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Historical Background- The Treaty of Tordesillas

The Lord Almighty may part the Red Sea, but his representative on earth once had the political power and the will to part the globe. In 1494 an imaginary line divided the world between the rival maritime powers, Spain and Portugal. Known as the Pope's line, it lay along the eastern portion of South America, around both poles and across the undiscovered continent of Australia: roughly just east of where the state border of Western Australia now exists. The Treaty of Tordesillas ratified by the Pope vested all non-Christian lands discovered in one half of the globe to Portugal, and in the other half to Spain. It was not intended to confer any territorial rights over the oceans, although both countries were to use the treaty for that very purpose.

Ancient depiction of The Pope's Line

Portugal’s claim to the great prizes of India, Africa and her recently acquired Spice Islands was assured ─ as were Spain’s territories in the New World and America, which had been discovered only two years before by Christopher Columbus. Of these Spice Islands, the Moluccas, around the present- day eastern region of Indonesia, were considered to be of great wealth. However, because of the difficulty of accurately measuring longitude and hence the uncertainty of plotting the position of the line, both countries claimed the Moluccas as their own. They lay on the extreme western edge of the vast Pacific Ocean, not yet discovered but open, by decree of the Pope, to the Spanish.

Modern map of Pope's Line

The Treaty of Tordesillas expressly forbade either party to cross into the other’s zone, or risk jeopardising the entire treaty. Portugal, as the weaker military power of the two, stringently abided by this for 25 years. That is, until an unforeseen threat appeared from the east. The Portuguese soldier of fortune, Ferdinhand Magellan quarrelled with his king and consequently turned his back on his country of birth by commanding a Spanish expedition. Its mission was to cross the Pacific westwards from the Americas and claim the Moluccas. If he succeeded, the Portuguese route around Africa to India, and eastwards to the lucrative Spice Islands would no longer be the only passage. Spain would have the key to the eastern door, and much of Portugal’s hard-won discoveries and monopoly in the Moluccas, on the eastern fringe of the Spice Islands, could be disputed ─ particularly since the actual location of the demarcation meridian depended upon the dubious fixing techniques available in 1519. (The accurate determination of longitude whilst at sea would not be available for more than two and a half centuries.)

Ferdinhand Magellan c. 1480 – 27 April 1521

Magellan had to be stopped and this was the task that fell to the Portuguese military. History shows that they failed. But despite this failure one man commanding a small Portuguese flotilla was to complete a voyage of discovery to rival Columbus or even Magellan himself; that is the discovery and coasting of Eastern Australia 250 years prior to the celebrated voyage of Lieutenant James Cook R.N.

The eastern coast of Australia lay on the Spanish side of the meridian. The discovery could not be shared with anyone beyond the Portuguese court ─ to do so would have meant admitting to Portugal’s transgression of the treaty. Open war with Spain may have resulted. The Portuguese knowledge of the east coast of Australia thus remained a closely guarded secret, shared by a select few. Those few died and with them all knowledge faded, the historical records hidden, lost, and forgotten.


Taken from Prologue of Cross the Vatican Line: The search for the Mahogany Ship