Douglas & McIntyre

Interview Details

Stephen R. Bown

Stephen R. Bown

July 2011

We sat down with maritime history expert - "Canada's Simon Winchester" - Stephen Bown to talk about his newest volume, 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half. The first order of business was pinpointing the notorious Pope Alexander, recently made popular by Jeremy Irons in the current television series The Borgias.

Can you draw a connection between your book and the Borgias TV show that’s just become popular?

The obvious link is that The Borgias and 1494 feature the same character: the notorious Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI (played by Jeremy Irons in the TV show). In my book 1494 he is the man who divided the world in half by drawing a north-south line through the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and proclaimed all newly discovered lands to the east of the line to be under the sovereignty of Portugal and all newly discovered lands to the west to belong to Spain. The punishment for violating his decree was excommunication. While the division of the world was certainly his most important historical action, Borgia was an incredibly interesting person, a rogue of the highest order known to history variously for poisonings, a string of mistresses and illegitimate children, lewd and wild orgies and parties at his opulent palace, nepotism and corruption. Apparently he was also a competent administrator, but that’s not why people find him intriguing or repulsive (or both).

The idea that the world could be divided in half and shared between two nations seems amazing and shocking from a modern point of view. What gave the pope the idea to do such a thing?

It’s fairly basic actually: Rodrigo Borgia was corrupt, and he needed the financial and military support of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile and Aragon. They had sent him a note requesting this division of the world when Columbus returned from his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Ferdinand and Isabella had supported Columbus, but the king of Portugal, Joao II (son of Afonso V), was threatening to send his own ships across the Atlantic to claim the new lands for Portugal. Ferdinand, Isabella and Joao II hated each other and had been at war a decade earlier. Columbus’s discoveries were threatening to bring about another war. So Borgia split the world between Spain and Portugal by drawing a line down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The dividing line was meant to keep the two nations apart directing their energies in opposite directions. It was a good idea at the time – prevent a war and pay back a debt to Ferdinand and Isabella – except Columbus hadn’t reached China or India. He had discovered entirely new continents which no-one had foreseen, which Borgia had now given exclusively to Spain.

What happened once these new continents were discovered? How did Europe react?

Once the extent of the new discoveries became known throughout Europe the problems started. For example, the famous voyage of Ferdinand Magellan, the first circumnavigation of the world, was undertaken to determine where the dividing line was located on the far side of the world and determine who would have exclusive access to the Spice Islands. Much of the piracy in the Caribbean was an attempt by Britain and France and the Dutch Republic to engage in commerce “beyond the line” in the Spanish half of the world. It’s also not entirely coincidental that the Protestant Reformation split the nations of Western Europe based upon whether or not they were beneficiaries of the pope’s division of the world.

There is another human element to this story, one that is arguably just as intriguing as Borgia. Can you elaborate on the role of the eloping princess?

When Isabella was a teenager in the 1460s, her older half-brother Enrique was the king of Castile. Known derisively as “the impotent” he had no officially recognized children. He did have a daughter Juana, but she was widely claimed to be the offspring of one of his nobles, the dashing Beltran de la Cueva. Enrique wanted “la Beltraneja,” as she was known, to inherit his crown. So he was planning to marry young Isabella off to the aging king of Portugal, Afonso V, who already had an adult son who would inherit the kingship. Afonso, coincidentally, was Enrique’s brother-in-law, and “la Beltraneja” was Afonso’s niece. If Enrique could marry Isabella off to Afonso, it would neutralize her political potential and perhaps open the way for “la Beltraneja” to assume the crown of Castile, paving the way for an Iberian empire by uniting the crowns of Castile and Portugal within Enrique’s own family.

Yet Enrique’s plan did not come to pass. Why?

Isabella, not surprisingly, had little interest in this arrangement, in which she stood to lose everything and gain nothing. She flatly refused to marry King Afonso, causing a great scandal. Enrique threatened to imprison her if she persisted in her defiance – it was humiliating to be thwarted in his kingly role. When Isabella’s spy returned a positive report on the attributes of the sixteen-year-old heir to the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon, Ferdinand, she was eager for a match with him. Isabella defied the king and eloped from the castle to meet and marry Ferdinand. It wasn’t an impulsive act, Isabella was well aware of Enrique’s depressing marriage ambitions for her, but it was certainly brave. Isabella and Ferdinand’s secret marriage caused a civil war and a Portuguese invasion. They emerged victorious after several years of battles, but the enmity remained between them and the Portuguese monarchy.

How does Isabella’s and Borgia’s story feature into the development of international law?

Isabella and Ferdinand disliked King Joao II of Portugal and he disliked them – as we have seen they had been at war over the succession to the Castilian throne. Columbus’s discoveries across the Atlantic, and his bragging about them to Joao II, who had turned Columbus down, threatened to reignite the smouldering conflict between the two nations. Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, was trying to prevent the Portuguese/Spanish war from restarting when he divided the world. His division led in 1494 to the Treaty of Tordesillas between Portugal and Spain, which in turn led to warfare, piracy, smuggling and international intrigue . . . and eventually to the development of international law as other European nations formed intellectual arguments against the Treaty to legitimize their own voyages of discovery and commerce. Yet at the root of all this conflict, it was the personal story of Isabella, Ferdinand, Joao II and Borgia and their combined actions that started this intellectual process.

So the longstanding feud between Spain and Portugal, which led Borgia to declare the Treaty of Tordesillas, spurred other European nations into challenging his decree and creating new laws?

Yes, it was the opposition from other European nations to Borgia’s papal bulls that led first to defiance in the form of piracy, and then to legal and philosophical arguments against the right of any individual to control international common spaces. The Dutch lawyer and philosopher Hugo Grotius wrote his definitive Mare Liberum in the early 17th century as a direct attack against the right of the pope, or anyone, to divide and control the global waterways. He began the intellectual process that led to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. He so thoroughly undermined the foundation for anyone claiming exclusive use of the world’s oceans that the concept now seems absurd – imagine a similar arrangement for air travel, where Spain or Portugal proclaimed it illegal for airplanes to fly between New York and London because the pope gave them a prior monopoly.

You’ve written a series of books about maritime history, yet you live in landlocked Alberta. Some of your readers might find this curious. What is it about these maritime stories that keep drawing you in?

I live in the Rocky Mountains but my family is from the east coast, so I grew up hearing tales of the sea from grandparents – hacking ice from the rigging in November to prevent a ship from capsizing, cutting loose a new car off the deck during a storm, hiding bootleg rum from the inspectors using salt cakes as buoys – things like that. So the sea has always been something I heard about and associated with adventure. But I was born in Ottawa and I am a confirmed landlubber, preferring a hiking trail to a fishing boat or even a canoe.

What fascinates me about the Age of Sail is that, at that time, most of the world was a vast unexplored frontier. In that age we are always dealing with firsts – the first crossing of the Atlantic to unknown shores, the first circumnavigation of the world, the first voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, and countless others. Everything was new and extremely dangerous, not to mention entirely unknown. The setting alone provides the background for incredible tales of human drama, bravery, determination, foolhardy optimism, the struggle against nature, etc. To me it all represents something intriguing in the human spirit – humanity’s enduring curiosity to keep going and see what’s beyond the horizon.

We started as a species in Africa and in a mighty exodus starting tens of thousands of years ago we have found our way to every habitable place on the planet. The Age of Sail represents the final phase of that epic journey, where the dimensions and coastlines of the entire planet were explored and mapped, brought together in a way the world hadn’t been before. And being relatively recent history, it is well documented so we have a window into the lives and motivations of the intriguing, complex characters engaged in this voyaging and exploring. What draws me to them is that it is the small, domestic and personal actions and decisions of these people that has changed the world. In 1494, it is a family feud between two maritime nations on the cusp of great voyages of discovery and a young woman defiantly refusing to do as she was told and instead eloping to marry someone she had never met before, that set in motion cataclysmic events that have had a profound influence on the historical and intellectual development of western society.

Historians often comment about what we can learn from our past. What does the tumultuous history in 1494 tell us about humanity today?

Most importantly, that history is about people. Dates, statistics and chronologies are just ways we have of ordering, positioning, and explaining the relationships between people, understanding how society has changed and developed over time. You can’t understand history if you don’t understand people, and you can’t understand people if you don’t appreciate history – or phrased another way, story and backstory. The present is merely people dealing with the past and dreaming of the future. In history we get to see the beginning and the end of a person’s life, to see how their decisions changed things, how it all turned out for themselves and for the people who shared their life.

Also, through history we can see how purely personal decisions and choices can expand into larger things: The world being divided began with a woman defying authority and running away to choose her own husband; and key concepts of international law stemmed from the arguments arising from the division of the world. It’s all connected. We all make decisions – about our careers, our spouses, our children – really basic foundation-of-life type decisions. Sometimes these seemingly small choices spiral out of control and result in enormous, often unintended consequences. Unintended consequences and change over time is something that has inspired many of my books.

The decisions and actions of the handful of powerful people in Iberia in the late 15th century are examples of the behaviour that has driven history around the world for thousands of years. They form the basis of politics, commerce, literature and theatre, and similar behaviour is happening in the halls of any high school or college or office today, in every small town and in the hugest of cities. The veneer of culture – customs, dress codes, ceremonies, religious and other beliefs – that we use to structure our lives and differentiate ourselves from each other serve to mask the underlying similarities between people, whether around the world or throughout history. The human story in 1494 is not all that different, in its scope of passion and anger and pride, than other famous apocryphal stories from mythology and history, such as Helen and the Trojan War, the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere, Henry VIII and his many wives, or indeed nearly anything from a Shakespeare play. It brings to mind the old saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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