Amerigo Vespucci - Frederick Ober

On the Coast of Brazil


The New World, subsequently to be called America, did not reveal itself to navigators during the lifetime of any one of those first engaged in its discovery. Its islands and coast-lines were brought to view one by one, and bit by bit, so that many years elapsed between the voyage of Columbus, in 1492, and that which finally enabled the map-makers to complete the outlines of the continents. It is interesting and instructive to trace the movements of the explorers, and note how, after the initial work of Columbus, they emulate one another in pushing farther and farther into the great ocean of darkness, their voyages overlapping at times, but ever extending, until at last the islands of the West Indies are all revealed and the vast southern continent is circumnavigated.

Columbus, in his first three voyages, brought to view most of those islands now known as the Antilles, and on his fourth and last he skirted the eastern coast of Central America; but he left gaps here and there which it took many years to fill. On his third voyage, in 1498, he discovered the island of Trinidad and the pearl islands off the coast of Cumana; but he did not proceed, as he should have done, along the coast of Terra Firma, and hence Ojeda, Vespucci, and La Cosa slipped in, guided by the very chart made by him and so treacherously furnished them by Fonseca.

Routes of the Discoverers


While doubts may be entertained as to the "first" voyage of Vespucci, none can exist as to that made by him in 1499-1500, as we have the sworn testimony to that effect by Ojeda himself, who, when called to give the same, in the great suit brought by Diego Columbus against the crown, declared that he had with him on that voyage both La Cosa and the Florentine. This testimony was given in 1513, a year after Vespucci's death, and its object was to show that the coast of Terra Firma, so called, had been first seen by Columbus. By establishing the fact of his priority, it disposed of any claim Vespucci or his friends may have made, as he and Ojeda were sailing with the track-chart of Columbus as their guide. Thus they picked up the route pursued by the Admiral, and extended it several degrees, Bastidas and La Cosa, the next year, carrying it still farther.

In December, 1499, in June of which year Ojeda and Vespucci had set out together, Vicente Pinzon sailed along the Brazilian coast to a point eight degrees south of the equinoctial line. He returned to Spain in September, 1500, and in April of that year Pedro Alvarez Cabral, in command of a Portuguese fleet bound for the Spice Islands, over the route discovered by Da Gama, accidentally came in sight of land on the coast of the country since known as Brazil, in latitude sixteen degrees south of the line. Unable to prosecute explorations there, as he was bound for the East, around the Cape of Good Hope and along the west coast of Africa, Cabral sent a vessel of his fleet back to Portugal with the news, and proceeded on his way.

Casting about for a navigator eminently qualified as pilot and cosmographer to pursue the exploration indicated by Cabral, along the coast of the country he had so strangely revealed, King Emanuel of Portugal made up his mind that Amerigo Vespucci was the man he wanted. Just when he came to this decision, and when Vespucci shifted his allegiance from Spain to Portugal, is not exactly known, but it was probably late in the year 1500, after his return, of course, from the voyage with Ojeda and La Cosa. The particulars of this transaction we will let him relate in the following letter contained in this chapter. He does not quite satisfactorily explain how he came to break with King Ferdinand, especially as both the sovereign and Fonseca had received him with marked attention, the latter having presented him at court, where he was consulted as to new expeditions, and "his accounts of what he had already seen listened to with the greatest interest." The affair is all the more inexplicable from the fact that during the interval between his return from the second voyage and his going to Portugal he was married to a charming lady of Seville. This lady, Dona Maria Cerezo, was his betrothed during the time he was engaged with the house of Berardi, but the mania for exploring having seized him, their marriage was not consummated until after the two voyages had been made. She went with him to the court, sharing there the honors heaped upon him by the king; but after this little is heard of her, though it is known that she survived him several years, and on account of his distinguished services to Spain received a liberal pension from the government.

Leaving his newly wedded wife in Seville, Vespucci went to Portugal, "where he was received with open arms by King Emanuel, and commenced with ardor the preparation of the fleet." Respecting his sudden departure from Spain, his Italian eulogist, Canovai, has this to say: "It does not appear that King Ferdinand considered himself wronged by the sudden flight and, to say the least, apparent discourtesy of Amerigo in leaving the kingdom and the king, his patron, without salutation or leave-taking. It was probably looked upon as a trait of his reserved character, or an evidence of his aversion to idle and slanderous rumors, which he was unwilling to take the pains to contradict. Rumors and whisperings soon die away when they have nothing to feed upon, and when Vespucci returned, as though from a journey, the slight was forgotten, and he was treated with greater honor than before."

To what cause King Emanuel owed this acquisition of King Ferdinand's skilled navigator does not appear; but he was not to retain him very long. He made, however, two voyages under the flag of Portugal, the first of which is outlined in this letter to his friend, the Gonfaloniere of Florence, Piero Soderini:

"I was reposing myself in Seville, after the many toils I had undergone in the two voyages to the Indies, made for his Serene Highness Ferdinand, King of Castile, yet indulging in a willingness to return to the Land of Pearls, when Fortune, not seeming to be satisfied with my former labors, inspired the mind of his Majesty Emanuel, King of Portugal (I know not through what circumstances), to attempt to avail himself of my services. There came to me a royal letter from his majesty, containing a solicitation that I would come to Lisbon to speak with him, he promising to show me many favors. I did not at once determine to go, and argued with the messenger, telling him I was ill and indisposed for the undertaking, but that when recovered, if his highness wished me to serve him, I would do whatever he might command.

"Seeing that he could not obtain me thus, he sent Juliano di Bartolomeo del Giocondo, who at that time resided in Lisbon, with a commission to use every means to bring me back with him. Juliano came to Seville, and on his arrival, and induced by his urgent entreaties, I was persuaded to go, though my going was looked upon with ill favor by all who knew me. It was thus regarded by my friends, because I had abandoned Castile, where I had been honored, and because they thought the king had rightful possession of me; and it was considered still worse that I departed without taking leave of my host.

"Having, however, presented myself at the court of King Emanuel, he appeared to be highly pleased with my coming, and requested that I would accompany his three ships, which were then ready to set out for the discovery of new lands. Thus esteeming a request from a king as equivalent to a command, I was obliged to consent to whatever he asked of me.

"We set sail from the port of Lisbon with three ships in company, on the l3th of May, 1501, and steered our course directly for the Grand Canary Islands, which we passed without stopping, and coasted along the western shores of Africa. On this coast we found excellent fishing, taking fish called porgies, and were detained three days. From there we went to the coast of Ethiopia, arriving at a port called Beseneghe, within the torrid zone, and situated on the fourteenth degree of north latitude, in the first climate. Here we remained eleven days, taking in wood and water—as it was my intention to sail south through the great Atlantic Ocean. Leaving this port of Ethiopia, we sailed on our course, bearing a quarter south, and in ninety-seven days we made land, at a distance of seven hundred leagues from said port.

"In those ninety-seven days we had the worst weather that ever man experienced who navigated the ocean, in a succession of drenching rains, showers, and tempests. The season was very unpropitious, as our navigation was continually drawing us nearer the equinoctial line, where, in the month of June, it is winter, and where we found the days and nights of equal length, and our shadows falling continually towards the south. It pleased God, however, to show us new land, on the 17th day of August, at half a league distance from which we anchored. We launched our boats and went ashore, to see if the country was inhabited, and, if so, by what kind of people, and we found at length a population far more degraded than brutes.

"It should be understood that at first we did not see any inhabitants, though we knew very well, by the many signs we saw, that the country was peopled. We took possession of it, in the name of his most serene majesty, and found it to be pleasant and verdant, and situated five degrees south of the equinoctial line. This much we ascertained and then returned to the ships. On the next day, while we were ashore, we saw people looking at us from the summit of a mountain, but they did not venture to descend. They were naked, and of the same color and figure as those heretofore discovered by me for the King of Spain. We made much exertion to persuade them to come and speak with us, but could not assure them sufficiently to trust us. Seeing their obstinacy, as it was growing late we returned to the ships, leaving on shore for them many bells, looking-glasses, and other things, in places where they could find them. When we had gone away they descended from the mountain and took possession of the things we had left, appearing to be filled with wonder while viewing them. The next morning we saw from the ships that the people of the land were making many bonfires, and, taking them for signals to go ashore, we went and found that many had arrived; but they kept always at a distance, though they made signs that they wished us to accompany them inland. Whereupon two Christians were induced to ask the captain's permission to brave the danger and go with them, in order to see what kind of people they were, and whether they had any kind of riches, spices, or drugs. They importuned him so much that he finally consented, and after having been fitted out with many articles for trade they left us, with orders not to be absent more than five days, as we should expect them with great anxiety. So they took their way into the country, and we returned to the ships to wait for them, which we did for six days; but they never came back, though nearly every day there came people to the shore, who would not, however, speak with us.

"On the seventh day we landed and found that they had brought their wives with them, whom they commanded, as we reached the shore, to speak with us. We observed that they hesitated to obey the order, and accordingly determined to send one of our people, a very courageous young man, to address them. In order to encourage them, we entered the boats while he went to speak with the women. When he arrived they formed themselves into a great circle around him, touching and looking at him as with astonishment. While all this was going on, we saw a woman coming from the mountains carrying a large club in her hands. When she arrived where our young Christian stood she came up behind him and, raising the bludgeon, gave him such a blow with it that she laid him dead on the spot, and immediately the other women took him by the feet and dragged him away towards the mountain. The men ran towards the shore forthwith and began to assail us with their arrows, throwing our people into a great fright, in consequence of the boats having grounded, many arrows reaching them. No one resorted to arms, but for a time all was terror and panic. After a while, however, we discharged four swivels at them, which had no other effect than to make them flee towards the mountain, when they heard the report. There we saw that the women had already cut the young Christian in pieces, and at a great fire which they had made were roasting him in our sight, showing us the several pieces as they ate them. The men also made signs to us indicating that they had killed the other two Christians and eaten them in the same manner, which grieved us very much.

" . . . We departed from this place and sailed along in a southeasterly direction, on a line parallel with the coast, making many landings, but never finding any people with whom to converse. Continuing in this manner, we found at length that the line of the coast made a turn to the south, and after doubling a cape, which we called St. Augustine, we began to sail in a southerly direction. This cape is a hundred and fifty leagues distant, easterly, from the aforementioned land where the three Christians were murdered, and eight degrees south of the equinoctial line. While sailing on this course, we one day saw many people standing on the shore, apparently in great wonder at the sight of our ships. We directed our course towards them, and, having anchored in a good place, proceeded to land in the boats, and found the people better disposed than those we had passed. Though it cost us some exertion to tame them, we nevertheless made them our friends and treated with them. In this place we stayed five days, and here we found cassia-stems very large and green, and some already dried on the tops of the trees. We determined to take a couple of men from the place, in order that they might learn the language, and three of them came with us voluntarily, wishing to visit Portugal.

"Being already wearied with so much writing, I will delay no longer the information that we left this port and sailed continually in a southerly direction in sight of the shore, making frequent landings and treating with a great number of people. We went so far to the south that we were beyond the tropic of Capricorn, where the south pole is elevated thirty-two degrees above the horizon. We had then entirely lost sight of Ursa Minor, and even Ursa Major was very low, nearly on the edge of the horizon; so we steered by the stars of the south pole, which are many, and much brighter than those of the north. I drew the figures of the greater part of them, particularly those of the first and second magnitude, with a description of the circles which they made around the pole, and an account of their diameters and semi-diameters, as may be seen in my Quattro Giornate, or Four Journeys.

"We ran on this coast about seven hundred and fifty leagues: one hundred and fifty from Cape St. Augustine towards the west, and six hundred towards the south. If I were to relate all the things that I saw on this coast, and others that we passed, as many more sheets as I have already written upon would not be sufficient for the purpose. We saw nothing of utility here, save a great number of dye-wood and cassia trees, and also of those trees which produce myrrh. There were, however, many natural curiosities, which cannot be recounted.

"Having been already full ten months on the voyage, and seeing that we had found no minerals in the country, we concluded to take leave of it, and attempt the ocean in some other part. It was determined in council to pursue whatever course of navigation appeared best to me, and I was invested with full command of the fleet. I ordered that all the people and the fleet should be provided with wood and water for six months—as much as the officers of the ship should deem prudent to sail with. Having laid in our provisions, we commenced our navigation with a southeasterly wind, on the 15th of February, when the sun was already approaching the equinoctial line, and tending towards this, our northern hemisphere. We were in such high southern latitude at this time that the south pole was elevated fifty-two degrees above the horizon, and we no longer saw the stars either of Ursa Minor or Major.

"On the 3d of April we had sailed five hundred leagues from the port we had left, and on this day commenced a storm so violent that we had to take in all our sails and run under bare poles. It was so furious that the whole fleet was in apprehension. The nights were very long, being fifteen hours in duration, the sun then being in Aries, and winter prevailing in this region. While driven by this storm, on the 7th of April, we came in sight of new land, and ran within twenty leagues of it, finding the coast wild, and seeing neither harbor nor inhabitants. The cold was so severe that no one in the fleet could withstand or endure it—which I conceive to be the reason for this want of population. Finding ourselves in great danger, and the storm so violent that we could scarce distinguish one ship from another, on account of the high seas that were running and the misty darkness of the weather, we agreed that the superior captain should make signals to the fleet to turn about, leave the country, and steer direct for Portugal.

"This proved to be very good counsel, for certain it is, if we had delayed that night, we should all have been lost. We took the wind aft, and during the night and next day the storm increased so much that we were apprehensive for our safety, and made many vows of pilgrimage, and the performance of other ceremonies usual with [superstitious] mariners in such weather. We ran five days, making about two hundred and fifty leagues, and continually approaching the equinoctial line, finding the air more mild and the sea less boisterous; till at last it pleased God to deliver us from this our great danger.

"It was our intention to go and reconnoitre the coast of Ethiopia, which was thirteen hundred leagues distant from us, through the great Atlantic sea, and by the grace of God we arrived at it, touching at a southern port called Sierra Leone, where we stayed fifteen days, obtaining refreshments. From this place we steered for the Azore Islands, about seven hundred and fifty leagues distant, where we arrived in the latter part of July, and stayed another fifteen days, taking some recreation. Then we departed for Lisbon, three hundred leagues farther, which port we entered on the 7th of September, 1502—for which the All-Powerful be thanked!—with only two ships, having burned the other in Sierra Leone because it was no longer sea-worthy.

"In this voyage we were absent about fifteen months, and sailed eleven of them without seeing the north star, or either of the constellations Ursa Major and Minor (which are called the "horn"), steering meanwhile by the stars of the other pole. The above is what I saw in this my third voyage, made for his Serene Highness the King of Portugal."