Spanish-Portuguese quarrels, the voyages of discovery and an obscure 1494 treaty led to centuries of worldwide conflict, events all rousingly recounted here by Canada-based historian Bown (Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600–1900, 2010, etc.).
In the 15th century, Spain and Portugal were backwaters until their ships hit the jackpot by reaching America and the Indies. The author begins his history of the bloody competition that followed by pointing out that by 1480 Portugal dominated the prosperous West African trade, a monopoly granted earlier by Papal bulls. In 1493, Portugal’s king insisted that Columbus’ discoveries belonged to him under the same authority. Spain’s rulers appealed to Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI, who obligingly decreed that new lands west of a north-south line down the Atlantic belonged to Spain, those east of it to Portugal. Popes still exerted immense authority, so the immediate result was the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, in which Spain and Portugal agreed on specifics. In the second half of the book, Bown describes the subsequent vast expansion of European settlement, commerce and violence. No one believed in free trade. Spain and Portugal forbade unauthorized commerce throughout their empires, seizing foreign ships and often executing crews. In response, Holland, Britain and France fought their way into foreign ports (whose citizens, once defenders surrendered, were happy to trade) and seized Spanish and Portuguese ships. Piracy flourished, and governments authorized privateering even during peacetime to allow merchants to recover losses.
A well-delineated, exciting history of a particularly contentious period of international trade, which persisted for centuries until Spain and Portugal grew too weak to resist and did not disappear until nations decided that oceans should be open to all.