No peace beyond the line

Globe showing the supposed position of the eponymous lineIt’s a pirate cliché: grizzled English sea-rovers scream “No peace beyond the line!” as they charge towards their Spanish foes waving cutlasses. The Line, of course, is the treaty line marking the edge of the Spanish New World. Isn’t it?

Well, that’s what I thought, too. To be honest, I didn’t think too hard about where The Line was, or who drew it. Had you asked me, I would have suggested that the line was the one set by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which separated the Americas into the Portuguese bit (east of The Line) and the Spanish bit (west of The Line), as shown in the picture.

Hmm. The truth, it seems, is more complicated. And MUCH more interesting.

I recently discoved a  paper by Garrett Mattingly entitled No Peace beyond What Line? It was published in 1963 in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, and if you have access to JSTOR, you can read it here.

Garrett begins by correcting my error about where the line is supposed to be. He writes that the generally accepted lines (there are actually two) are the “Lines of Amity” drawn up at the 1559 Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis. The lines were the tropic of Cancer, and the Meridian passing through Ferro in the Canaries. “On the European side of both lines the treaty was to be binding; west and south of them it was to be disregarded.”

Hence, “Beyond the Line” it was perfectly acceptable to attack the Spanish.

But then Garrett goes on to unpick the famous phrase, and he discovers (to cut a VERY long story short) that nobody really agrees which line is The Line, although the Tropic of Cancer is the most likely candidate. And when he begins to look for the first use of the phrase, he runs up against a very strange problem indeed. For, as he puts it… “Not in the whole of the English records of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, neither in public documents nor in secondary literature, did I find anywhere the precise words ‘no peace beyond the Line.'”

In fact, he had to look at very recent writings before he found it: “It is not until the twentieth [century] has past its first decade that it suddenly bursts into full bloom.”

Garrett did not, alas, see his paper in print – it was his last, and it was published posthumously. Nor, indeed, did he have access to Google Books. If he had, he would have been fascinated to discover that the phrase is much older than his research suggested. For William Oldys uses it in his 1736 biography of Raleigh… “Befides, No Peace beyond the line, was a Belief fo rivitted in the Opinion of all, as he could not have been indicted anew.” Since piracy’s Golden Age is generally accepted to have ground to a halt with the execution of Bartholomew Roberts’ crew just 15 years before Oldys was writing, perhaps the phrase really did trip off the tongue of every English privateer and pirate?


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