Columbus Letter On The First Voyage - History of The Letter - Settling The Claims

Settling The Claims

Christopher Columbus was probably correct to send the letter from Lisbon, for shortly after, King John II of Portugal indeed began to outfit a fleet to seize the discovered islands for the Kingdom of Portugal. The Portuguese king suspected (rightly, as it turns out) that the islands discovered by Columbus lay below the latitude line of the Canary Islands (approx. 27°50'), the boundary set by the 1479 Treaty of Alcáçovas as the area of Portuguese exclusivity (confirmed by the papal bull Aeterni regis of 1481).

Urgent reports on the Portuguese preparations were dispatched to the Spanish court by the Duke of Medina-Sidonia. Ferdinand II dispatched his own emissary, Lope de Herrera, to Lisbon to request the Portuguese to immediately suspend any expeditions to the west Indies until the determination of the location of those islands was settled (and if polite words failed, to threaten). Even before Herrera arrived John II had sent his own emissary, Ruy de Sande, to the Spanish court, reminding the Spanish monarchs that their sailors were not allowed to sail below Canaries latitude, and suggesting all expeditions to the west be suspended. Columbus, of course, was in the middle of preparing for his second journey.

Pope Alexander VI (an Aragonese national and friend of Ferdinand II) was brought into the fray to settle the rights to the islands and determine the limits of the competing claims. His first bull on the matter, Inter caetera, dated May 3, 1493, was indecisive. The pope assigned the Crown of Castile "all lands discovered by their envoys" (i.e. Columbus), so long as they are not possessed by any Christian owner (which Columbus' letter confirmed). On the other hand, the Pope also safeguarded the Portuguese claims by confirming their prior treaties and bulls ("no right conferred on any Christian prince is hereby understood as withdrawn or to be withdrawn"). Thus, on his first shot, the pope effectively left the matter unsettled until the determination of the islands' actual geographic location. (Note: although most of the negotiations were masterminded by Ferdinand II of Aragon, who took a personal interest in the second voyage, the actual official claim of title on the islands belonged to his wife, Queen Isabella I of Castile. The rights, treaties and bulls pertain only to the Crown of Castile and Castilian subjects, and not to the Crown of Aragon or Aragonese subjects)

It was apparently soon realized that the islands probably lay below the latitude boundary, as only a little while later, Pope Alexander VI issued a second bull Eximiae devotionis (officially dated also May 3, but written c. July 1493), that tried to fix this problem by stealthily suggesting the Portuguese treaty applied to "Africa", and conspicuously omitting mention of the Indies. On his third attempt, in another bull also called Inter caetara, written in the summer and backdated to May 4, 1493. The Pope once again confirmed the Spanish claim on the Indies more explicitly with a longitude line of demarcation granting all lands 100 leagues west of Cape Verde (not merely those discovered by "her envoys") as the exclusive dominion of the Crown of Castile (with no explicit safeguards for prior Portuguese treaties or grants). (there is some confusion whether Eximiae devotionis preceded or followed the second Inter caetera; it is commonly supposed that the first Inter caetara ("May 3") was drafted in April and received in Spain on May 17, the second Inter caetera ("May 4") drafted in June, and received in Spain by July 19 (a copy was forwarded to Columbus in early August); while Eximiae diviones ("May 3") is normally assumed written sometime in July. In official time, Eximiae precedes the second Inter caetara, but in actual time may have actually followed it.)

It is uncertain exactly how the printed editions of the Columbus letter influenced this process. The letter reports the islands are located at 26°N which falls just below the Canary latitude, so the letter worked almost in Portugal's favor, and forced the pope into the geographical contortions of confirming Spanish possession without violating prior treaties. However, the increasing strength of the bulls over the summer, when the letter's circulation was at its height, suggests the Spanish case was ultimately helped rather than hurt by the letter. Minutiae over latitude degrees paled in insignificance with the excitement of the new discoveries revealed in the letters. While the Portuguese tried to paint Columbus as merely just another Spanish interloper, little more than a smuggler, illegally trying to trade in their waters, the letters presented him as a great discoverer of new lands and new peoples. The prospect of new souls ready to be converted, emphasized in the letters, and a Spanish crown eager to undertake the expense of that effort, must have swayed more than a few opinions.

Frustrated by the pope, John II decided to deal with Spanish directly. The Portuguese envoys Pero Diaz and Ruy de Pina arrived in Barcelona in August, and requested that all expeditions be suspended until the geographical location of the islands was determined. Eager for a fait acompli, Ferdinand II played for time, hoping he could get Columbus out on his second voyage to the Indies before any suspensions were agreed to. As the king wrote Columbus (September 5, 1493), the Portuguese envoys had no clue where the islands were actually located ("no vienen informados de lo que es nuestro").

On September 24, 1493, Christopher Columbus departed on his second voyage to the west Indies, with a massive new fleet. The Pope chimed in with yet another bull on the matter, Dudum siquidum, written in December but officially backdated September 26, 1493, where he went further than before, and gave Spain claim over any and all lands discovered by her envoys sailing west, whatever hemisphere those lands happened to be. Dudum Siquidum had been issued with second voyage in mind - should Columbus indeed reach China or India or even Africa on this trip, the lands discovered would come under Spanish exclusive sphere.

Subsequent negotiations between the crowns of Portugal and Spain proceeded in Columbus' absence. They culminated in the famous Treaty of Tordesillas partitioning the globe between Spanish and Portuguese spheres of exclusivity at a longitude line 370 leagues west of Cape Verde (about 46°30' W). On the day the treaty was signed, June 7, 1494, Columbus was sailing along the southern shore of Cuba, prodding fruitlessly at that lengthy coast. On June 12, Columbus famously gathered his crew on Evangelista island (what is now Isla de la Juventud), and had them all swear an oath, before a notary, that Cuba was not an island but indeed the mainland of Asia and that China could be reached overland from there.

Read more about this topic:  Columbus Letter On The First Voyage, History of The Letter

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