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.
Although Christopher Columbus is credited for discovering the “New World,” he always believed he had reached Asia. Amerigo Vespucci, however, actually confirmed that it was not Asia, but instead a separate continent. Because of this, North and South America bear his name. Continents bear feminine names. Europe, named by the Greeks, comes from “Europa.” Asia also comes from Greece, and referred to lands east of their homeland. So sticking with a feminine tradition, “America” is a feminine form of Amerigo.
Amerigo Vespucci was born March 9, 1454 in Florence, Italy to Nastagio and Lisabetta Vespucci. His father was a notary in the Florence government. The Vespucci family was well-connected, and Amerigo received an excellent education by his uncle Giorgio Antonio. He became fluent in several languages, and had much interest in cartography, astronomy, and navigation techniques. Giorgio was also a teacher to the Medici’s, the most noble and powerful family in Florence. When he was older, Amerigo began working for the Medici’s. In 1492, he was sent to Seville, Spain to manage some business affairs of the Medici family. While in Spain, Vespucci struck up an unofficial partnership with two other Italians: Donato Nicollini and Giannotto Berardi. Through Berardi, Vespucci made a number of contacts among mariners on the Seville riverfront, including Christopher Columbus.
Vespucci was introduced to Christopher Columbus before Columbus’ first voyage in 1492. Berardi was an investor in Columbus’ journey.1 In 1493, Berardi and Vespucci helped Columbus by getting him ships, cannons, and food supplies for his voyage. On December 15, 1495, Giannotto Berardi died, which left Amerigo Vespucci in charge of his business in obtaining supplies for the Spanish ships.2 Some historians argue that Vespucci sailed with Columbus on his second voyage, but there is no evidence to fully support this idea.3 Vespucci helped prepare Columbus’ third voyage as well in May 1498. By 1499, the king and queen of Spain were disappointed in Columbus. He had returned for a third time without the vast riches promised to them. Plus they learned that the colonists Columbus ruled over in Hispaniola did not like him. So the rulers sent another team westward. They were sending ships to Hispaniola (present day island of the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and some further south to explore new areas. The king asked Amerigo to go as a pilot on one of the ships going south for exploration. His duties would include cartography and astronomy to help with navigation.
Amerigo Vespucci began his voyage on May 18, 1499. It is unsure how many ships were in the fleet, but it is believed to be between 2 to 4. Alonso Ojeda was the captain of the expedition, and Juan de la Cosa was a pilot. Leaving from Cadiz, Spain, the team sailed along the western coast of Africa, then across the Atlantic Ocean for about twenty four days. They landed in the South American country of Guiana.4 Here, the expedition split in two. Vespucci cruised south and explored the coast of modern day Brazil. Ojeda and de la Cosa headed west, exploring the coast of modern day Venezuela. Vespucci charted the stars and constellations of the southern hemisphere. He noticed that they were different from the constellations usually visible in Europe. They recorded the plants and wildlife they saw. They also encountered several native tribes along the way. On the island of Curacao, Vespucci told of natives that appeared to be giants. At one point, Vespucci’s men tried kidnapping some female natives to take back to Spain. But they were unsuccessful because the male natives fought them off.5
The voyage returned to Spain in June of 1500. Vespucci wrote a detailed letter to his friend Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici describing his trip, the natives, and geography of the places he had visited. He also first describes a very large river that we today know as the Amazon River. One tribe he encountered were nude men and women who were cannibals. He did not see the “Indians” as savages, but merely recorded their actions without passing judgment. Shortly after his return to Spain, Vespucci went to Portugal, where he met with King Manuel. By May 1501, Vespucci was on another voyage, this time for the Portuguese kingdom. Once more Vespucci’s fleet sailed down the coast of Brazil, and along Argentina’s coast. He once more noted the different constellations not visible in Europe. When they did not find any of the riches said to be found in India, the fleet headed home for Portugal. Based on his knowledge of maps, Vespucci was beginning to believe, unlike Columbus, that they were not in India. By the end of this journey, he had sailed farther south than previous explorers.
Vespucci returned to Lisbon, Portugal in September 1502. He wrote in another letter to Lorenzo Medici that the land they discovered was not an island, but a continent. He called it Mundus Novus – Latin for “new world.”6 He continued describing that the continent had many pearls and precious stones. The king asked Vespucci to sail again in 1503, still hoping to find a route to India. The fleet left May 10, 1503 under captain Gonzalo Coelho. They sailed to and stopped at different islands off the New World coast. Along they way, they saw a variety of wildlife and met some more native people. They also discovered a harbor which Vespucci named the “Bay of All Saints.” The voyage lasted about twelve months before they headed home. They reached Lisbon in June 1504. This was Amerigo Vespucci’s final voyage.
Later Years and Death
Amerigo Vespucci was confident that the southern hemisphere he explored was neither Asia nor India. In June 1503, when Lorenzo Medici died, a copy of Vespucci’s letter titled Mundus Novus was published. Amerigo Vespucci spent the last of his years fulfilling the role as Pilot-Major of Spain. He oversaw the training and licensing of Spanish pilots. He was also in charge of managing the Spanish Crown’s growing collection of maps and atlases. In 1507, German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller published a book on geography. In this book, he referred to Vespucci’s southern hemisphere as “America” in honor of the explorer. While Vespucci continued to call the lands Mundus Novus, the name America stuck and entered into everyday use in European circles. Weakened by repeated bouts with malaria, Vespucci died in Seville in February 1512.
Amerigo Vespucci is remembered for several important reasons. He explored the mouth of the Amazon River. He also developed a method for determining longitude. 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.
- Lynn Hoogenboom, Amerigo Vespucci: A Primary Source Biography (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2006), 8.
- Ann Fitzpatrick Alper, Forgotten Voyager: The Story of Amerigo Vespucci (Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group, 1991), 32.
- Frederick Albion Ober, Amerigo Vespucci (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1907), 79.
- Kurt Ray, Amerigo Vespucci: Italian Explorer of the Americas (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2004), 53-55.
- Ray, Amerigo Vespucci, 61.
- Ober, Amerigo Vespucci, 247.
Alper, Ann Fitzpatrick. Forgotten Voyager: The Story of Amerigo Vespucci. Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group, 1991.
Hoogenboom, Lynn. Amerigo Vespucci: A Primary Source Biography. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2006.
Ober, Frederick Albion. Amerigo Vespucci. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1907.
Ray, Kurt. Amerigo Vespucci: Italian Explorer of the Americas. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2004.