Origins America Gets Its Name

About the history of America, the explorer Amerigo Vespucci or Americus Vespucius, and the origin of the name of the New World.


WHEN: 1507

HOW: Since Christopher Columbus was the most publicized of the several candidates believed to have discovered the New World, it would seem logical for the land to be called Columbiana. Instead, because of an error made by a mapmaker, and because Columbus refused to believe he had found an unknown continent, the New World was named America.

Columbus refused to take credit for discovery of a new continent. To the day of his death, in 1506, he persisted in the belief that he had landed on an unexplored eastern part of Asia. Meanwhile, Amerigo Vespucci--he later took the Latin name Americus Vespucius--a Florentine merchant and astronomer turned adventurer and navigator, made 4 voyages to the western hemisphere, the 1st a private Spanish expedition in 1497, the others in 1499, 1500, and 1503. Vespucci's voyages were to the land now designated as South America, and he was the 1st to perceive that this was a land unknown to Europeans and he therefore suggested it be called Mundus Novus--New World.

Vespucci never once suggested the New World be named for him. That came about through an unusual chain of circumstances. While abroad, Vespucci wrote numerous letters about what he saw to friends. Apparently, an unsavory author got hold of some of these letters, rewrote and sensationalized them, and published them as Four Voyages, attributing them to Vespucci. The published letters have since been proved to be forgeries. However, 2 authentic letters written by Vespucci--one to his patron, the notorious Italian nobleman Lorenzo de' Medici, the other to an old schoolmate, Piero Sodorini--were located by scholars in Florence during the 1700S.

But it was one of the counterfeit letters that inspired the baptizing of the New World. This letter was published by the Academy of the Vosges in Lorraine during April, 1507. It was read by a young German cartographer, Professor Martin Waldseemuller, who was working at the academy with 4 other scholars, preparing an updated version of Ptolemy's Geography. Waldseemuller, impressed by the so-called Vespucci letter describing the New World, included it in his book, Cosmographiae introductio. In his Latin text, Waldseemuller also wrote the following: "But now, since these parts have been more extensively explored, and another 4th part has been discovered by Americus Vespucius (as will appear from what follows); I see no reason why it should not be called Amerigo, after Americus, the discoverer, or indeed America, since both Europe and Asia have a feminine form of name from the names of women." The map of the New World was published separately, and what is now Brazil was then boldly named "America."

In later writings and maps, more aware of the role Columbus played, Waldseemuller dropped "America" and renamed it "the Land Unknown," crediting Columbus with its discovery. By then his book had gone into many editions. His 1st suggestion that the new land be named after Amerigo or Americus had caught on, and soon Mercator had made it official by calling the entire western hemisphere "America." But Vespucci had died in Seville in 1512, at the age of 61, unaware of his accidental immortality.

In the years since, Vespucci has been accused of fraud and of usurping credit from Columbus. In fact, essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "Strange that broad America must wear the name of a thief! Amerigo Vespucci, the pickle-dealer at Seville, who went out in 1499, a subaltern with Hojeda, and whose highest naval rank was boatswain's mate, in an expedition that never sailed, managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus, and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name."

But Vespucci did sail on his 1499 expedition, made no effort to give half the earth his name, and had nothing but praise and friendship for Columbus, who in turn considered him "a very worthy man."

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