Sunday, April 12, 2015

America's Namesake - Amerigo Vespucci, or Richard Amerike?

Early Portrait of Amerigo Vespucci
Naming a continent is a funny thing.

One man is the acknowledged discoverer of an entire new world, yet by pure chance, it is named after another.

History tells us a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, scribbled America over the country of Brazil on a new map he was working on in 1507. He’d read Vespucci’s account of his discoveries and decided it was a good way to honor the navigator and discoverer of that area.

According to Waldseemüller he wrote the word America across Brazil on the new map because, “I see no reason why anyone should justly object to calling this part America, after Amerigo [Vespucci] its discoverer, a man of great ability.”

Over time, the name just sort of stuck.

In 1538, the famed mapmaker Gerardus Mercator extended the name to all of North and South America. From that point on Amerigo Vespucci’s Novus Mundo, or new world, would bear his name.


To further understand how Amerigo Vespucci became the name sake for America we need to delve further into the man and his age.

Amerigo Vespucci was born March 9th, 1454 in Florence, Italy. As a young man he worked as a clerk for Lorenzo de’ Medici. In 1492 he was dispatched to Cadiz, Spain to serve as an agent in that branch. In 1495 Vespucci helped procure supplies for Columbus’s second voyage.

In 1499 Vespucci switched his allegiances and began work for the King of Portugal. He participated in several voyages of discovery. Some say he acted as an observer for the king, other accounts contend he was a navigator on several of the voyages. Whichever account is true, Vespucci was present on several important voyages of discovery.

The voyage of 1501-1502 was the most important, because it convinced Vespucci it was a “new world” they had discovered—not Asia. And, that is one of the key differences between Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. Columbus always believed that he had reached the Indies. 

Amerigo Vespucci took a leap of faith and determined he’d reached a new continent, one unknown in Ptolemaic geography.

The second difference between Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus is Vespucci penned a series of letters and books detailing his travels. In his letters Vespucci proclaimed he discovered a new world, one that he named Mundus Novus.

In his pamphlet on the subject Vespucci wrote, “I have found a continent more densely peopled and abounding in animals than our Europe or Asia or Africa, and, in addition a climate milder and more delightful than in any other region known to us…We knew that land to be a continent and not an island both because it stretches forth in the form of a very long and unbending coast, and because it is replete with infinite inhabitants.”

His descriptions of the natives they encountered were quite detailed down to their marriage customs, sex lives, eating habits, and daily activities. In another of his letters Vespucci wrote, “…they eat little flesh except human flesh…they are so inhuman that they outdo every custom (even) of beasts; for they eat all their enemies whom they kill or capture.”

Many historians insist much of Vespucci’s letters and books were fabricated or written by others, but this much is true: Vespucci’s books became bestsellers all over Europe. They sold better than the works of Columbus, and were much more popular.

The end result is Mundus Novus, or the new world, became Amerigo’s land, or America.

And, that’s the story of how America got its name.

John Cabot and His Three Sons
from The New England Magazine - Feb. 1898
Of course, there is a conflicting claim.

Alfred Hudd, an amateur historian, presented a theory in 1908 that John Cabot was the first explorer to reach North America. Hudd says Cabot sailed past Iceland in 1497 in search of new fishing grounds for Bristol merchants shut out of the Icelandic fishing trade since 1475 when the King of Iceland banned foreign fisherman from fishing in his country’s waters.

According to Hudd, John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland in 1497 on the ship Matthew provided by his patron Richard Amerike (AKA Ameryk).

On that voyage Cabot mapped the coastline between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. And, by custom, he further assumed Cabot would have named the new found lands after his patron. Thus, Amerike or Ameryk was twisted into America, and he is the actual namesake of America, not Amerigo Vespucci.

The only evidence Hudd presented to support his theory was a passing glance at a lost manuscript he’d seen years before, an early calendar of local events. Supposedly it recordded that on June 24th, 1497, “the land of America was found by merchants of Bristol” in a Bristol ship, the Matthew.
The only problem is the evidence was supposedly destroyed in a subsequent fire.

That theory received a new breath of life in 2006 in The Book of General Ignorance. Like Hudd’s book the authors claim Cabot mapped the shorelines between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in 1497, ten years before Martin Waldseemüller published his map, and four years before Amerigo Vespucci made his first voyage to the new world.

Sketch Map of John Cabot's voyages in  1497
from The New England Magazine - Feb. 1898
Again, no proof is offered the new land was called America, just the theory that John Cabot would have named any discoveries after his patron.

So there you have it.

America was either named after Amerigo Vespucci because an obscure mapmaker read an account of his voyages and later mapmakers accepted the name, or it was named after a Bristol merchant who sent an expedition in search of new fishing grounds.

At this late date we may as well flip a coin to make the final decision. Heads Amerigo Vespucci, tails Richard Amerike.

Excerpt from my upcoming book History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events that Shaped American History