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When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans at the close of the Crusades in 1453, the overland trade routes to the East were closed to Europe. The closing of this door led to the opening of another - a sea route to the East. Portugal led the way in this formidable venture to chart a path through unfamiliar seas to the riches of the East. Just imagine setting out to travel an unknown distance across never-before-charted seas. By 1486, Portuguese explorers had probed down the west coast of Africa and rounded the tip at the Cape of Good Hope, so named because now there was a good hope of reaching the trading ports of India.

As we all know, Christopher Columbus convinced Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain that he could reach China in the East by sailing west. In 1492, Columbus indeed sailed west and discovered a route to the Caribbean Sea and, eventually, to those continents that separate the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans - North and South America.

By 1493, Isabella and Ferdinand were requesting that Pope Alexander VI, as head of the Christian World, establish a boundary to show what area belonged to them. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas settled the question as far as Spain and Portugal were concerned: an imaginary line was drawn along a meridian of longitude 250 leagues west of the Azores for discoveries before 1493 and 375 leagues west for later discoveries -- everything west of this line would belong to Spain, everything east of the line would fall to Portugal. Where did this treaty leave the other European countries? Out in the cold! They had absolutely no legal rights to any lands or treasure in the New World. The recourse of both Catholic (France) and Protestant (England, The Netherlands) countries was to resort to illegal methods - piracy and privateering.

There is a marvelous quote in Arciniegas (1946) attributed to Francis I of France concerning the Treaty of Tordesillas: "The sun shines on me just the same as on the other; and I should like to see the clause in Adam's will that cuts me out of my share in the New World!"

And with these words, piracy began in the Caribbean Sea. Perhaps it was fitting that Jean Fleury, sailing for Francis I, captured two Spanish treasure ships in 1523 as they were on the way to Spain, carrying Aztec treasure taken from Montezuma by Cortes. The two ships were brought to France instead and yielded gold emeralds, pearls and various other valuables worth 150,000 ducats. So Francis I was correct - no treaty kept him from sharing in the wealth of the New World.


Arciniegas, G. 1946. Caribbean Sea of the New World.

Alfred A. Knopf, New York.