At the Spanish court, smiles creased the faces of almost everyone except the Portuguese Ambassador as Pope Alexander's letter was read. "Alexander, bishop, servant of the servants of God, to the illustrious sovereigns, our very dear son in Christ, Ferdinand, king, and our very dear daughter in Christ, Isabella, Queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, and Granada..."
The letter (technically called a bull) drew a line between the colonies of Spain and Portugal. The pope declared that this would advance the cause of Christ. "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 itself...
"We have indeed learned that you, who for a long time had intended to seek out and discover certain islands and mainlands remote and unknown and not hitherto discovered by others, to the end that you might bring to the worship of our Redeemer and the profession of the Catholic faith their residents and inhabitants..."
Why was this extraordinary document written? In the fifteenth century, Portuguese sailors found their way around Africa to India. The little nation grew rich on trade in spices and other oriental products. Columbus persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella that the world was round and that India could be reached just as easily by sailing West. Spain soon found an empire in the West. In this way the two nations got the jump on the rest of Europe in exploring and colonizing the world and profiting on its rich resources. However, their claims soon clashed. Who could settle their differences?
Both nations were Catholic. Both considered the Pope the final authority. Popes had already decided questions of territorial conflict between them. Portugal and Spain accepted it when on this day, May 4, 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued his bull. A Spaniard himself, his ruling favored Spain.
The pope's line ran from the arctic pole to the Antarctic pole one-hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. Anything to the west of that line belonged to Spain. Anything to the east, belonged to Portugal. The exception was if any other Christian king or power already held lands within those areas by Christmas day, 1493.
Alexander has been harshly criticized for this bull. For instance, it treated the people of America and Asia as if their governments were of no account. Since he was one of the most wicked Renaissance popes, everything he did is viewed with suspicion. However, in this instance, he seems to have been honestly trying to keep the peace.
- Brusher, Joseph. Popes Through the Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1959.
- Davenport,Frances Gardiner. European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648. Washington, D.C Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1917 at http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/indig-inter-caetera.html
- De Rosa, Peter. Vicars of Christ; the dark side of the papacy. Crown, 1988.
- Loughlin, James F. "Pope Alexander VI" The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Montor, Artaud de. The Lives and Times of the Popes. New York: The Catholic publication society of America, 1910 - 11.