history of the conquistadors and the legacy of violence and disease inflicted on aboriginal people of the Americas.
“Surely (the treaty) has got to be the greatest diplomatic and political decision of all times,” Bown said.
And all of that, including the treaty, was set into motion in 1468 when Isabella, a stubborn 17-year-old princess of the Spanish kingdom Castile, married the man of her choice, Ferdinand, the 16-year-old prince of the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon, despite the plans of her half-brother, King Enrique.
Not only was Ferdinand young and vibrant, unlike Isabella’s suitor and step-uncle Afonso (the king of Portugal, who was more than twice her age), the marriage strengthened Isabella’s claim to the Castilian throne. Marrying King Afonso would have diminished her claim by removing her from the picture, allowing Enrique to pass the crown to his daughter, Juana.
Isabella’s decision created ripples that would lead to both civil war and war with Portugal, along with a long-lasting animosity between the two seafaring nations that threatened to explode when Columbus, sponsored by Isabella and Ferdinand, returned from the Americas flush with the thrill of discovery and samples of the many riches the new land offered.
Given the animosity, Portugal’s king, Joăo II claimed the New World for his own, a claim Isabella and Ferdinand disputed, appealing to Borgia to press their claim.
Borgia, as the final authority with the power to excommunicate kings, agreed with Isabella and Ferdinand and separated the world in two. It was a simple act for the pope to establish this treaty, but Bown said it was a powerful idea which, like communism, would change the world.
“Powerful ideas really drive culture and history, almost more powerful than any other thing you can imagine,” Bown said. “Look at the changes those ideas have on the world. The Spanish truly believed the Pope, the representative of God, gave them that half of the world. It belonged to them. They believed that and that is why they fought hundreds of wars. It was just a really powerful idea.”
Bown was led to the idea of writing a book about this powerful idea after encountering it in numerous sources, but always only in a paragraph or two. After wondering how the treaty came about, Bown said he found a back story like no other.
“When you look into it, there is an enormously interesting back story leading up to it with enormous implications for the history of the world too.
“But by doing that it gave the Spanish the foundation for their empire. They went on for decades without any interference from any other seafaring nations and built this enormous empire.”
Making history accessible for readers is a challenging and difficult goal, but once again, 1494 demonstrates Bown’s enviable talent for taking a complex storyline and expertly slimming it down – but not dumbing it down – while still finding a way to put the ‘story’ in ‘history’.
And from start to finish, 1494, with all of its unintended consequences, is a great story of how the Treaty of Tordesillas changed the world.
1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half, published by Douglas & McIntyre, is available for $35.