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1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half Hardcover – February 14, 2012

4.0 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Ever wonder how the inhabitants of Brazil came to speak Portuguese? The answer to that question can be found in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, where in an effort to stave off a war for global hegemony, Pope Alexander VI divided the New World between the Spanish and the Portuguese. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, however, France, England, and the Dutch Republic employed a combination of legal argument and piracy to end the Iberian mercantile monopoly. In this popular account spanning the Age of Exploration, Brown (Merchant Kings, 2009) argues that Alexander’s line of demarcation, sanctioned by God and backed by the threat of excommunication, was “part politics, part sound decision, and part disaster waiting to happen.” Brown incorporates a sprawling cast of characters, including Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus, Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, and members of the ostentatious Borgia clan, into what is both a judicious synthesis of the surrounding scholarship and an entertaining look at the evolution of international law on the high seas. In lieu of earth-shattering revelations, Brown provides general readers and fans of the period with a work meant for pure enjoyment. --Brian Odom


“Anyone who wishes to thoroughly understand the development of today's geopolitical world must read Mr. Bown's 1494.” ―New York Journal of Books

“Bown's captivating study presents a fresh glimpse into the origins of the age of exploration and conquest as other nations challenged the primacy of Spain and Portugal.” ―Publishers Weekly

“Both a judicious synthesis of the surrounding scholarship and an entertaining look at the evolution of international law on the high seas.” ―Booklist

“This is a starry love story, a tale of seething jealousies and subterfuge, a political imbroglio, and religious cruelties. It sounds like Shakespeare and it could have very well been the plot of one of his plays. . . . In the 15th century, the world began to take shape in the ways we understand it today.” ―Toronto Star

“One more Ripley's Believe It Or Not exhibit from our strange and wonderful past. . . . 1494 is certainly a good read.” ―National Post

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 Globe & Mail

“A masterful read.” ―The Washington Times on Merchant Kings

“Engagingly written and refreshingly conversational, Merchant Kings brings a cohesion to such a large and unwieldy historical period, a period that both led directly to, and remains an integral part of, so many contemporary economic and political struggles.” ―The Post and Courier on Merchant Kings

“A chronicle perfectly relevant to our own time--and ultimately shows us that a market is free only when those who live and consume within it are protected from the powerful.” ―New York Journal of Books on Merchant Kings

“Stephen Bown has ingeniously whittled this multinational history down to vignettes of six of its more notorious figures. . . . These characters are as familiar to us as evil storybook characters, yet as foreign to contemporary business standards as Genghis Khan.” ―Timothy Brook, author of Vermeer’s Hat, on Merchant Kings

“Stephen Bown tells a fascinating story, one that provides a very different perspective on the colonial period than that which is to be gleaned from the usual grocery list of significant events.” ―The Right Honourable Paul Martin, former Prime Minister of Canada on Merchant Kings

“A fascinating adventure story with vivid descriptions of eighteenth-century geopolitics and native and British societies . . . Stephen Bown is emerging as Canada's Simon Winchester.” ―The Globe and Mail on Madness, Betrayal and the Lash

“[Bown]'s particularly good at penning provocative theories that link seemingly modest events to monumental changes in the course of history. . . . Bown also has a good eye for the unintended consequences, ironies, and contradictions that are the product of social and technological forces of great magnitude.” ―Publishers Weekly on A Most Damnable Invention


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; Book Club Edition edition (February 14, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312616120
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312616120
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #874,648 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Isabella, Ferdinand, the Borgias, Columbus, Magellan and Sir Francis Drake are just a few of the characters you will recognize; and there are many more that we all should know.

As a frequent traveler to Spain and Portugal, I found the book very interesting. Mr Brown knit together the numerous threads of this story very well. This highly readable historical book gives enough to inform, without weighing it down with too much detail. While I was familiar with parts of the story, Mr Brown placed it in a different context and filled in the necessary details and included the "flesh and blood" motives.

A previous reviewer, a self-described"student of the epoch", missed the point when he criticized the book for presenting "nothing new." Mr Brown states that his book presents a diffent way to look at the topic and not an indepth history of one facet of the story. For those who want more he provides a bibliography and reading list for further research.

I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to understand a bit more about how Spain and Portugal developed such wealthy empires, how they lost them, and what their legacy is in the world today.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a strange book. The title and subtitle, 1494 and "How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half" fail to describe what the book is really about. I have given it 3 stars primarily because it prompted me to learn more about 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 Treaty of Tordesillas.
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 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which essentially divided trading, navigation, exploitation and colonizing rights in Africa, India, SE Asia and what would become the Americas between Spain and Portugal to the exclusion of other European powers. 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.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is great for anyone who loves history and wants to read about this time period. It covers everything from the intertwined royal families of the Iberian peninsula to famous mariners like Columbus and Magellan to the Protestant Reformation. The Kindle version apparently wasn't edited and contains numerous typos and strange word breaks.
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Format: Hardcover
This short book contains much detailed informative on an interesting, albeit overwritten period of history. There are many valuable references to other works. Bowen examines the intended division of the world between Spain and Portugal under the auspices of papal bulls by Alexander VI, other popes, and the subsequent treaties of Tordessilas and Zaragoza. He traces the military, religious and, most interesting, the legal history in subsequent events, mainly the next two centuries, but with some projection to the preset time.

As a preliminary there's a fine rendition of a history of the formation of Spain focused on
Isabella, Ferdinand and careers of their siblings and progeny. Besides Columbus, Magellan and conquistador history, the book covers well the careers of Hawkins, Drake and Dutch navigator/pirates as they eroded Iberian control of world trade. There's interesting history of the African route as developed by Henry the Navigator, Dias and Da Gama. Subsequent trade wars are traced back to Tordessilas and Columbus. It's especially interesting on Hugo Grotius and the legalistic international attack on the papal deal.

The book combines geography with history, asking what's on the other side of the world from the treaty lines? There economic interest, reminiscent of modern times, as Spanish gold became subject to debt incurred to the Fugger banking house as Spain ruined it's own economy with the flow of new money.

In a projection to modern times, the author says that the attempt to divide the world is not quite dead yet as Chile claims Antarctic lands and Argentine claims the Falklands with legalisms tracing back to 'Inter Caetara'. Bown perhaps overdoes his point, but you don't have to buy into it for an interesting read.
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Format: Hardcover
Stephen R. Brown is a Canadian historian who, working largely from secondary source material, has managed in this book to give a totally fresh view of how our world came to be. We never know the consequences of our actions. The dynastic problems of a headstrong princess and her domineering brother led to the division of the world and has shaped international politics down to the UN Law of the Sea. It has coloured international law for centuries, resulted in the “Pirates in the Caribbean”, and led to the colonial empires and slavery that accompanied them. An engrossing read.

Two small points, after a detailed introduction I find that the end was a little hurried, almost as if the publisher was pressurising the author to finish the book. As a result he leaves out certain interesting details.

For example, Cook's voyages in the Pacific were a direct challenge to Spanish control of the Pacific. It contributed to Spain's decision to support the American colonies in their War of Independence (a support which backfired as Simon Bolivar used the example of the USA in his own struggle against Spanish rule). It appears too that Cook may have had a Spanish chart of the east coast of Australia when he claimed it for Britain, superceding Spanish control of the Southern Pacific.

Similarly, even though the Dutch superceded and disclaimed Portuguese control in Indonesia, they used the Tordesilas claim in drawing the boundary of West New Guinea as against the Australian and German claims to the Eastern half of the island. The same thing happened in my own state of Western Australia. It was originally called "New Holland" and was claimed by the Dutch as part of their explorations south from Bantam/Batavia.
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