Freedom of the Seas, Part 4

Michael Widener

Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law
An exhibit marking the 400th anniversary of Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum
Part 4

As it happens, the publication of Mare liberum came too late to influence negotiations with Spain. It served instead to ignite a fierce debate over the freedom of the seas that continued throughout the 17th century – what later scholars were to call the “Battle of the Books.” Grotius contended that nature and public utility alike forbid the acquisition of property rights in the sea. Unlike land, the sea (and the air) cannot in practice be occupied, demonstrating that nature intended it to be free to all to use. Being inexhaustible in use, moreover, it is not susceptible of occupation, which is necessary when the utility of things can be preserved only if they become private property.

The defense of Portugal’s imperial claims in the East Indies fell initially to Seraphim de Freitas, a Portuguese theologian-jurist, professor at the University of Valladolid, in a treatise published in 1625 under the name De iusto imperio Lusitanorum Asiatico (On the Just Empire of the Portuguese in Asia). Vastly larger and longer than Grotius’s mere pamphlet, De iusto imperio was highly critical not only of the youthful Grotius’s arguments, but of its factual inaccuracies and misleading references and inferences as well.

Freitas contended that the right to free trade and navigation, whatever its roots in natural law, had never become a part of the law of nations. A sovereign could exclude foreigners from his territories or commerce and could forbid his subjects to trade with them. He conceded that the pope lacked an abstract right to accord dominion over newly discovered territories and peoples, but insisted that his authority as the spiritual dominus mundi entitled him to grant an exclusive right to spread the Christian faith and civilization. Since, to be effective, this right necessarily involves both trade and limited conquest, the pope had the authority to grant Portugal-Spain the right to exclude other powers from the east.

De iusto imperio was expanded upon four years later by a Spanish jurist named Juan de Solórzano Pereira (1575-1655), in a treatise entitled Disputationem de Indiarum iure. Scarcely known or written about by English-speaking scholars, De Indiarum iure is regarded by some Spanish scholars as the most systematic juridical formulation of the legitimacy of Spain and Portugal’s 17th century claims. Unlike Freitas, Solórzano Pereira said that, regardless of the legitimacy of the 15th century papal grants on which they were said to be based, Portugal’s actual control and occupation of the new territories were sufficient in themselves to satisfy the requirements for retrospective ownership (prescription) recognized in both Roman and customary law.

Neither Freitas’s nor Solórzano Pereira’s treatise had as much influence in the 17th century as their intellectual content warranted, perhaps because they were too learned and too long, but in any event because the center of intellectual interest and political power was shifting from Spain to England.

– Notes by Edward Gordon

Solórzano Pereira, Juan de (1575-1655). De Indiarum jure (Lyons, 1672).
This work became the definitive treatise on the laws governing Spain’s overseas colonies.
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law 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.

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