Amerigo Vespucci - Frederick Ober

The "Fourth Part of the Earth"

The following letter from Vespucci to Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de Medici, his friend and patron in Florence, was probably written in the spring of 1503.

"To my most Excellent Patron, Lorenzo:

"My last letter to your excellency was written from a place on the coast of Guinea called Cape Verde, and in it you were informed of the commencement of my voyage. The present letter will advise you of its continuation and termination.

"We started from the above-mentioned cape, having first taken in all necessary supplies of wood, water, etc., to discover new lands in the ocean. We sailed on a southwesterly course until, at the end of sixty-four days, we discovered land, which, on many accounts, we concluded to be Terra Firma. We coasted this land about eight hundred leagues, in a direction west by south. It was well inhabited, and I noticed many remarkable things, which I will attempt to narrate.

"We sailed in those seas until we entered the torrid zone, and passed to the south of the equinoctial line and the tropic of Capricorn, so that we were fifty degrees south of the line. We navigated four months and twenty-seven days, seeing neither the arctic pole nor Ursa Major or Minor. We discovered here many beautiful constellations, invisible in the northern hemisphere, and noted their marvellous movements and their grandeur. . . . To proceed, now, to a description of the country, the plants therein, and of the customs of the inhabitants, I would observe that this region is most delightful, and covered with immense forests which never lose their foliage, and throughout the year yield aromatic odors and produce an infinite variety of fruit, grateful to the taste and healthful for the body. In the fields flourish so many sweet flowers and herbs, and the fruits are so delicious and fragrant, that I fancied myself near the terrestrial paradise. What shall I tell you of the birds and the brilliant colors of their plumage? What of their variety, their sweet songs, and their beauty? I dare not enlarge upon this theme, for I fear I should not be believed. How shall I enumerate the infinite variety of sylvan animals: lions, catamounts, panthers—though not like those of our regions—wolves, stags, and baboons of all kinds? We saw more wild animals—such as wild hogs, kids, deer, hares, and rabbits—than could ever have entered the ark of Noah; but we saw no domestic animals whatever.

"Now, consider reasoning animals. We found the whole region inhabited by people who were entirely naked, both men and women. They were well proportioned in body, with black, coarse hair, and little or no beard. I labored much to investigate their customs, remaining twenty-seven days for that purpose, and the following is the information I acquired. They have no laws and no religious beliefs, but live according to the dictates of nature alone. They know nothing of the immortality of the soul; they have no private property, but everything in common; they have no boundaries of kingdom or province; they obey no king or lord, for it is wholly unnecessary, as they have no laws, and each one is his own master. They dwell together in houses made like bells, in the construction of which they use neither iron nor any other metal. This is very remarkable, for I have seen houses two hundred and twenty feet long and thirty feet wide, built with much skill, and containing five or six hundred people. They sleep in hammocks made of cotton, suspended in the air, without any covering; they eat seated upon the ground, and their food consists of roots and herbs, fruits and fish. They eat also lobsters, crabs, oysters, and many other kinds of mussels and shell-fish which are found in the sea. As to their meat, it is principally human flesh. It is true that they devour the flesh of four-footed animals and birds; but they do not catch many, because they have no dogs, and the woods are thick and so filled with wild beasts that they do not care to go into them, except in large bodies and armed. The men are in the habit of decorating their lips and cheeks with bones and stones, which they suspend from holes they bore in them. I have seen some of them with three, seven, and even as many as nine holes, filled with white or green alabaster—a most barbarous custom, which they follow in order, as they say, to make themselves appear ferocious. . . . They are a people of great longevity, for we met with many who had descendants of the fourth degree. Not knowing how to compute time, and counting neither days, months, nor years—excepting in so far as they count the lunar months—when they wanted to signify to us any particular duration of time, they did it by showing us a stone for each moon; and, computing in this manner, we discovered that the age of one man that we saw was seventeen hundred moons, or about one hundred and thirty-two years, reckoning thirteen moons to the year.

"They are a warlike race and extremely cruel. All their weapons are, as Petrarch says, "committed to the winds"—for they consist of spears, arrows, stones, and javelins. They use no shields for the body, going to battle almost wholly naked. There is no order or discipline in their fights, except that they follow the counsels of the old men. Most cruelly do they combat, and those who conquer in the field bury their own dead, but cut up and eat the dead of their enemies. Some who are taken prisoners are carried to their villages for slaves. Females taken in war they frequently marry, and sometimes the male prisoners are allowed to marry the daughters of the tribe; but occasionally a diabolical fury seems to come over them, and, calling together their relations and the people, they sacrifice these slaves, the children with the parents, accompanied by barbarous ceremonies. This we know of a certainty, for we found much human flesh in their huts, hung up to smoke, and we purchased ten poor creatures from them, both men and women, whom they were about to sacrifice, to save them from such a fate. Much as we reproached them on this account, I cannot say that they amended at all. The most astounding thing in all their wars and cruelty was that we could not find out any reason for them. They made war against each other, although they had neither kings, kingdoms, nor property of any kind, without any apparent desire to plunder, and without any lust for power—which always appeared to me to be the moving causes of wars and anarchy. When we asked them about this they gave no reason other than that they did so to avenge the murder of their ancestors. To conclude this disgusting subject: one man confessed to me that he had eaten of the flesh of over two hundred bodies, and I believe it was the truth.

"In regard to the climate of this region, I should say it was extremely pleasant and healthful; for in all the time that we were there, which was ten months, not one of us died, and only a few were sick. They suffer from no infirmity, pestilence, or corruption of the atmosphere, and die only natural deaths, unless they fall by their own hands or in consequence of accident. In fact, physicians would have a bad time in such a place.

"As we went solely to make discoveries, and started with that view from Lisbon, without intending to look for any profit, we did not trouble ourselves to explore the country much, and found nothing of great value; though I am inclined to believe that it is capable, from its climate and general appearance, of containing every kind of natural wealth. It is not to be wondered at that we did not discover at once everything that might be turned to profit there, for the inhabitants think nothing of gold or silver or precious stones, and value only feathers and bones. But I hope that I shall be sent again by the king to visit these regions, and that many years will not elapse before they will bring immense profits and revenue to the kingdom of Portugal.

"We found great quantities of dye-wood, enough to load all the ships that float, and costing nothing. The same may be said of cassia, crystals, spices, and drugs; but the qualities of the last are unknown. The inhabitants of the country tell of gold and other metals; but I am one of those who, like St. Thomas, are slow to believe. Time will show all, however. Most of the time of our stay the heavens were serene and adorned with numerous bright and beautiful stars, many of which I observed, with their revolutions.

"This may be considered a schedule, or, as it were, a capita rerum, of the things which I have seen in these parts. Many things are omitted which are worthy of being mentioned, in order to avoid prolixity, and because they are found in my account of the voyage. As yet I tarry at Lisbon, waiting the pleasure of the king to determine what I shall do. May it please God that I do whatever is most to His glory and the salvation of my soul."

A third and fuller account of the third voyage, written to Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de Medici:

"In days past I gave your excellency a full account of my return, and, if I remember aright, wrote you a description of all those parts of the New World which I had visited in the ships of his Highness the King of Portugal. Carefully considered, they appear truly to form another world, and therefore we have, not without reason, called it the New World.

"Not one of all the ancients had any knowledge of it, and the things which have been lately ascertained by us transcend all their ideas. They thought there was nothing south of the equinoctial line but an immense sea and some poor and barren islands. The sea they called the Atlantic, and if sometimes they confessed that there might be land in that region, they contended that it must be sterile, and could not be otherwise than uninhabitable. The present navigation has controverted their opinions, and openly demonstrated to all that they were very far from the truth. For, beyond the equinoctial line I found countries more fertile and more densely inhabited than I have ever found anywhere else, even in Asia, Africa, and Europe—as will be more fully manifested by duly attending to the following narration. Setting aside all minor matters, I shall relate only those of the greatest importance, which are well worthy of commemoration, and those which I have personally seen, or heard of from men of credibility. I shall now speak with much care concerning those parts most recently discovered, and without any romantic addition to the truth.

"With happy omens of success, we sailed from Lisbon with three armed caravels, on the 13th of May, 1501, to explore, by command of the king, the regions of the New World. Steering a southwest course, we sailed twenty months in a manner which I shall now relate. In the first place, we went to the Fortunate Islands, which are now called the Grand Canaries. After navigating the ocean we ran along the coast of Africa and the country of the blacks as far as the promontory which is called by Ptolemy Etiopia, by our people Cape Verde, and by the negroes Biseneghe, while the inhabitants themselves call it Madanghan. The country is situated within the torrid zone, in about fourteen degrees south latitude, and is inhabited by the blacks. Here we reposed awhile to refresh ourselves, took in every kind of provision, and set sail, directing our course towards the antarctic pole . . . .

"To shorten my relation as much as possible, your excellency must know that we sailed ninety-seven days, experiencing harsh and cruel fortune. During forty-four days the heavens were in great commotion, and we had nothing but thunder and lightning and drenching rains. Dark clouds covered the sky, so that by day we could see but little better than we could in ordinary nights without moonshine. The fear of death came over us, and the hope of life almost deserted us. After all these heavy afflictions at last it pleased God in His mercy to have compassion on us and save our lives. On a sudden, the land appeared in view, and at the sight of it our courage, which had fallen very low, and our strength, which had become weakness, immediately revived. Thus it usually happens to those who have passed through great afflictions, and especially to those who have been preserved from the rage of evil fortune.

"On the 17th of August, in the year 1501, we anchored by the shore of that country, and rendered to the Supreme Being our most sincere thanks, according to the Christian custom. The land we discovered did not appear to be an island, but a continent, as it extended far away in the distance, without any appearance of termination. It was beautifully fertile and very thickly inhabited, while all sorts of wild animals, which are unknown in our parts, were there found in abundance. . . . We were unanimously of the opinion that our navigation should be continued along this coast and that we should not lose sight of it. We sailed, therefore, till we arrived at a certain cape, which makes a turn to the south, and which is perhaps three hundred leagues distant from the place where we first saw land. In sailing this distance we often landed and held intercourse with the natives, and I have omitted to state that this newly discovered land is about seven hundred leagues distant from Cape Verde, though I was persuaded that we had sailed at least eight hundred. This was partly owing to a severe storm, our frequent accidents, and partly to the ignorance of the pilot.

"We had arrived at a place which, if I had not possessed some knowledge of cosmography, by the negligence of the pilot would have finished the course of our lives. There was no pilot who knew our situation within fifty leagues, and we went rambling about, and should not have known whither we were going if I had not provided, in season for my own safety and that of my companions, the astrolabe and quadrant, my astrological instruments. On this occasion I acquired no little glory for myself, so that from that time forward I was held in such estimation by my companions as the learned are held in by people of quality . . . .

"This continent commences at eight degrees south of the equinoctial line, and we sailed so far along the coast that we passed seventeen degrees beyond the winter tropic, towards the antarctic pole, which was here elevated fifty degrees above the horizon. The things which I saw here are unknown to the men of our times. That is, the people, their customs, their humanity, the fertility of the soil, the mildness of the atmosphere, the celestial bodies, and, above all, the fixed stars of the eighth sphere, of which no mention has ever been made. In fact, until now they have never been known, even by the most learned of the ancients, and I shall speak of them, therefore, more particularly. . . . The climate is very temperate and the country supremely delightful. Although it has many hills, yet it is watered by a great number of springs and rivers, and the forests are so closely studded that one cannot pass through them, on account of the thickly standing trees. Among these ramble ferocious animals of various kinds. . . . The country produces no metal except gold; and though we in this first voyage have brought home none, yet all the people certified to the fact, affirming that the region abounded in gold, and saying that among them it was little esteemed and nearly valueless. They have many pearls and precious stones, as we have recorded before. Now, though I should be willing to describe all these things particularly, yet, from the great number of them and their diverse nature, this history would become too extensive a work. Pliny, a most learned man, who compiled histories of many things, did not imagine the thousandth part of these. If he had treated of each one of them, he would have made a much larger but in truth a very perfect work. . . .

"If there is a terrestrial paradise in the world, it cannot be far from this region. The country, as I have said before, facing the south, has such a temperate climate that in winter they have no cold and in summer are not troubled with heat. The sky and atmosphere are seldom overshadowed with clouds, and the days are almost always serene. Dew sometimes falls, but very lightly, and only for the space of three or four hours, and then vanishes like mist. They have scarcely any vapors, and the sky is splendidly adorned with stars unknown to us, of which I have retained a particular remembrance, and have enumerated as many as twenty whose brightness is equal to that of Venus or Jupiter. I considered also their circuit and their various motions, and, having a knowledge of geometry, I easily measured their circumference and diameter, and am certain, therefore, that they are of much greater magnitude than men imagine. Among the others, I saw three Canopi, two being very bright, while the third was dim and unlike the others.

"The antarctic pole has not the Ursa Major and Minor, which can be seen at our arctic pole; neither are there any bright stars touching the pole, but of those which revolve around it there are four, in the form of a quadrangle. While these are rising, there is seen at the left a brilliant Canopus, of admirable magnitude, which, having reached mid-sky, forms the figure of a triangle. To these succeed three other brilliant stars, of which the one placed in the centre has twelve degrees of circumference. In the midst of them is another brilliant Canopus. After these follow six other bright stars, whose splendor surpasses that of all others in the eighth sphere. . . . These are all to be seen in the Milky Way, and when they arrive at the meridian show the figure of a triangle, but have two sides longer than the other. I saw there many other stars, and carefully observed their various motions, composing a book which treats of them particularly. In this book I have related almost all the remarkable things which I have encountered in the course of my navigation, and with which I have become acquainted. The book is at present in the possession of the king, and I hope he will return it soon into my hands.

"I examined some things in that hemisphere very diligently, which enables me to contradict the opinions of philosophers. Among other things, I saw the rainbow—that is, the celestial arch—which is white near midnight. Now, in the opinion of some, it takes the color of the four elements: the red from fire, the green from the earth, the white from the air, and blue from the water. Aristotle, in his book entitled Meteors, is of a very different opinion. He says: 'The celestial arch is a repercussion of the sun's rays in the vapors of the clouds where they meet, as brightness reflected from the water upon the wall returns to itself. By its interposition it tempers the heat of the sun; by resolving itself into rain it fertilizes the earth, and by its splendor beautifies the heavens. It demonstrates that the atmosphere is filled with humidity, which will disappear forty years before the end of the world, which will be an indication of the dryness of the elements. It announces peace between God and man, is always opposite the sun, is never seen at noon, because the sun is never in the north.'

"But Pliny says that after the autumnal equinox it appears every hour. This I have extracted from the Comments of Landino on the fourth book of the AEneid, and I mention it that no man may be deprived of the fruits of his labors, and that due honors may be rendered to every one. I saw this bow two or three times; neither am I alone in my reflections upon this subject, for many mariners are also of my opinion. We saw also the new moon at mid-day, as it came into conjunction with the sun. There were seen also, every night, vapors and burning flames flashing across the sky. A little above, I called this region by the name of hemisphere, which, if we would not speak improperly, cannot be so called when comparing it with our own. It appeared to present that form only partially, and it seemed to us speaking improperly to call it a 'hemisphere.'

"As I have before stated, we sailed from Lisbon—which is nearly forty degrees distant from the equinoctial line towards the north—to this country, which is fifty degrees on the other side of the line. The sum of these degrees is ninety, and is the fourth part of the circumference of the globe, according to the true reckoning of the ancients. It is therefore manifest to all that we measured the fourth part of the earth.[13]

"We who reside in Lisbon, nearly forty degrees north of the equinoctial line, are distant from those who reside on the other side of the line, in angular meridional length, ninety degrees—that is, obliquely. In order that the case may be more plainly understood, I would observe that a perpendicular line starting from that part in the heavens which is our zenith strikes those obliquely who are fifty degrees beyond the equinoctial line: whence it appears that we are in the direct line, and they, in comparison with us, are in the oblique one, and this situation forms the figure of a right-angled triangle, of which we have the direct lines, as the figure more clearly demonstrates.

"Such are the things which in this, my last navigation, I have considered worthy of being made known; nor have I, without reason, called this work my Third Journey. I have before composed two other books on navigation which, by command of Ferdinand, King of Castile, I performed in the West, in which many things not unworthy of being made known are particularly described: especially those which appertain to the glory of our Saviour, who, with marvellous skill, built this machine, the world. And, in truth, who can ever sufficiently praise God? I have related marvellous things concerning him in the aforesaid work. I have stated briefly that which relates to the position and ornaments of the globe, so that when I shall be more at leisure I may be able to write out, with greater care, a work upon cosmography, in order that future ages may bear me in remembrance. Such works teach me more fully, from day to day, to honor the Supreme God, and finally to arrive at the knowledge of those things with which our ancestors and the ancient fathers had no acquaintance. With most humble prayers I supplicate our Saviour, whose province it is to have compassion upon mortals, that he prolong my life sufficiently for me to perform what I have purposed to do."