The line that divided the world

12th November 2015

Treaty of Tordesillas

Green – Spanish Colonies
Blue – Portuguese Colonies
(Not to scale)

Star Clippers tall ships operate nostalgic cruise itineraries to some of the most stunning regions in the world including the Mediterranean and Caribbean. Occasionally, Star Clippers also operate transatlantic sailings that provide passengers with the chance to relive a traditional era of sailing.The theme for this week’s blog is a line, devised by Pope Alexander VI in the 15th century, that shaped the world as know it today.

The 15th century saw many explorers attempt to break boundaries and venture into the unknown world. This period of exploration continued through to the 18th century and saw many intrepid sailors take to their vessels in the hope of making a new discovery. Overseas explorations by the Europeans led to the rise of empires and international trade. It has shaped the world as we know it today.

It was the Portuguese who, under the sponsorship of Prince Henry of Portugal, began exploring the Atlantic coast of Africa from 1418. 70 years later, Portuguese explorers managed to sail around the southern tip of Africa and reach the Indian Ocean. This was shortly followed by the Spanish monarchy’s decision to fund Christopher Columbus’ plan to sail across the Atlantic. He discovered Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), Cuba and an island in the Bahamas which he named San Salvador.

In a bid to prevent exploration conflict between Spain and Portugal, Pope Alexander VI drew a border across the Atlantic from north to south in 1494. It was known as the Treaty of Tordesillas and claimed that all newly discovered and as yet undiscovered islands were awarded to the Kingdom of Spain; whilst Portuguese monarchy was handed sovereignty over the Eastern hemisphere.

In the 16th century, a Portuguese explorer, Vasco de Gama, sailed in an easterly direction and discovered a route around Africa that eventually led to the spice islands of Asia (now part of Indonesia). Around the same time, the Spanish explorer, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, sailed westward to Central America and discovered the Pacific Ocean after traversing a difficult land route across the Isthmus of Panama.

You will also notice that Brazil falls east of the line and was discovered by Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral on April 22nd in 1500. Brazil became a colony of Portugal and it later expanded west along the Amazon River and south along the coast. Today, Brazil is one of only a few South American countries where Spanish is not the official language.

Ferdinand Magellan is one of the only explorers to be fortunate enough to have the opportunity to explore both the eastern and western hemispheres. The Portuguese explorer sailed to India in 1505 and took part in the conquest of Malacca (a vital island in the spice trade route, now part of Malaysia) in 1509. However, he later fell out with his superiors in India and returned to Portugal. He later endured a leg injury during a military campaign in Morocco and became crippled.

Subsequently, Magellan sought a new master and later sought the assistance of King Charles I of Spain. In 1517, the king obliged and a lengthy agreement was signed that meant the Portuguese explorer could only sail in the Spanish western half of the world. In 1519, he set sail with a fleet of five ships and 270 men in the hope of navigating a western route to the Spice Islands. After avoiding Brazil, a Portuguese territory, he avoided the treacherous route of Cape Horn and became the first explorer to successfully navigate the alternative path around South America known today as the Strait of Magellan.

After three years of sailing, only one of the five ships and 18 of the 270 men returned having completed the first circumnavigation of the world. Sadly, Magellan was killed following a lengthy battle in the Philippines according to Pigafetta, one of his crew members. If that wasn’t bad enough, the promises held by King Charles I of Spain were never carried out and Magellan was deemed a traitor by both Portugal and Spain.

Upon returning home, Pigafetta noted in his journal that he asked what day of the week it was and received the response “Thursday”. “It had surprised me, as to us it was Wednesday and I had carefully kept my diary every day.” Little did he know that by completing a westward sailing around the world, a whole day would be lost.


The tall ships of Star Clippers represent a bygone era of exploration and traditional sailing; although the world is far less treacherous place today than what it was during the Spanish and Portuguese colonisations. Instead, passengers can enjoy the elegance of sailing the seas and soak up the sun in glorious beach destinations in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, Caribbean, Cuba and Far East Asia.