Amerigo Vespucci - Frederick Ober

The Fourth Great Voyage


Doubtless our readers share our wish that the personality of Vespucci could appear more strongly depicted than it has been presented in this volume; but that is a fault, not of the biographer so much as the hero of this biography. It must have been noticed, indeed, that Vespucci says little or nothing of his companions on these voyages, not even mentioning the commanders; but at the same time he makes rare mention of himself; so we cannot ascribe it to a desire for making himself prominent at their expense. It is simply a fault of style, or a result of his endeavor to be concise, and bring forward the most interesting events of the voyages and discoveries, with the least waste of time and effort.

He was engaged in exploring new regions; his time was occupied in noting the salient features of the scenery, the traits of the barbaric peoples, and especially closely observing and enumerating the stars. Astronomy was a passion with him, and he passed many nights without sleep, during both voyages to the southern hemisphere, in rapt contemplation of the glorious constellations. As he rightly observed in one of his letters, his observations would surely bring him fame, and no worthier object could claim his attention, even to the exclusion of all other work. So it is as the self-absorbed astronomer, the open-minded man of science, seeking to penetrate the secrets of nature and achieve immortal fame, that we must regard our hero at this time.

On his return from the third voyage, Vespucci was royally received by King Emanuel, even though he had come back almost empty-handed, without gold or gems, silver, spices, or pearls. He had sailed farther south than any of his predecessors, having gone beyond the latitude of the Cape of Good Hope, discovered the beautiful bay which he called Rio de Janeiro, and perhaps looked into the mouth of the River de la Plata. He had not discovered the "secret of the strait"—that passage through the land-mass which confronted all the voyagers from Columbus to Magellan; nor was it revealed until the last-named, in 1520, penetrated the great strait that now bears his name, and sailed through into the Pacific.

It may be argued that not Vespucci, but another (name unknown), was the commander of this expedition; but while this other was nominally in command, the Florentine was the chief pilot, the navigator, and directed the ships along their courses without mishap. In fact, one of his biographers has pointed out that the navigating of this fleet, especially the sailing in almost a straight line from the northern coast of Brazil to Sierra Leone, on the northwest coast of Africa, was a triumph of scientific navigation. There is no question that Amerigo Vespucci was the greatest navigator of his time, and a recognition of this fact is found in his appointment by King Ferdinand, a few years later, as the chief pilot of his kingdom.

Not alone King Emanuel and his court recognized the genius of Vespucci, but the people of Portugal and of Florence. He was received in Lisbon with transports of enthusiasm, and one of his ships, which had worn itself out in the voyage, was dismantled, "and portions of it were carried in solemn procession to a church, where they were suspended as precious relics." His fame extended far and wide, and in Florence, the city of his birth, public ceremonies were held, and honors bestowed upon his family.

He returned to Lisbon in September, 1502, and eight months later, at the urgent request of the king, started on another voyage in continuation of the last, in the hope of finally finding a strait through the continent by which India might be reached. About this time two events took place which are worthy of note. His patron, Lorenzo, died in June, 1503, and a year later a Latin version of his letter to him was published under the title Mundus Novus, or New World.

We must not lose sight of this title and this publication, for (as will be more fully explained in a succeeding chapter) they had much to do with the future defamation of Vespucci. He, it will be observed, was pursuing his voyage to, or from, that "New World," while that little quarto of only four leaves, with its significant title, was being printed and circulated in Europe. Both Vespucci and Columbus were then absent from Europe, and both engaged in a desperate struggle with adverse elements, at the time this pamphlet was published: the one on the coast of Brazil, the other on his last voyage to the West Indies, in which he suffered shipwreck and nearly perished of starvation.

Both Columbus and Vespucci were innocent of promulgating this title, or this pamphlet, except that the latter had used the term "new world" as possibly applying to his discoveries in the south Atlantic. But, while they were perilling their lives in the service of their sovereigns, each striving for a common goal, though neither envious of the other, capricious Fame was weaving a web in which both were to be enmeshed, and from which Vespucci was not to escape until after the lapse of centuries.

The inscription in this pamphlet states: "The interpreter Giocondo translated this letter from the Italian into the Latin language, that all who are versed in the latter may learn how many wonderful things are being discovered every day, and that the temerity of those who want to probe the Heavens and their majesty, and to know more than is allowed to know, be confounded: as, notwithstanding the long time since the world began to exist, the vastness of the earth and what it contains is still unknown."

This inscription meant that Vespucci's letter had opened the eyes of even the clerics to the fact that there was much in the world then undiscovered, and existing contrary to their preconceived notions. The interpreter was a Dominican friar of erudition for his times, one Giovanni Giocondo, an eminent mathematician of Verona, and an architect, who was then living in Paris, where, it is said, he was engaged in building the bridge of Notre Dame. It was a Giocondo, and perhaps this same man, who was sent by King Emanuel to persuade Vespucci to enlist in his service (as told by him on page 170); but whether the same, or one of his family, he was intimately acquainted with the famous Florentines, including Vespucci, the Medici, and Piero Soderini. He, doubtless, saw the letters written by Vespucci when in manuscript, and condensed them into his narration, giving full credit to the author in his publication. He was the unconscious cause of an injustice to Columbus, perhaps, and also of undue prominence being given to the name of Amerigo Vespucci, for it was through the issue of his book that, in a roundabout way, the appellation America came to be bestowed upon the western continents.

We will elaborate this argument in another chapter; but (requesting the reader meanwhile to retain these premises in his mind) we will first follow Vespucci on his fourth, and last, important voyage to the southern hemisphere. In a passage appended to the letter quoted in the previous chapter, and which we herewith reproduce, Vespucci says:

"My three journeys I think I shall defer writing about in full until another time. Probably when I have returned safe and sound to my native country, with the aid and counsel of learned men, and the encouragement of friends, I shall write with care a larger work than this. Your excellency [Lorenzo de Medici] will pardon me for not having sent you the journals which I kept from day to day in this my last navigation, as I had promised to do. The king has been the cause of it, and he still retains my manuscripts. But, since, I have delayed performing this work until the present day, perhaps I shall add a fourth journey; for I contemplate going again to explore that southern part of the New World, and for the purpose of carrying out such intention two vessels are already armed, equipped, and supplied with provisions. I shall first go eastward, before making the voyage south; I shall then sail to the southwest, and when arrived there shall do many things for the praise and glory of God, the benefit of my country, the perpetual memory of my name, and particularly for the honor and solace of my old age, which has nearly come upon me.

"There is nothing wanting in this affair but the leave of the king, and when this is obtained, as it soon will be, we shall sail on a long voyage; and may it please God to give it a happy termination!"

This voyage was undertaken in the spring, or early summer, of 1503, and extended over twelve months, only terminating with the return to Lisbon on June 18, 1504. It was, perhaps, the least satisfactory of any Vespucci had undertaken, and his disgust is plainly apparent in the following account of it, contained in a letter to Piero Soderini, written in Lisbon a few months after his return:

"It remains for me to relate the things which were seen by me in my fourth voyage; and by reason that I have now become wearied, and also because this voyage did not result according to my wishes (in consequence of a misfortune which happened in the Atlantic Sea), I shall endeavor to be brief.

"We set sail from this port of Lisbon, six ships in company, for the purpose of making discoveries with regard to an island in the east called Malacca, which is reported very rich. It is, as it were, the warehouse of all the ships which come from the Sea of Ganges and the Indian Ocean, as Cadiz is the storehouse for all ships that pass from east to west, and from west to east, by way of Calcutta. This Malacca is farther east, and much farther south, than Calcutta, because we know that it is situated at the parallel of three degrees north latitude.

"We set out on the 10th of May, 1503, and sailed directly for the Cape Verde Islands, where we made up our cargo, taking in every kind of refreshment. After remaining here three days, we departed on our voyage, sailing in a southerly direction. Our superior captain [Coelho] was a presumptuous and very obstinate man; he would insist upon going to reconnoitre Sierra Leone, a southern country of Ethiopia, without there being any necessity for it, unless to exhibit himself as the captain of six vessels. He acted contrary to the wishes of all our captains in pursuing this course. Sailing in this direction, when we arrived off the coast of this country we had such bad weather that though we remained in sight of the coast four days, it did not permit us to land. We were compelled at length to leave the country, sailing from there to the south, and bearing southwest.

"When we had sailed three hundred leagues through the Great Sea, being then three degrees south of the equinoctial line, land was discovered, which might have been twenty-two leagues distant from us, and which we found to be an island in the midst of the sea. We were filled with wonder at beholding it, considering it a natural curiosity, as it was very high, and not more than two leagues in length by one in width. This island was not inhabited by any people, and was an evil island for the whole fleet, because, by the evil counsel and bad management of our superior captain, he lost his ship here. He ran her upon a rock, and she split open and went to the bottom, on the night of the 10th of August, and nothing was saved from her except the crew. She was a carrack of three hundred tons, and carried everything of most importance in the fleet.

"As the whole fleet was compelled to labor for the common benefit, the captain ordered me to go with my ship to the aforesaid island and look for a good harbor, where all the ships might anchor. As my boat, filled with nine of my mariners, was of service, and helped to keep up a communication between the ships, he did not wish me to take it, telling me they would bring it to me at the island. So I left the fleet, as he ordered me, without a small boat, and with less than half my men, and went to the said island, about four leagues distant. There I found a very good harbor, where all the ships might have anchored in perfect safety. I waited for the captain and the fleet full eight days, but they never came; so that we were very much dissatisfied, and the people who remained with me in the ship were in such great fear that I could not console them. On the eighth day we saw the ship coming, off at sea, and for fear those on board might not see us, we raised anchor and went towards it, thinking they might bring me my boat and men. When we arrived alongside, after the usual salutations, they told us that the captain had gone to the bottom, that all the crew had been saved, and that my boat and men remained with the fleet, which had gone farther to sea. This was a grievous thing to us, as your magnificence may well think, for it was no trifle to find ourselves far distant from Lisbon, in mid-ocean, with so few men. However, we bore up under adverse fortune, and, returning to the island, supplied ourselves with wood and water, using the boat of my consort.

"This island we found uninhabited. It had plenty of fresh water, and an abundance of trees filled with countless numbers of land and marine birds, which were so simple that they suffered themselves to be taken with the hand. We took so many that we loaded a boat with them. We saw no other animals, except some very large rats, some snakes, and lizards with two tails. Having taken in our supplies we departed for the southwest, as we had an order from the king that if any vessel of the fleet, or its captain, should be lost, I should make for the land of my last voyage. We discovered a harbor which we called the bay of All Saints, and it pleased God to give us such good weather that we arrived at it in seventeen days. It was distant three hundred leagues from the island we had left, and we found neither our captain nor any other ship of the fleet in the course of the voyage. We waited full two months and four days in this harbor, and, seeing that no orders came for us, we agreed, my consort and myself, to run along the coast. We sailed two hundred and sixty leagues farther and arrived at a harbor, where we determined to build a fortress. This we accomplished, and left in it the twenty-four men that my consort had received from the captain's ship that was lost.

"In this port we stayed five months, building the fortress and loading our ships with dye-woods. We could not proceed farther for want of men, and besides, I was destitute of many equipments. Thus, having finished our labors, we determined to return to Portugal, leaving the twenty-four men in the fortress, with provisions for six months, with twelve pieces of cannon, and many other arms. We made peace with all the people of the country—who have not been mentioned in this voyage, but not because we did not see and treat with a great number of them. As many as thirty men of us went forty leagues inland, where we saw so many things that I omit to relate them, reserving them for my Four Journeys.

"This country is situated eighteen degrees south of the equinoctial line, and fifty-seven degrees farther west than Lisbon, as our instruments showed us. All this being performed, we bade farewell to the Christians we left behind us, and to the country, and commenced our navigation on a northeast course, with the intention of sailing directly to this city of Lisbon. In seventy-seven days, after many toils and dangers, we entered this port on the 18th of June, 1504—for which God be praised! We were well received, although altogether unexpected, as the whole city had given us up for lost. All the other ships of the fleet had been lost, through the pride and folly of our commander, and thus it is that God rewards haughtiness and vanity.

"At present, I find myself here in Lisbon again, and I do not know what the king wishes me to do, but I am very desirous of obtaining repose. The bearer of this, who is Benvenuto di Domenico Benvenuti, will tell your magnificence of my condition, and of any other things which have been omitted, to avoid prolixity, but which I have seen and experienced. I have abbreviated the letter as much as I could, and omitted to say many things very natural to be told, that I might not be tedious.

"Allow me to commend to you Sr. Antonio Vespucci, my brother, and all my family. I remain, praying God that he may prolong your life, and prosper that exalted republic of Florence,

"Your very humble servant,


"Lisbon, 4th September, 1504."

This was the last letter, so far as we can ascertain, written by Vespucci concerning his voyages—or, at least, the last that has been brought to light; though it is hoped that his manuscript journals, to which he repeatedly refers, may yet be found. They are, doubtless, buried in the secret archives of either the crown of Portugal or of Spain, as at different times he alludes to them as being in the hands of the kings, from whom he hopes to receive them at their pleasure. Both King Emanuel and King Ferdinand held Vespucci in great esteem; but, as consideration for their subjects, whether high or low, never entered their minds, they probably retained the manuscripts for years, and eventually these precious documents may have been buried beneath the vast accumulation of papers relating to the voyages and discoveries in both hemispheres.

Vespucci was in error respecting the remaining ships of the fleet engaged in his fourth voyage, for a few months later they came back to Lisbon in a shattered condition, but, so far as known, with their crews intact. They had sailed farther to the south than Vespucci went on this voyage, probably as far as the mouth of the great river La Plata, which Solis has the credit of discovering a few years later. It had been learned by that time that the coasts brought to view by the constantly lengthening voyages into the south were situated to the west of the great line of demarcation separating the discoveries of Spain and Portugal, and hence belonged to the former. This fact has a bearing upon the departure of Vespucci and other noted captains from Portugal about this time, as, if they would pursue these explorations to their logical conclusion, they must enlist beneath the banner of King Ferdinand. Hence we find our hero, towards the end of 1504, once again in Spain, and in high favor with the king.