Over the Edge of the WorldMagellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe
"He holds him with his skinny hand,
"There was a ship, " quoth he.
"Hold off !unhand me, grey-beard loon!"
"Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
On June 7, 1494, Pope Alexander VI divided the world in half, bestowing the western portion on Spain, and the eastern on Portugal.
Matters might have turned out differently if the pontiff had not been a Spaniard — Rodrigo de Borja, born near Valencia — but hewas. A lawyer by training, he assumed the Borgia name when hismaternal uncle, Alfonso Borgia, began his brief reign as Pope Callistus III. As his lineage suggests, Alexander VI was a rather secularpope, among the wealthiest and most ambitious men in Europe, fond of his many mistresses and his illegitimate offspring, andendowed with sufficient energy and ability to indulge his worldlypassions.
He brought the full weight of his authority to bear on theappeals of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the "Catholic Monarchs" of Spain who had instituted the Inquisition in 1492 to purgeSpain of Jews and Moors. They exerted considerable influence overthe papacy, and they had every reason to expect a sympathetic hearing in Rome. Ferdinand and Isabella wanted the pope's blessing toprotect the recent discoveries made by Christopher Columbus, theGenoese navigator who claimed a new world for Spain. Portugal, Spain's chief rival for control of world trade, threatened to assert itsown claim to the newly discovered lands, as did England and France.
Ferdinand and Isabella implored Pope Alexander VI to supportSpain's title to the New World. He responded by issuing papal bulls — solemn edicts — establishing a line of demarcation betweenSpanish and Portuguese territories around the globe. The line extended from the North Pole to the South Pole. It was located onehundred leagues (about four hundred miles) west of an obscurearchipelago known as the Cape Verde Islands, located in theAtlantic Ocean off the coast of North Africa. Antonio and Bartolomeo da Noli, Genoese navigators sailing for Portugal, had discovered them in 1460, and ever since, the islands had served as anoutpost in the Portuguese slave trade.
The papal bulls granted Spain exclusive rights to those parts ofthe globe that lay to the west of the line; the Portuguese, naturally, were supposed to keep to the east. And if either kingdom happenedto discover a land ruled by a Christian ruler, neither would be ableto claim it. Rather than settling disputes between Portugal and Spain, this arrangement touched off a furious race between the nations toclaim new lands and to control the world's trade routes even as theyattempted to shift the line of demarcation to favor one side or theother. The bickering over the line's location continued as diplomatsfrom both countries convened in the little town of Tordesillas, innorthwestern Spain, to work out a compromise.
In Tordesillas, the Spanish and Portuguese representatives agreedto abide by the idea of a papal division, which seemed to protect theinterests of both parties. At the same time, the Portuguese prevailedon the Spanish representatives to move the line 270 leagues west;now it lay 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, at approxi-mately 46°30'W, according to modern calculations. This changeplaced the boundary in the middle of the Atlantic, roughly halfwaybetween the Cape Verde Islands and the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The new boundary gave the Portuguese ample access tothe African continent by water and, even more important, allowedthe Portuguese to claim the newly discovered land of Brazil. But thedebate over the line — and the claims for empire that depended onits placement — dragged on for years. Pope Alexander VI died in1503, and he was succeeded by Pope Julius II, who in 1506 agreed tothe changes, and the Treaty of Tordesillas achieved its final form.
The result of endless compromises, the treaty created moreproblems than it solved. It was impossible to fix the line's locationbecause cosmologists did not yet know how to determine longitude — nor would they for another two hundred years. To furthercomplicate matters, the treaty failed to specify whether the line ofdemarcation extended all the way around the globe or bisected justthe Western Hemisphere. Finally, not much was known about thelocation of oceans and continents. Even if the world was round, andmen of science and learning agreed that it was, the maps of 1494depicted a very different planet from the one we know today. Theymixed geography with mythology, adding phantom continents whileneglecting real ones, and the result was an image of a world thatnever was. Until Copernicus, it was generally assumed that the earthwas at the absolute center of the universe, with the perfectly circular planets — including the sun — revolving around it in perfectlycircular, fixed orbits; it is best to conceive of the earth as nested inthe center of all these orbits.
Even the most sophisticated maps revealed the limitations of theera's cosmology. In the Age of Discovery, cosmology was a specialized, academicfield that concerned itself with describing the imageof the world, including the study of oceans and land, as well as theworld's place in the cosmos. Cosmologists occupied prestigiouschairs at universities, and were held in high regard by the thrones ofEurope. Although many were skilled mathematicians, they often concerned themselves with astrology, believed to be a legitimatebranch of astronomy, a practice that endeared them to insecurerulers in search of reassurance in an uncertain world. And it waschanging faster than cosmologists realized. Throughout the sixteenth century, the calculations and theories of the ancient Greekand Egyptian mathematicians and astronomers served as the basis ofcosmology, even as new discoveries undermined time-honoredassumptions. Rather than acknowledge that a true scientific revolution was at hand ...Continues...