Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Misunderstood Mariners: Amerigo Vespucci

You learned it in high school history class: although Christopher Columbus discovered America, the continents were named for his contemporary and rival Amerigo Vespucci. Well, Columbus and Vespucci were contemporaries but pretty much everything else about that statement is wrong.

Vespucci, a Florentine by birth (although not residence), was already middle aged when he first sailed to the Americas for the King of Spain in 1499. Over the next few years he sailed on three (some sources say four) expeditions to the New World for either Spain or Portugal. He found little that hadn't been already charted and frequently had trouble finding work. Columbus was hardly threatened by Vespucci: he found him an honorable man and seems to have felt a little sorry for him. After his voyages, though, he came into his, own, being made chief of navigation for Spain. He died there in 1522.

Vespucci was not without his contributions. He charted many navigational stars that had been forgotten since the time of the Greeks. He developed a method of finding longitude that was more accurate than any other until the invention of the chronometer more than two centuries later. He is also credited with being the first to demonstrate that the Americas were not part of Asia, but an entirely different continent.

The idea that the Americas were named for Vespucci derives from the use of the word America on a world map drawn by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller in 1507. Not everyone agrees that Vespucci was the source of the word, however. Pointing out that new lands were either named for religious figures or the sponsors of the expedition doing the discovering, many point to Welshman Richard Amerike, sponsor of John Cabot's second (and only successful) voyage to America as a more likely source. This latter claim is weakened by the lack of any documents directly supporting it; on the other hand Vespucci has been accused of embellishing and even outright fictionalizing many of his exploits.

For an entertaining biography of Vespucci, see historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America. Fernandez-Armesto portrays Vespucci as a self-promoter of the highest ambition and debunks many of the myths perpetuated by Vespucci himself.

Geologist Jules Marcou first advanced the theory that America was named for the Amerrique region of Nicaragua, a gold-bearing area known to both Columbus and Vespucci. George C. Hurlbut, longtime librarian of the American Geographical Society of New York, published the definitive article on this perspective in that society's Journal in 1888. Find the complete article (for $12 fee) at http://www.jstor.org/pss/196759.

As for who "discovered" America, it is a pointless question since humans have been living in the western hemisphere for at least 12,000 years. Despite inconoclastic claims for Egyptians, Chinese, Polynesians, and others, the first modern people to colonize the Americas were the Inuits, who arrived about 1000 AD. Archaeological evidence shows Viking settlements in Newfoundland about the same time, but the Vikings pulled out relatively soon thereafter. Modern European settlement of the Americas really began with Columbus, just like you learned in high school. For a humorous and informative look at that early exploration and settlement, see Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange: On The Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America.

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