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May 4 Dividing the 'New World'

Updated: May 18, 2021

Today we remember how in 1493 Pope Alexander VI, in an age of exploration divided the 'New World' between Spain and Portugal. Giving the right to any discovered lands not already held by a Christian prince.

This was soon contested by other powers who would challenge the Pope's authority to do this particularly after the Reformation.


Pope Alexander VI from the Spanish Borgia family has left a controversial legacy for Church Historians, with his use of power and abuse of authority. Historians describe this as a low point of the papacy, as he is considered one of the most controversial of the Renaissance popes, partly because he acknowledged fathering several children by his mistresses. As a result, his Italianized Valencian surname, Borgia, became a byword for libertinism and nepotism as he shamelessly gave powers to family members whom he could trust. Prominent Italian families resented his power, which they sought for themselves. The debased state of the curia was a major scandal. Opponents, such as the Florentine friar Girolamo Savonarola, launched invectives against papal corruption and called for a general council to confront the abuses (see podcast of Feb 7th about his Bonfire of Vanities)

Spain was the emerging great power and about to enter its famous ‘Siglo de Oro’ (Golden Century) - a period of flourishing in arts and literature in Spain, coinciding with the political rise of the Spanish Empire under the Catholic Monarchs of Spain and the Habsburgs. It was also an age of great Spanish exploration, but before Christopher Columbus received support for his voyage from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, he had first approached King John II of Portugal. The king's scholars and navigators reviewed Columbus's documentation, determined that his calculations grossly underestimated the diameter of the Earth and thus the length of the voyage, and recommended against subsidizing the expedition. Columbus's arrival in supposedly Asiatic lands in the western Atlantic Ocean had threatened the unstable relations between Portugal and Spain. With word that King John was preparing a fleet to sail to the west, the King and Queen of Spain initiated diplomatic discussions over the rights to possess and govern the newly found lands. Columbus was still in Lisbon when he sent a report of his success to the Spanish monarchs. On 11 April, the Spanish ambassador conveyed the news to the Pope and urged him to issue a new bull favourable to Spain.

Today on the 4 May 1493, Pope Alexander drew up a line of demarcation between Spain and Portugal. Alexander issued the papal bull Inter caetera ('Among other [works]') , which granted to the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella all lands to the "west and south" of a pole-to-pole line. Pope Alexander divided the title between Spain and Portugal along a demarcation line. While these bulls purported to settle disputes between Spain and Portugal, they did not address the exploratory and colonial ambitions of other nations, which became more of an issue after the Protestant Reformation. The Spanish crown and conquistadors, interpreted it in the widest possible sense, deducing that it gave Spain full political sovereignty. Spain was eager to be on good terms with the papacy to obtain the title to the recently discovered New World. This became the basis of the Treaty of Tordesillas which was ratified by both countries.

At the time, Pope Alexander, as ruler of the Papal States, was embroiled in a territorial dispute with the King of Naples, and was amicable to any requests of Isabella and Ferdinand.

The ‘camera apostolica’ became almost an extension of the Spanish Court, which secured a rapid succession of bulls virtually liquidating Portuguese claims. Todays Bull, recognized Spain's claim to any discovered lands not already held by a Christian prince, and protected Portugal's previous rights. Both parties found this too vague. However the line of demarcation divided Atlantic zones only. Spain and Portugal could pass each other toward the west or east, respectively, on the other side of the globe and still possess whatever lands they were first to discover. The bull was silent regarding whether lands to the east of the line would belong to Portugal, which had only recently reached the southern tip of Africa and had not yet reached India, In response to Portugal's discovery of the Spice Islands in 1512, the Spanish put forward the idea, that Pope Alexander had divided the world into two halves. By this time, however, other European powers had overwhelmingly rejected the notion that the Pope had the right to convey sovereignty of regions as vast as the New World. In the 21st century, groups such as the Shawnee, Lenape, and Kanaka Maoli organised protests and raised petitions seeking to repeal the papal bull and to remind Catholic leaders of the devastating effect on their cultures


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