In 1494, representatives of the crowns of Portugal and Spain met to divide the world between them. At the Treaty of Tordesillas, Portugal was given everything west of a meridian running between the Cape Verde islands in the mid-Atlantic and the new lands which Columbus had discovered. The other, the eastern, side of the world was subsequently divided through the Treaty of Zaragoza, 1529, along a meridian which mirrored the one agreed on in Tordesillas. On both occasions the Pope in Rome was involved. It was God who had given the world to mankind, after all, and only his representative on earth had the authority to approve of a division of it. The treaty is a one of the first examples of how a science invented in Europe – cartography – could be used as a means of controlling the world.

From now on what amounted to the center of the world belonged to Portugal and the peripheries belonged to Spain. Thus Africa, the Indian Ocean and Brazil fell to the Portuguese, whereas Spain received the remainder of the Americas but also, for example, the Philippines. This is why people to this day speak Portuguese in Brazil but Spanish in Mexico and Peru. Spain and Portugal respected this agreement fairly conscientiously despite the fact that it was based on maps which were less than perfect. However, other European countries never did. When the Dutch Republic and England took over much of world trade in the seventeenth-century, the Treaty of Tordesillas became irrelevant. In the twentieth-century the Treaty of Tordesillas was invoked by Chile to support its claims to a chunk of the Antarctic, and by Argentina as a part of its claim to the Falkland islands, the Islas Malvinas, in the south Atlantic.

The Treaty of Tordesillas was only the first time that European powers met to divide the world between them in an orderly and civilized fashion. In the nineteenth-century Africa and China were divided in much the same way. [Read more:The Berlin Conference“] At the end of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union met to determine each other’s respective “spheres of influence.” On none of these occasions were the people who were divided asked for their opinion.

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