Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law
An exhibit marking the 400th anniversary of Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum
Early efforts to codify maritime law did little to resolve claims growing out of acrimonious political disputes over rights to trade with the Americas and the East Indies. The most extensive of these claims were ones made beginning in the mid 15th century by Spain and Portugal, respectively, following the discoveries of the New World and maritime trade routes to Asia. Initially based upon papal grants, the claims were said to have been established by an award made by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, perfected the following year in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Together they purported to justify the exclusion of other states not only from sharing in dominion over the newly discovered lands, but from navigating the trade routes and carrying on profitable trade with their inhabitants, as well. The two countries’ rival claims were resolved by fixing a line drawn 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, with Spain receiving all the lands west of the line, Portugal those to the east. Portugal then claimed sovereignty over the Indian Ocean and the south Atlantic, Spain over the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico.
The pope’s authority to grant these rights did not go uncontested, even within Catholic Spain itself. As early as 1564, in Illustrium controversiarum, a prominent Spanish jurist named Fernando Vázquez Menchaca (1512-1569) attacked Venice and Genoa’s claims to dominion over parts of the Mediterranean, defending freedom of the seas itself. Other European states rejected Spain and Portugal’s claims even more energetically, not only because, as had quickly become apparent, the logic underlying the line purportedly dividing their dominions had been undercut by the realization that it could be approached both from the east and the west, but for the practical reason that the two countries were manifestly unable to enforce them.
Even Queen Elizabeth of England, while herself demanding that foreign vessels entering waters claimed by England strike their topsails and take in their flags in recognition of Britain’s sovereign jurisdiction, declared that the exclusion of foreign merchants from Indian commerce was contrary to the law of nations. “The use of the sea and the air is common to all,” she told the Spanish ambassador, “neither can any title to the Ocean belong to any people or private man, forasmuch as neither Nature, nor regard of the public use and custom permitteth any possession thereof.”
– Notes by Edward Gordon
Vázquez Menchaca, Fernando (1512-1569). Controversiarum usu frequentium libri tres (Barcelona, 1563).
Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library.
“Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law,” curated by Edward Gordon and Michael Widener, is on display October 2009 through January 2010 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.