Age of Discovery
Vespucci realized the land he was exploring was a separate continent and not part of Asia, as he and many others believed at the time. The continents of North and South America are named after him.
Amerigo Vespucci was born in the Italian city-state of Florence sometime around 1451 or 1454. The Vespucci family was quite prominent in Florentine affairs; his grandfather (also named Amerigo) was a powerful politician with the city’s ruling senate, and his father was a wealthy merchant and political insider. His uncle Georgio Antonio Vespucci was a leading scholar and churchman who would pass on to his young nephew a love for collecting books.
Little is known of Vespucci’s youth. By the time Vespucci was in his early twenties, he had an enviable education in the works of Classical Greek and Latin writers. While his uncle Georgio steered Vespucci towards a scholarly life of writing and science, his father Nastagio was determined to make him a merchant. Vespucci’s three brothers had typical enough jobs: Antonio was a notary in Florence, Girolamo was a soldier fighting the Turks in Hungary, while youngest brother Bernardo was a wool merchant. Nastagio would not abide a son who sat around reading books all day and gazing at stars all night. Vespucci was the only son Nastagio did not send to study at the University of Pisa; legend has it he was too afraid of forever losing Amerigo to a life of scholarship and cosmography.
In 1479, the city of Florence was in the grips of a political upheaval that made life difficult. Young Amerigo was sent off to Paris with his older cousin Guidantonio, who was the Florentine ambassador to France. Vespucci spent two years in France, acting as Guidantonio’s secretary and assistant, learning the ways of diplomacy and how to act around kings and nobility. When Nastagio Vespucci died in 1482, it was his son Amerigo who took over the family’s now struggling merchant house (the Florentine civil war had been bad for business). A year later, Amerigo Vespucci was made manager of the extremely powerful Medici merchant business.
The Medici family had ruled Florence since the 14th century, dominating the city’s government, religious institutions and economy. They were also heavily involved in the European banking and merchant trades. Amerigo Vespucci apparently had quite a skill for turning a profit to have a powerful family such as the Medicis hire him. He was responsible for the proper handling of all business transactions for Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de Medici, then just 20 years old, and Lorenzo’s younger brother Giovanni. Vespucci would remain Lorenzo’s and Giovanni’s financial manager for fifteen years, and through his sound business sense, both Vespucci and his patrons became quite wealthy. With money to spare, Vespucci indulged his love of science and geography by slowly acquiring an impressive collection of books and maps.
In 1491, Vespucci went to Spain to oversee the Medicis’ business there. At the time, Spain was ruled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who were busy fighting the remaining Moors and expelling Jewish merchants from the kingdom. With trade disrupted by war and a lack of qualified merchants, Spain was the perfect place for an enthusiastic man like Amerigo Vespucci to set up shop. As a merchant in Seville, Vespucci struck up an unofficial partnership with two other Italians, Donato Nicollini and Giannotto Berardi. Through Berardi, who specialized in outfitting ships, Vespucci made a number of contacts among mariners on the Seville riverfront.
Under Berardi’s wing, Vespucci was introduced to Christopher Columbus before Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. Supposedly, Columbus thought very highly of Vespucci, writing before he died that Vespucci was “a most honourable man, very desirous of pleasing me.” Columbus, a fellow Italian and a favorite with the Spanish Crown, returned from his first voyage in 1493. All of Spain was abuzz with what Columbus had apparently achieved: he had sailed west from Europe, and ended up in what they thought was India, the land of jewels and spices.
Before Columbus’ voyage, Europeans had been forced to pay extremely high prices charged by Greek and Arabic merchants for spices shipped overland from the Orient. The Portuguese had only just found a direct route by sea to India in 1488, when skilled mariner Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the tip of Africa into the Indian Ocean. Of course, Columbus’ western route did not actually lead to India, but to a whole new continent. Europeans would not come to this realization until the early 1500s, thanks in large part to Amerigo Vespucci. Nonetheless, even in 1493 Vespucci and others like him knew a fortune could be made if a merchant could exploit a new route to the riches of the East.
When Giannotto Berardi died in 1495, all his business in obtaining supplies for Spanish ships went to trusted Seville merchant Amerigo Vespucci. As Vespucci heard more and more from sailors returning from the New World, the more he wanted to sail there himself. In 1499, Vespucci managed to get himself assigned to an expedition headed back to the lands Columbus had discovered. Leading the operation was a young Spanish nobleman named Alonso de Ojeda, who had sailed with Columbus’ second voyage and had his own ideas as to how best to find the westward sea route to India.
In a series of letters, Amerigo Vespucci claimed to have sailed on a total of four voyages. However, historians have found that only three of these letters are genuine, and most likely only two voyages occurred The first was his voyage to present-day French Guiana and the northern coast of South America with Alonso de Hojeda in 1499. The second, an exploration of the southern coast of South America, occurred in 1501 and 1502.
By 1499, the Spanish were becoming frustrated that the land Columbus called “India” did not appear to be anywhere near the golden castles and spice markets that India was famous for. Columbus doggedly defended the lands he’d discovered as India. But as King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella became less impressed with Columbus’ near-constant complaints and demands for more authority, they opened up these lands to other Spanish-authorized explorers. They sent Alonzo de Ojeda south along the coast of these new lands to find the shining palaces on the Ganges River.
The number of ships in the expedition is not known; some sources say two, some say four. They left sometime in May 1499, and first stopped along the coast of Africa and at the Canary Islands to pick up extra supplies. The Atlantic crossing was extremely fast, considering the ships available at the time, and took only 24 days. At present-day French Guiana, the expedition split in two: Vespucci cruised south and explored the coast of modern day Brazil, while Ojeda and skilled mariner Juan de la Cosa headed west, exploring the coast of modern day Venezuela. Ojeda, who appears to have had trouble getting along with the natives, angered the local Carib Indians on the mainland and took several casualties when the Native Americans defended themselves with extremely accurate arrows. Vespucci and Ojeda apparently met up again and sailed to the island of Hispaniola. At this time, they still believed that they had been exploring the “eastern limits of Asia.” The voyage returned to Spain in June of 1500, carrying a load of expensive brazilwood and some 200 captured Native Americans, who were to be kept as slaves in Europe.
The confusion about the number of vessels and where the expedition went is largely due to Vespucci’s confused and possibly intentionally misleading accounts of his travels. In letters written to his patron and friend Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de Medici after the voyage, Vespucci does not mention Ojeda or Cosa’s participation in the expedition, making himself the hero of the story. In other letters Vespucci is known to have written, he gives incorrect dates for voyages, placing himself in the New World as early as 1497, which is totally unsupported by Spanish records. Little is known as to Vespucci’s role in Ojeda’s 1499 expedition, as he is not listed in crew records. This has led some to theorize that he was onboard as a curious civilian (it is known that he recorded all sorts of astronomical and cosmological readings while in the Caribbean) or perhaps he was a sort of watchdog assigned by the expedition’s financial backers in Seville.
After his first voyage, Vespucci penned one of the authentic letters to a former employer from his time with the Medici family, Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de’ Medici. Vespucci was far more interested in the scientific and anthropological gains from his voyage than he was in finding wealth and treasure. He spent much of the letter describing the native people that he encountered in the more northern regions of South America, as well as advancements in his understanding of geology and cosmography.
Just a few weeks after his return, Vespucci turned up in Lisbon, Portugal at the court of King Manuel I. It is unclear how Vespucci gained the ear of the powerful Portuguese king, but in May of 1501, he was at the head of a Lisbon-sponsored fleet of three caravels. In the Cape Verde Islands, Vespucci met with Pedro Álvares Cabral, the Portuguese explorer credited with discovering Brazil while on his way to India in 1500. (This point is debatable, as Vespucci had already explored the coast of present-day Brazil during his 1499 voyage.) Vespucci’s goal in this expedition is unclear; he may have been eager to return to modern day Brazil out of genuine curiosity. No doubt King Manuel wanted him to explore the land to give Portugal the right to settle it in the future.
Vespucci’s fleet ranged down the coasts of present day Brazil and Argentina, poking into the major rivers of the area and, importantly, observing the stars visible in the night sky. Different constellations were seen in the Southern Hemisphere than in the skies over Europe. On this journey, he eagerly studied the Native Americans and claimed to have spent several weeks living with them. His notes on how the indigenous people lived show Vespucci to be a very comprehending observer; he did not see the “Indians” as savages, but merely recorded their actions without passing judgment.
When he returned to Portugal in July of 1502, Vespucci was ready to admit what Columbus could not: the lands to the west were not Asia, but a different continent altogether. It was a hard admission to make; as an avid geographer and cosmographer, Vespucci had believed in the infallibility of second century geographer Claudius Ptolemy, whose collection of maps (still in use in the early 16th century) did not include any giant land masses between Europe and Asia. In letters to Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de Medici, written upon his return, Vespucci theorized that what Columbus had found wasn’t India at all, but a new world, which he dubbed Mundus Novus (“new world” in Latin).
Vespucci’s theory was published all over Europe and caused a sensation among scholars. German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller created his own name for the New World in 1507, when he published a book on geography, which called the present day South American mainland “America” in Vespucci’s honor. While Vespucci continued to call the lands Mundus Novus, the name America stuck and entered into everyday usage in European geographical circles.
Amerigo Vespucci renounced his Florentine citizenship in 1505 and became a Spanish citizen. He was made pilot-major for Spain, and oversaw the training and licensing of Spanish pilots. The job also brought with it the task of managing the Spanish Crown’s large (and growing) collection of maps and atlases, which must have suited an admitted bibliophile like Vespucci just fine. Weakened by repeated bouts with malaria, Vespucci died in Seville in February 1512.
Although historians are baffled by his repeated exaggerations in letters detailing his career as an explorer, Vespucci’s accomplishments (the real ones) are quite noteworthy. He was likely the first European to see the coast of modern-day Brazil and, as a cosmographer, brought a scientific eye to the New World. Overseeing Spain’s library of maps and geographical books no doubt preserved this valuable information for later generations. Most importantly, Vespucci’s name – his first name – lives on in the names of the two American continents.
Although Vespucci claimed to be captain of all of his voyages, he was, in fact, only the leader of his 1501-1502 expedition. The four most memorable of his ships were named:
Amerigo Vespucci is remembered for several important reasons. He explored the mouth of the Amazon River. He also developed a method for determining longitude. Sailors had been using dead reckoning – estimating their position based on their previous location and the distance traveled – for centuries, but Vespucci’s new method was more accurate. Vespucci also helped to determine the size of the earth. He calculated the length of the equator to within 80 kilometers of its true size.
Perhaps Vespucci’s most important contribution, however, was his realization that the continent he was exploring was not Asia. It was, in fact, a continent previously unknown to most Europeans. Eventually the continents of the western hemisphere became known as North and South America – named after Amerigo Vespucci.
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