The Great Discoveries are a succession of trips during the XVth century having the appearance of a competition between the Spanish and the Portuguese.
In both countries, the goal to achieve, the Indies, is the same whereas the chosen routes differ depending on the kings, on the sailors ‘determinations and on the results of the first expeditions. The Portuguese were the first ones to start the discoveries with the aim of reaching the Indies navigating to the east, to get spices and other luxurious merchandises that Europe needed and whose terrestrial road was shut down after the fall of Constantinople and the Mediterranean Sea was occupied by the Turkish. To all those reasons, we can also add scientific curiosity as well as politic and religious purposes. We will see that the Great Discoveries were the scene of many rivalries between the Spanish and the Portuguese. First, we will observe that the Great Discoveries started because the Spanish wanted to jeopardize the Atlantic monopoly of the Portuguese, then we will focus on the juridical battles caused by Christopher Columbus’ trips. Finally, we will see Magellan’s expedition.
The Portuguese set off to the Indies by avoiding Africa: indeed, according to Ptolemy’s theories that significantly underestimated the dimensions of the African continent, they thought that the journey would be easier and shorter. After diverse geographical discoveries, in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias had already gone through the Cape of Good Hope, outstripping the Spanish. That is because, while Portugal was peaceful and was enjoying social and economic stability during the XVth century, the kingdom of Castile was involved in a tough dynastic war and hadn’t finished La Reconquista yet. The war aiming to determine who will succeed to Henri IV, between his sister Isabelle or his daughter Jeanne, was aggravated by an international conflict in which took part Portugal that was supporting Jeanne. These circumstances enabled Isabelle to attack the Portuguese monopoly over the Atlantic Ocean. However, her attempts to dismantle the business with Guinea were hampered by the Portuguese resistance.
With the Alcacovas treaty (1479-1480) that ended the war, spheres of influence were determined: at the north of the parallel of the Canary Islands for the kingdom of Castile and at the South for Portugal. For some reasons mentioned above, Castile couldn’t focus its efforts on the Atlantic expansion at the same time as Portugal but the projects of conquest and of colonisation were familiar to them. Even if the conquest of the Canary Islands was undertaken in 1402 by some nobles from Sevilla, the Catholic Kings were the first ones to bear the burden of conquering the three missing islands (Grand Canary in 1480, La Palma in 1492 and Tenerife in 1496) to face the Portuguese threat. Thus, the archipelago became the first stopover of the ships bound for America thanks to its amazing strategic position.
For their part, the Portuguese improved the caravel, a certain type of ship that, because of its structure, was more adapted to this new way of navigating. They also used new systems of navigation in high seas like celestial navigation that differs from dead reckoning navigation used in the Mediterranean Sea. As we can see, the Great discoveries have been undertaken by the Castilian Crown to jeopardize and surpass the Portugal’s power. As we will see in the next part, this competition is going to increase and will not always be fair as the Spanish will be helped by the Pope.As the oriental route was closed, the kingdom of Castile had to look for a different route from the one of the Portuguese. Christopher Columbus was the one that suggested the western route and who followed it 1492.
It was a geographical conception that was commonly accepted and based on the fact that the Earth is round. However, it had no immediate practical consequences as the prejudice of the impossibility of sailing west was strong. Columbus ‘discoveries caused a political conflict with Portugal because Jean II estimated that this expedition had violated its sphere of influence determined by the Alcacovas treaty and he complained to the Spanish court and to the pope. However, the Catholic Kings managed to make the Pope Alexander III issue a series of Bull in their favour in 1493. Indeed, the bull inter caetera granted them the ownership of every discoveries situated in the western hemisphere that wasn’t the responsibility of another catholic king and established the Meridian as the demarcation line at 100 leagues away from the west of the Cape Verde, which is in contradiction with the Alcacovas treaty according to which Portugal owned all the lands situated in the South of the parallel of the Canary Islands. The bull issued in September of the same year, Dudum siquidem granted the Castilian Crown the lands and the islands in the south, in the east and in the west of the Indies, cancelling then the Portuguese prerogative.
Consequently, the kingdom of Castile could discover what Portugal had not discovered nor occupied yet by using the western route. The rivalry between the Castilian and the Portuguese was once again resolved in favour of the Castilian. The Portuguese counterattacked by complaining that the distance of 100 leagues was too narrow and didn’t enable them to enjoy the trade winds and the ocean currents. This resulted in the signature of the Tordesillas Treaty on June 7th1494 which established that the dividing line from one pole to another was shift west at 370 leagues of the Cape Verde. This treaty gave satisfaction to both kingdoms and enabled the Castilian expansion to start. In this part, we have seen the first big fight between Castile and Portugal.
This competition wasn’t fair as the Castilian Crown was helped by the Pope and managed to issue both treaties in their favour. The second part of the Spanish discoveries lasted from 1504 to 1513 when the idea of a fourth continent started to come into the minds, as Vespucci’s trip for the Portuguese has suggested. Geographically speaking, the objective of the new expeditions was to look for a passage that could reach the Indies. The third part of the expeditions lasted from 1514 to 1523. It began with the discovery of the South Sea and of lands by Nunez de Balboa in 1513. Balboa thought that the land he could see in the south of the Isthmus of Panama was a peninsula where would be situated the passage to the Indies.
This breakthrough supposed a change in the plans of the Castilian Crown because they invalidated, in this region, the idea of a passage to the Moluccas that the Portuguese had reached in 1511. Therefore, in 1515, the journey to El Maluco of Juan Diaz de Solis was organised but it was a big failure. A new expedition took place in 1519 in order to look for the strait more in the south of the continent. It was directed by the Portuguese Magellan who managed to cross the strait named after him and the Pacific Ocean to join the Moluccas ten years after the Portuguese. Despite many difficulties and after Magellan’s death, only one ship over five, la Victoria, reached Seville in 1522, being the first one to have realised a circumnavigation of the globe. The last part of the expeditions lasted from 1524 to 1530. The success of la Victoria rekindled conflict and tensions between Spain and Portugal that were supposed to be solved by the Tordesillas Treaty.
The political and geographical difficulties, caused by the technical impossibility of delineating the Meridian that would have enabled to attribute the archipelago to one of the two nations, required a redoubling effort to find a passage in the north of the continent. This led to the entire discovery of the Atlantic coast of North America. To reach a political agreement, a series of meetings was organized at Elvas and Badajoz, that led to tough negotiations and to an open war in the East Asian Seas. Finally, in 1529, under the treaty of Saragossa, the Moluccas were attributed to Portugal, because they were in the sphere of influence, and Spain received a financial compensation of 350 thousand ducats. To conclude, we can observe that the Great Discoveries have engendered many geopolitical conflicts and Spain and Portugal became big competitors in their expeditions. To my mind, this conflict wasn’t fair as the Castilian Crown had a lot of support coming from the Pope. This competition resulted in two main treaties, the Tordesillas Treaty in 1494 and the Saragossa Treaty in 1529 that gave a pacific conclusion to the rivalry between the two kingdoms.
From then on, both Portugal and Spain set up in the lands they had just conquered and that they will colonise after: Portugal in Asia and Brazil and Spain in America and the Philippines.