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Stephen Bown

Courtest Douglas & McIntyre

In one of cinema's most beloved scenes, Charlie Chaplin's Great Dictator plays in his office with a beachball-sized balloon representing the globe – and his own insane pretension. The game and the sentiment were not, alas, unprecedented.

In 1493, the voluptuary Pope Alexander VI (fans of Bravo's The Borgias know how wholly unholy His Holiness was), sat down at his desk and traced a line on a map of the Atlantic Ocean. He was carving up the world, unilaterally.

The following year, intent on tweaking the papal cartography, envoys of Spain and Portugal met in the dusty Castilian town of Tordesillas and agreed on a division of the world between them – and them alone. Thus was born the far-reaching Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, a Renaissance beachball bounced about by the squabbling ruling families of Iberia.

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And when the "known" world had expanded in the generation following the treaty's signing, the usual suspects met up again, in the Spanish border town of Badajoz, this time to divvy up the Pacific Ocean. A young boy, of a temperament worthy of Chaplin's, is said to have greeted the haughty Portuguese delegation on a bridge by mooning them and saying, "Draw your line right through this!"

Historian Stephen R. Bown has unpacked this rich and colourful history in a splendid work, 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half, an entertaining and elegantly written voyage into the treacherous seas of religious fanatics, greedy slavers, depraved autocrats, doomed indigenous peoples and desperately brave adventurers in search of fortune.

The book's subtitle describes only the first chapters, in which Bown deftly presents the pageant of exuberant piety and abject acquisitiveness that characterized 15th-century Iberia. It is an arresting, at times sordid and bloody tale, very well told, but too complex for accurate thumb-nailing here. Executive summary: When the young lovers Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile performed the equivalent of a shotgun elopement in 1469 – and in so doing united Spain – their relatives among the royals of Portugal were not at all amused, and the resulting rivalry played out on the high seas, a rivalry that touched almost all points of the globe within a century.

But 1494 is an accounting of much, much more than this family feud. Readers of Bown, a gifted storyteller capable of threading compelling narrative strands through a welter of information, know his previous works betray a lively interest in the intersection of adventure and commerce: a study of Alfred Nobel ( A Most Damnable Invention), George Vancouver ( Madness, Betrayal and the Lash) and the mercantile buccaneers of the great age of sailing ( Merchant Kings).

Accordingly, Bown goes well beyond the clannish back story of Tordesillas and embarks on a kaleidoscopic treatment of its effects, enemies and eventual undoing, culminating in the genesis of international law governing the seas. The voyage, while wild, is not rough. Each facet of the fallout from Tordesillas is examined in turn, held up to the light long enough to edify and entertain, but not so long as to overwhelm.

The ports of call include the sybaritic Vatican court of the Borgia pope and the strange, stunted, almost Saudi-like economy of 16th-century Spain, living off the gold of the New World and producing nothing else. The men to uncover these new worlds come under review: the daring Bartolomeu Dias, the fairly unpleasant Christopher Columbus (Genoese, like his countrymen Verrazzano and Cabot), the near-feral Hernán Cortés and the unflinching Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese turncoat in the service of Spain.

Then come the pirates of the Caribbean. Followed by the Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation, Francis Drake, the Spanish Armada and the Dutch East India Company, with war galore in between. We disembark finally in London, where apoplectic merchants implore a Dutch delegation to read a revolutionary pamphlet on freedom of the seas, Mare Liberum. Hugo Grotius, the leader of the Dutch, demolishes the pamphlet in argument – even though, unknown to the English, he was its anonymous author.

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It is a fitting conclusion to a story of head-spinning variety and reliably appalling behaviour. Bown argues against measuring the principals of this tale of blood, boldness and suffering with a modern yardstick, preferring to let his neutral account of their actions stick the shiv in Western civ. In adopting this approach, Bown gently pricks, but does not burst, our balloon.

Stephen O'Shea's most recent book of medieval history is The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt Against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars.

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