Dividing the Unknown

The Papal Line of Demarcation: And Its Impact in the Eastern Hemisphere on the Political Division of Australia 1479–1829, by Leslie R. Marchant; Woodside Valley Foundation, 2008, $25.

            Despite its somewhat strange and cryptic title, this book, the last work of noted West Australian scholar the late Professor Leslie Marchant, is a fascinating work, filled with information and interest. 

That ludicrous book The Da Vinci Code was described by one newspaper which should have known better as “containing several doctorates worth of information”. The Papal Line of Demarcation actually does this, and the information is real. Further, Professor Marchant’s quicksilver style makes it so engrossing a tale that once started it is hard to put down. As historian John C. Rice says in his foreword, the book is “dense with information which reveals a mind which ranged widely over both history and literature”. It also gains from the fact that Professor Marchant was, in addition to being a scholar, a professional seaman, serving at sea as an apprentice officer and navigator in tankers in the Second World War, and in later years the owner of a forty-foot deep-sea ketch in which he carried out several expeditions to verify the work of early navigators. When he writes of the sea he combines disciplined learning with practical experience. 

The Papal Line of Demarcation was an imaginary line running around the world, initially created by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, one year after Columbus’s discovery of America. It divided the unknown world between Portugal and Spain in an attempt to avoid conflict between the two. This was a new idea for the discovery of a “new world”, an unprecedented situation, but it had a biblical precedent in the drawing of borders to separate coastal Israel from inland Judah after the end of Solomon’s kingdom. The Papal Line was shifted west the following year by the Treaty of Tordesillas, and was shifted again with the Saragossa Line in 1529. This reminds us of the papacy’s pioneering role in international diplomacy, and the fact that the pope had long been called upon to arbitrate international disputes and potential disputes. 

A remnant of that line, moved six degrees west, today forms the border between Western Australia and the rest of the continent. Britain and Portugal have been allies since the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, the oldest diplomatic treaty in existence (under which Portugal made air-bases in the Atlantic available to Britain in the Second World War) and the British claims on the eastern part of Australia by Captain Cook and Governor Phillip carefully stopped short of impinging on the Portuguese area. 

Moves were only made to settle the West when it was thought that the French had their eyes on it. In fact the French had made some claims and named many features on the coast. Rottnest and Garden islands were once known as the Iles Louis Napoleon. However, the French had failed to follow these claims up, and—to simplify a complex matter—by the time Albany and Perth were settled had lost interest: sharing a land frontier with Britain was considered too dangerous. (A French settlement in New Zealand had been summarily removed by the British.) 

Before this, Columbus’s voyage too had more to it than met the eye: it was motivated not only to set up, it was hoped, a spice-trade with China and India, but also by hopes of finding allies for a Christendom besieged and threatened by Islam in a pincer-movement from Spain and the Middle East, and also by the Mongols from the north-east. Muslim raids of Italy had been common. The Great Siege of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto were still in the future when Columbus sailed, and at the beginning of the sixteenth century Machiavelli had a character in the play Mandragola ask: “Do you think the Turks will come to Italy this year?” There had already been unavailing attempts to form alliances with the Mongols (who were regarded as pagans who might be converted to Christianity, unlike the Muslims). 

Wishful thinking about other powerful allies was probably one spur for the long-term Portuguese effort to explore the coast of Africa, where the Christian kingdom of Prester John was reputed to be. There were also hopes of contact with the Christian community in India reportedly founded by the Apostle Thomas. Indeed Indian Christian communities did exist and Vasco da Gama had an Indian Christian pilot from the Malabar coast. The world had been known to be round at least since the days of the Greeks and geopolitics were, Professor Marchant shows, a major concern of both the religious and secular leaders of Christendom before Columbus. 

In 1506 Pope Julius II issued the Bull Ea Quae which confirmed Portugal’s gains in the Atlantic. King Emmanuel of Portugal was also awarded the “Consecrated golden rose”, the highest papal honour for services to Christendom, for what the Portuguese had done to spread Christianity in Africa and India.  

The story is rich and complex, and the ramifications of what appeared to be a simple line on a map were huge. We are fortunate to have as Professor Marchant’s final work this learned and fascinating book.


The Papal Line of Demarcation can be purchased from the Woodside Valley Foundation ( ).

Leave a Reply