On Amerigo Vespucci: The Man Who Gave His Name to the Americas
Every child across the world grew up learning about the great Christopher Columbus, the renowned Italian explorer who discovered the Americas in the year 1492. But few know that the term America is derived from a relatively unknown Italian explorer and navigator named Amerigo Vespucci.
Vespucci’s fame and reputation pale when compared to that of Columbus. His legacy, in terms of being a pioneering explorer, is nothing when compared to the giant influence of Columbus. However, for the sake of this essay, we must try not to compare Vespucci with Columbus, for Vespucci’s contributions are somewhat different yet significant enough for his name to be remembered for eternity.
So who was Amerigo Vespucci and why is his name taken along with that of Columbus and why is this essay about him? you might wonder. Well, allow me to help you with these doubts.
Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian merchant, explorer, and navigator, born on 9th March 1451 in the Republic of Florence, the center of the Renaissance at the time. He was the third son of Nastagio Vespucci, a notary for the Money-Changers Guild in Florence, and Lisa di Giovanni Mini.
Although not too wealthy or prosperous, the Vespucci family was politically well-connected and enjoyed close relations with the powerful Lorenzo de’ Medici, who was the de facto ruler of Florence. These influential connections afforded the Vespucci family certain privileges that they would not have otherwise been able to enjoy.
As Vespucci grew older, he was unsure of which career or occupation to pursue. His two older brothers, Antonio and Girolamo, had enrolled at the University of Pisa for their education. Antonio decided to become a notary like his father, and Girolamo entered the church to join the Knights Hospitaller (also known as the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem) on the island of Rhodes.
But Vespucci remained uncertain and instead of following his brothers to the University he stayed in Florence and studied under the tutelage of his uncle, Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, who was a Dominican Friar in the monastery of San Marco and one of the most celebrated humanist scholars of the time.
His uncle educated him in philosophy, literature, Latin, rhetoric, astronomy, and geography. Vespucci’s later writings also revealed his familiarity with the work of classic Greek cosmographers such as Strabo and Ptolemy and the Florentine astronomer and cosmographer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli.
Such a wide range of education would go on to play a significant role in his life and career.
In 1478, Vespucci, aged 27, was invited by an older cousin of his named Guido Antonio Vespucci on a Florentine diplomatic mission to Paris in order to obtain French support for Florence’s war against Naples. Vespucci accepted the invite and traveled to Paris along with his cousin as a private secretary or an attache, stopping at Bologna, Milan, and Lyon for other business. However, the diplomatic mission turned out to be a failure as Louis XI remained noncommittal.
On returning to Florence, Vespucci began working with his father while continuing his studies. Shortly thereafter in 1482, when Vespucci was 31 years old, his father died. He then began working for banker and politician Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (also known as Popolano), who belonged to the junior branch of the House of Medici.
Vespucci and Popolano had been schoolmates under the tutelage of Vespucci’s uncle. Vespucci began working as a household manager first, slowly taking up more responsibilities and eventually handling various business dealings for the family at home and abroad.
During this period, Vespucci also purchased a map made by Spanish cartographer Gabriel de Vallseca and continued to study geography.
In 1488, Amerigo Vespucci was sent by Popolano to Seville in order to find a replacement for Popolano’s business agent there. Vespucci chose Florentine merchant Gianotto Berardi as the replacement, and Berardi soon began handling Popolano’s business in Seville.
In a couple of years, Vespucci had permanently settled down in Seville for reasons still unknown. And although he continued to handle some business affairs of the Medici family, he became more involved with Berardi’s activities, namely his support of the voyages of Columbus.
Berardi had invested half a million maravedis in Columbus’ first voyage in 1492. Subsequently, he won a contract to provision Columbus’ second fleet, and in 1495 he signed a contract with the Spanish crown to send twelve resupply ships to Hispaniola. Unfortunately, in December of the same year, Berardi died unexpectedly, leaving the terms of his contract unfulfilled.
Being the executor of Berardi’s will, Vespucci collected debts and paid off all outstanding obligations of the firm. At the end of it, the firm found itself in debt of 140,000 maravedis. Although Vespucci continued to provision ships bound for the West Indies, Columbus’ expeditions were not generating and bringing in the profits he had hoped for. And to make matters worse, Popolano had begun using the services of other Florentine agents for his business in Seville.
It was in the year 1497 that Amerigo Vespucci allegedly undertook his first-ever voyage to the New World, departing from Spain in May 1497 and returning in October 1498. Sadly, no one can say for certain if this alleged voyage actually took place or not, as the only indication and evidence of such a voyage taking place is a letter, supposedly written by Vespucci to a Florentine official named Piero Soderini in 1504 and published in 1505. In the letter, Vespucci (or whoever actually wrote it) gives an account of the voyage.
As this letter (which may or may not have been written by Vespucci) is the only document historians have managed to acquire regarding this first voyage, many scholars doubt such a voyage, as described in the letter, actually took place. The accuracy and authorship of the letter have been questioned and suspected by scholars over the centuries, many dismissing it as a forged letter. Scholars have also pointed out a few inconsistencies in the account, which only leads to more suspicion and speculation.
Some scholars such as Alberto Magnaghi put forward the theory that the letter was never written by Vespucci but by some unknown author who had access to Vespucci’s private letters to Lorenzo de’ Medici about his subsequent voyages in 1499 and 1501.
Other scholars such as the famous Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas speculated that Vespucci used his observations from his later voyages to write up a fictional account of this first voyage which probably never took place, just so that he could position himself over Columbus as the first European explorer to encounter the mainland of the newly-discovered continents.
The truth, unfortunately, is difficult to ascertain. Therefore, we must be content with mere speculation for now as we have no other choice.
This letter to Soderini is one of two letters attributed to Vespucci, both of which were widely circulated during his lifetime, thereby helping him gain more fame and reputation as an explorer and navigator.
Vespucci’s second voyage to the New World is said to have taken place in May 1499, when he was 48 years old. The mission of the expedition was to explore the coast of a new landmass found by Columbus on his third voyage and to investigate a rich source of pearls that Columbus had reported. The expedition, licensed by the Spanish crown, was led by Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda as the fleet’s commander and Juan de la Cosa as the chief navigator.
Although, when writing about the voyage later, Vespucci would give the impression that he had a leadership role in the expedition, which is highly unlikely due to his obvious inexperience. Vespucci and his investors did finance two of the four ships in the fleet, however, his actual role in the expedition is still not clear.
It is said that Ojeda later recalled that Vespucci had been one of his pilots on the expedition. However, some scholars speculate that he merely served as a representative of the fleet’s investors.
The fleet of four ships left Spain in May 1499 and on reaching present-day French Guiana or Surinam, the fleet split up with two ships going northward toward present-day Venezuela and two heading southward. Vespucci was in the fleet that went southward while Ojeda was in the one that went northward.
Vespucci and his crewmen assumed that they were skirting the coast of Asia and even believed that by heading south they would round the yet unknown and unidentified Cape of Cattigara (which modern scholars believe to be the archaeological site of Óc Eo in present-day Vietnam) and reach the Indian Ocean.
Again, the only account of this southward journey comes from Vespucci himself. He describes that they passed two huge rivers, identified as the Para and the Amazon. Further down south, they encountered a strong current that they could not overcome, and that forced them to return north to Venezuela by taking the same course back.
In the late summer of 1500, they headed to the Spanish colony of Hispaniola in the West Indies to repair and resupply their ships before heading back home. On the way back, they stopped at the Bahamas and captured 232 natives, and took them as slaves to Spain.
By the time Amerigo Vespucci returned from his second voyage, he had gained somewhat of a reputation as an explorer and navigator in Spain and Portugal. Impressed by his reputation, King Manuel I of Portugal hired him to serve as a pilot under the command of Portuguese explorer Goncalo Coelho for an expedition commissioned to investigate a landmass discovered unexpectedly by Portuguese nobleman and explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral on his voyage around Africa to India.
The Portuguese king wanted to know if this landmass lay to the east of the line established by the Treaty of Tordesillas so that it could be claimed by the Portuguese Empire. This landmass would become present-day Brazil.
The fleet of three ships led by Coelho left Lisbon in May 1501. When they stooped at Cape Verde to resupply the ship, they encountered Cabral, who was on his way home from his voyage to India during which he had discovered Brazil the previous year.
As per Vespucci’s account (which happens to be the only account of the expedition), upon reaching Brazil in August 1501, they were attacked by natives who killed and ate one of the crewmen.
Later, as they sailed further south along the coast, they encountered friendly natives with whom they engaged in some minor trading. On 1st January 1502, they came across a bay that they named Rio de Janeiro. The following month, they left the shores of Brazil to return home.
Vespucci would later claim that he understood that Brazil was part of a continent unknown and new to Europeans. Some historians such as Alexander von Humboldt questioned this claim, stating that both Vespucci and Columbus most likely died in the belief that they had reached the eastern edge of Asia.
As per the contentious and controversial letter written to Soderini, Amerigo Vespucci was part of a fourth expedition to the New World. This alleged voyage was again sponsored by the Portuguese crown with the intention to explore more of the east coast of Brazil.
However, the details of this voyage are unclear and even doubtful due to the contentious nature of the letter. It has not been determined yet who led the expedition (some speculate it was Coelho) or what was Vespucci’s role in it. Historians have also found inconsistencies with the dates and details reported in the account provided in the letter. This fourth voyage allegedly took place between 1503 and 1504.
By early 1505, Vespucci had returned to Seville with a surge in his reputation as an explorer and navigator. Since his return to Spain and the wide publication of the two letters attributed to him (written in 1503 and 1505), Vespucci’s fame grew across Europe.
The services he had rendered for the Portuguese crown increased his esteem and standing with the Spanish crown rather than diminishing it. King Ferdinand of Spain now wanted to navigate a western passage to India and summoned Vespucci to consult on navigation matters. Vespucci was paid by the crown for his services and in April 1505 he was declared a citizen of León and Castile by royal proclamation.
Vespucci would go on to serve the Spanish crown until his death in 1512, mainly supplying ships bound for the New World. In 1508, he was appointed chief pilot for the House of Commerce, which served as a central trading house for Spain’s overseas possessions. In this capacity, he was responsible for ensuring that the pilot of the ships was properly trained and licensed before setting sail to the New World. He also had to compile a model map based on the inputs from pilots who returned after each voyage.
By now, Vespucci’s fame as an explorer of the New World was at its peak, primarily because of the publication of the Waldseemüller Map (also known as Universalis Cosmographia), which was a world map made by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller and published in April 1507.
The Waldseemüller Map was the first map to use the Latinized term America for South America, in honor of Amerigo Vespucci.
This world map prepared by Waldseemüller and humanist scholar and cosmographer Matthias Ringmann was titled Universal Geography According to the Tradition of Ptolemy and the Contributions of Amerigo Vespucci and Others, and it included portraits of Ptolemy and Vespucci. The introduction preceding the map (in which Vespucci is called a genius and in which naming the New World in his honor is justified) and the map itself became highly popular and a great success, with four editions being printed in the first year itself.
The map was used in universities across Europe and by cartographers who admired the craftsmanship that went into its creation. Subsequent maps were printed with the term America used for the New World, thereby increasing the popularity and wide usage of the term.
In the year 1538, cartographer Gerardus Mercator used the term America to name both the north and south continents on his world map.
Some historians claim that Vespucci was actually not aware of the Waldseemüller Map at the time of his death. However, this cannot be confirmed either.
Vespucci died on 22nd February 1512, leaving a modest estate to his Spanish wife and his books, clothes, and navigational equipment to his nephew Giovanni Vespucci. He was buried in his wife’s family tomb.
Since his death, Amerigo Vespucci has gone on to become a highly controversial figure, dividing opinions and sparking debates that would last for centuries to come. He is often regarded as the most enigmatic and controversial figure in early American history.
No historian or scholar could say for sure how many voyages Vespucci undertook, in what capacity, and what was the exact purpose of those voyages. Such uncertainty exists primarily because of the fact that Vespucci’s entire legacy rests upon just a few letters attributed to him but which cannot be confirmed.
Many scholars believe that he never wrote those letters on which his reputation rests, while some believe that the letters were fabricated based in part on genuine letters written by him.
Other significant writers and scholars such as Bartolomé de las Casas and Ralph Waldo Emerson have not only expressed doubts about his voyages but have even gone as far as to call him a liar and a thief, who stole the credit due to Columbus and managed to get the New World baptized with his dishonest name.
Others such as Sebastian Cabot and Humboldt have questioned his accomplishments and the truth of the letters attributed to him.
However, much like every subject of history, the subject of Vespucci is also riddled with contradictions and contrary opinions. Historians such as Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen, Henry Harrisse, and John Fiske supported Vespucci’s claims and validated his voyages and accomplishments by claiming that the letters and their details were all true.
Till today historians argue about the truth and falsity of each of those four voyages, with most agreeing that the first one was highly unlikely and even impossible. Regarding the others, historians have taken various positions over the years, some espousing just one, some two, some three, and some all four.
The truth may never be known to us in its entirely accurate form, and so we have no choice but to be content with what we have, which is mostly speculation.
All these controversies surrounding Vespucci’s legacy did not prevent statues and monuments from being erected in his honor in various countries such as Italy, Colombia, and the US.
Whether his accomplishments were true or not, one cannot ignore the fact that Amerigo Vespucci is now widely regarded as one of the most prominent and significant explorers and navigators of the Age of Discovery. Regardless of whether he deserves it or not, his name and legacy have been cemented for the ages.