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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

“1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half”, by Stephen R. Bown



304 pages, Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN-13: 978-0312616120

All things considered, this is a rather odd book. The title and subtitle, 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half, fails to describe what the book is really about, i.e. Hugo Grotius, the Dutch lawyer and polymath who contributed mightily to the initial International Law of the Sea via his opposition to the tenets of the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the New World between Portugal and Spain and which was fostered by Pope Alexander VI. Essentially, Portugal was granted all new and unexplored lands to the east of a meridian of 1,184 nautical miles west of the Cape Verde islands, while similar lands to the west went to Spain. The subject matter is fascinating, and the author does a good job of connecting all the dots in a readable format, although it is rather obvious that this “book” is in fact a series of essays gathered together and suffers some chronological breaks and overlaps as a result.

The book does a reasonable job covering the basics of the early journeys of exploration of Africa and the Americas. Its biggest strength is the teasing out of the implications of the Treaty of Tordesillas; however, the author takes the reader on a long meandering journey – some of it interesting, much of it prosaic. Finally, we arrive at what might be fresh ground, namely, the seeds of International Law based on the efforts of Grotius to void the Treaty and legitimate the predatory practices of among others his employers, the Dutch East India Company (or VOC). Alas, in trying to cover two hundred years from the initial need for the Treaty to Grotius’ reframing of the underlying issues, the author gets somewhat lost. To a degree, this is not surprising because religious, political and commercial interests that drove the primary actors shifted in nature and weight throughout the period.

Besides the jumping around from topic to topic, a big weakness is the absence of maps that detail the explorations and ventures of De Gama, Columbus, Magellan, Hawkins and Drake. The bibliography is very skimpy and reflects the reality that Bown is not really a subject matter expert and appears to be heavily dependent upon well received secondary sources. It would also have helped to read a translation of the actual Treaty of Tordesillas. Furthermore, I have a problem with the idea that the Pope Alexander VI’s edict caused all the problems of the people in the Americas; I think all these exploration and genocide and slavery would’ve happened anyway as multiple cultures that didn’t understand one another clashed and fought. In the prolog the author described an internet posting asking the Vatican to void the original edict that has attracted a mere 900 signatures. In this day and age 900 signatures is nothing, and further shows how little meaning the original edict has had on the modern world.

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