The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas neatly divided the "New World" into land, resources, and people claimed by Spain and Portugal. The red vertical line cutting through eastern Brazil represents the divide. The treaty worked out well for the Spanish and Portuguese empires, but less so for the 50 million people already living in established communities in the Americas.

Map by Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, courtesy the Library of Congress

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    On June 7, 1494, the governments of Spain and Portugal agreed to the Treaty of Tordesillas, named for the city in Spain in which it was created. The Treaty of Tordesillas neatly divided the “New World” of the Americas between the two superpowers. 
    Spain and Portugal divided the New World by drawing a line in the Atlantic Ocean, about 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, then controlled by Portugal. All lands east of that line (about 46 degrees, 37 minutes West) were claimed by Portugal. All lands west of that line were claimed by Spain. 
    Spain and Portugal adhered to the treaty without major conflict, and the results linger throughout the Americas today. Most Latin American nations are Spanish-speaking countries, for instance, but Portuguese is the leading official language in Brazil. This is because the eastern tip of Brazil penetrates the line agreed to in the Treaty of Tordesillas, so the region was colonized by Portugal. 
    The treaty ignored any future claims of the British and French, the other European superpowers of the time. The British, French, and Russian empires did not claim parts of the Americas for years after the Treaty of Tordesillas.
    Most importantly, however, the Treaty of Tordesillas, completely ignored the millions of people already living in established communities in the Americas. The treaty stipulated that any lands with a “Christian king” would not be colonized. Christianity had not spread to the Americas, and the resulting colonization proved disastrous for indigenous cultures such as the Inca, Taino, Aztec, Tupi, and thousands of other bands throughout the Americas.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    adhere Verb

    to stick to or support.

    Christian Noun

    people and culture focused on the teachings of Jesus and his followers.

    colonize Verb

    to establish control of a foreign land and culture.

    custom Noun

    a way of doing things that has been handed down from one generation to the next.

    delta Noun

    the flat, low-lying plain that sometimes forms at the mouth of a river from deposits of sediments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: delta
    disastrous Adjective

    very bad.

    empire Noun

    group of nations, territories or other groups of people controlled by a single, more powerful authority.

    establish Verb

    to form or officially organize.

    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    ignore Verb

    to not notice or recognize.

    indigenous culture Noun

    languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods of people who are native to a specific geographic area.

    league Noun

    historical unit of distance equal to about 5.5 kilometers (3 miles).

    linger Verb

    to stay longer than anticipated.

    New World Noun

    the Western Hemisphere, made up of the Americas and their islands.

    official language Noun

    language adopted by the government of a nation or other political unit.

    penetrate Verb

    to push through.

    region Noun

    any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    stipulate Verb

    to make a specific condition as part of an agreement.

    superpower Noun

    extremely powerful nation or country.

    treaty Noun

    official agreement between groups of people.

    Treaty of Tordesillas Noun

    (1494) agreement between Spain and Portugal dividing the rights to colonize all lands outside of Europe.