The Geometry Wars

In Seville we visited the cathedral, reputed to be the world’s largest. Before my feet gave up, we chanced on the ornate catafalque (see the featured photo) which holds the remains of Christopher Columbus. This reminded me of the wars of geometry which Portugal and Spain fought across the world.

The background to this is well-known. In 1486 Bartholomew Dias had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, and opened up the sea route to Asia for Portugal. Unable to compete in the east, Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain decided to finance the harebrained scheme of Columbus to find a westerly route to India after the fall of Granada in 1492. Spain hit gold, literally, when Columbus chanced on the continents now called the Americas.

The wars to control the sea-routes east and west went on for another couple of years. By 1494 Portugal and Spain involved the Pope in finding a political solution to end these skirmishes. It was agreed that everything to the east of meridian 46 degrees west would belong to Portugal and everything to the west to Spain. The agreement clearly did not consult geographers and geometers who could have told their political masters that you cannot divide a sphere into two parts by one line of latitude.

The result of this error, you might say, is history. In 1513 the Pacific Ocean was discovered by Balboa and his crew. Within years Spain crossed the Ocean and skirmishes broke out on the eastern edge of the Pacific. The new wars between Spain and Portugal were eventually halted by political recognition of mathematical facts. The meridian of 142 degrees east was the chosen as the second dividing line. In 1529 Portugal and Spain agreed that part of the world between these two meridians which included the Americas would belong to Spain, and the rest to Portugal.

It was hot in the cathedral, and I decided to sit down while The Family walked about. I slipped into my siesta which ended only when she came back to say we could go.

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