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Treaty of Tordesillas, or why Brazil speaks Portuguese

If, like me, you’ve ever wondered why Brazil is Portuguese-speaking and the rest of Latin America speaks Spanish, then you’ll be relieved to hear about a document signed in the Spanish town of Tordesillas way back in 1494.

The Treaty decreed that a meridian 370 leagues (1362 statute miles) West of the Cape Verde Islands would be the dividing line between the Spanish (who got everything to the West of this line) and Portuguese (who’d receive everything to the East) empires.  The Treaty superseded a Papal Bull which had placed the dividing line 100 leagues West of Cape Verde – a decision which angered Portugal greatly.

All the fuss had been brought about by Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas in 1492. Before then the ‘Old World’ had been divided between the two great empires on a North-South basis.

Despite the fact that very little of the land in question had actually been seen by Europeans, The Treaty of Tordesillas would have far-reaching impact on the colonization of South America: in a nutshell it resulted in the Portuguese colonizing Brazil and the Spanish laying claim to everything else.

The treaty had far-less impact in North America, Asia and Africa because when these lands were colonized Spain and Portugal were not as powerful, and other European empires were hardly likely to give much credence to a piece of paper which excluded them entirely.

Interestingly, the Treaty of Tordesillas has been invoked by both Chile and Argentina in the 20th Century: Chile used it to stake their claim to parts of Antarctica while Argentina claimed it asserted their ownership of the Falklands (Malvinas).

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