This is, perhaps, one of the most important collection of documents in human history. It consists of five papal bulls issued in 1481 and 1493 by the Popes Sixtus IV and Alexander VI partitioning the New World and the unknown areas of America between Castile and Portugal according to the rights of the two kingdoms. Three of those documents are held in the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, while one is in the General Archive of Simancas and another one in the Torre do Tombo National Archive in Lisbon.
These bulls are a fundamental source not only for the history of the modern world, but also for the study of international law in the early modern period, since they determined the navigations and colonization of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans during the next two centuries.
A Bull That Shaped the World
These papal bulls confirmed the territorial rights of the kingdoms of Portugal and Castile regarding the newly discovered lands after the first voyage of Columbus in 1492. The collection is formed by five leaves of parchment, each measuring 48 x 68 cm, with the following contents:
This papal bull was issued by Pope Sixtus IV on June 21st, 1481. It confirmed the agreements in the Treaty of Alcaçovas-Toledo signed on September 4th, 1479, according to which the Canary Islands were given to Castile, while the territorial acquisitions in Africa and eastward to the Indies were granted to Portugal. This bull, which is held in the Torre do Tombo National Archive in Lisbon, is the precedent of those issued by Pope Alexander VI to the Kings of Spain.
Inter caetera of May 3rd
Issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 3rd, 1493, this papal bull gave the Catholic Monarchs the rights over the newly discovered lands of the western Atlantic that did not belong to other Christian princes. It is signed by the Pope’s personal secretary Ludovicus Podocatharus, the Abbreviator G.B. de Ferraris, the scribe Bautista Capotius and the notary D. Serrano. The original document is held in the National Archives of the Indies in Seville.
Inter caetera of May 4th
This bull was issued one day later, i.e. on 4 May 1493. Although it is similar to the first one in some aspects, it contains some variants: it establishes a line of demarcation one hundred leagues west from the Azores and Cape Verde, granting the lands west of that line to the Kings of Castile, and those east of it to the King of Portugal. The original document is held in the Archive of the Indies in Seville.
This is a later papal bull, issued on September 26th, 1493 also by Alexander VI. It supplemented the Inter caetera bulls, and confirmed the sovereignty of the Catholic Monarchs over the lands and islands that would be discovered during the navigations in the western Atlantic Ocean. The original document, as well as a copy of it, are held in the Archives of the Indies in Seville.
A verbatim copy of the Inter caetera of May 4th
Verbatim copies of one of the Inter caetera were delivered to the Catholic Monarchs several times to prove their rights over the New World to third parties. One of these copies is held in the General Archive of Simancas.
The Bulls of Alexander VI: The Basis for a New World
On September 4th, 1479, the Catholic Monarchs of Castile and Aragon on one side, and King Afonso V of Portugal and his son the Prince John on the other, signed the Treaty of Alcaçovas. One of its agreements was to grant sovereignty over the Canary Islands and the Western Atlantic to Castile, while Portugal gained the African territories and those eastward to the Indies.
In 1492, as soon as the discovery of a new world by Columbus was known, the Kings of Castile needed to confirm their control over those newly discovered lands. Thus, they officially requested the concession of those lands from Pope Alexander VI.
The papal bulls issued by Alexander VI responding to that request were the basis for negotiation between Spain and Portugal with regard to the sovereignty of the New World, resulting in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 and the division of the New World between the two kingdoms. This means that the papal bulls of Pope Alexander VI shaped the structure of the modern world for the following centuries, and thus are some of the most important documents in modern history.