Amerigo Vespucci - Frederick Ober

King Ferdinand's Friend


The summer of 1504 Vespucci passed in Portugal, attending to matters connected with his last voyage, which had such an unsatisfactory ending; but in the latter part of that year we find him once again in Seville. It is presumed he was warmly welcomed by his wife, after this long absence of nearly four years; but nothing exists at all to indicate his marital relations, and so far as furnishing material for his biographers is concerned, he might as well have remained single all his life. In point of fact, Amerigo Vespucci, though sterling in his friendships, ardent and even affectionate, was a true celibate. He was wedded to Science, his whole nature was absorbed by the pursuits to which he had, perhaps fortuitously, devoted his maturer years. If we contrast him with Columbus, in respect to the higher qualities of his character, we cannot but be impressed by the difference between these two, for, while the latter was weak, impressionable, if not passionate, the former was strong, flawless in his morals, devoted ever to the star-eyed goddess in whose service he had enlisted for life.

He was humane, generous, unselfish, while Columbus, though of more heroic proportions than his rival, was at times selfish, ungenerous, cruel—as witness his treatment of the Pinzons, his claiming the reward for the discovery of land, which rightly belonged to Rodrigo de Triana, his massacres of Indians in Hispaniola and enslavement of the survivors. Against Amerigo Vespucci no such charges of immorality, cruelty, and bigotry can be brought as against Columbus, and the sole accusation against him, of falsifying the date of his "first" voyage, has not been sustained by the evidence.

His eulogist, Canovai, says of him, in somewhat extravagant terms: "Behold the transport of that lively emulation which springs from the indisputable consciousness of talents, and is nourished by the pure and delicate essence of virtue, which shines uncontaminated in every footstep of the hero. It seems enmity, but is laudable strife; it seems envy, but is a generous ambition. If Columbus had found rivals and enemies resembling Amerigo, I should not see, as now, the magnificent scene of his triumph so suddenly changed into mourning and horror, the gloomy night of ignominy and mockery succeed the brief light of ephemeral happiness, and that invincible leader, who redoubled the power and dominions of ungrateful Castile, groaning under the weight of infamous chains, while he asks for nothing but liberty to carry her arms to the most distant shores of the West.

"Go now, and turning your eyes from the atrocious metamorphosis, exclaim it is chance—it is fate; arbitrary sounds and sterile syllables, with which no distinct idea can ever be associated. Alas! are there not imperceptible threads by which a regulating hand guides us through a crooked labyrinth from causes to effects, and prepares in silence the events of the universe? Prostrated by implacable vengeance, and despoiled of the exclusive right to discoveries and honors, Columbus pines in inaction; but no new columns of Hercules, beyond which the pilot dares not pass, stand erect before the shores of Mexico. Amerigo Vespucci reunites the web of fortunate events. Amerigo succeeds Columbus!"

In simpler diction, Columbus brought all his troubles upon himself. He dared much, but he demanded more than he was, by merit of mere achievement, entitled to receive. He was constantly warring for his alleged rights—with the king, with Fonseca, with his fellow-explorers, and especially with such commanders of ships or expeditions as might by their discoveries belittle his accomplishments. Hence resulted untold misery to the natives of the New World, consequent upon the crushing despotism he inaugurated in order to gain gold with which to vindicate himself to his sovereigns. Hence came Bodadilla and Ovando, sent out to investigate his doings, one of whom despatched him in fetters to Spain, and the other hastened the extinction of the Indians, already begun by Columbus himself.

The aggressive insistence of Columbus in the matter of honors and privileges, which were in their nature but temporary, are in decided contrast to the modesty and simplicity of Vespucci, who indeed was ambitious to acquire an honorable name which should be "the comfort and solace of his old age," but who, "by his quiet and unobtrusive manners, made friends even among his rivals." He was scrupulously regardful of the rights of others, treating the helpless natives with especial tenderness. This statement may seem to be disproved by the fact that on two of his voyages he took home gangs of Indians to be sold as slaves; but it is not known that he himself was responsible for this, as he was not the real commander of the expeditions, though the actual scientific head and navigator.

He was as deeply devout as Columbus himself, always rendering thanks to the Almighty for His favors, but was by no means a fanatic in religion. While Columbus ascribes his discoveries to the especial favor of some particular saint, on occasions, or his deliverance from danger to the direct interposition of Providence, Vespucci makes no such superstitious claims for himself, though acknowledging his dependence upon God and expressing gratitude for divine support. He believed, evidently, in the precept of the Golden Rule—"Do unto others as you would have them do to you"; and this, alas, cannot be said of Christopher Columbus. Though he married late in life, and had no children of his own, Vespucci "was full of affectionate feeling for his family, as his care and attention to the education and advancement of his nephew, and his memory of relatives in Florence, from whom he had been so long absent, amply testify."

Finally, the structure which Columbus fain would have raised has crumbled to ruins, while that built by Vespucci, who labored without thought of himself, or hope of reward, has been strengthened by the lapse of time, and will stand so long as the world endures. Vespucci humbled himself, and was exalted, for the name bestowed upon the hemisphere which these two were instrumental in revealing to Europe was suggested by utter strangers to the Florentine—men of penetrating mind, who perceived an eternal fitness in calling it America.

These reflections arise from the fact that, soon after the return of Vespucci to Seville, he met, and was probably entertained by, Christopher Columbus. The old Admiral had but recently returned from his fourth and last voyage to the West Indies, where he had escaped death by a miracle, and had suffered humiliation at the hands of the atrocious Ovando. He had come back to Spain to find his friend and protectress, Isabella, on a bed of death; to encounter the ingratitude of Ferdinand and meet the charges of his enemies. He was never to make another voyage until he embarked on that last long journey into the world unknown.

Broken in fortune, worn by the ills of advancing age, crushed beneath the calumnies of his foes, Columbus felt the end approaching, probably, and perhaps looked upon Vespucci as, in a sense, his successor. At least he perceived that the latter's star was in the ascendant, for he knew him as a friend of King Ferdinand, who, mistrustful ever of the man who had discovered a new empire for him to rule, yet was inclined to favor Vespucci, whose sterling qualities he appreciated. He had always liked the Florentine for his manly, modest bearing, his sturdy good sense, his industry, patience, erudition, and eminent abilities in general. Here was a man who made voyages by which the pathways were opened to new countries, without stipulating in advance that he should be rewarded with the admiralty of the Ocean Sea, without bargaining for the viceroyship of the countries he discovered, or for a tenth of all their resources and trade. He seemed to have no thought of himself, so absorbed was he in performing a work which, he had every reason to believe, would redound to the honor of the land he was born in and the sovereigns he served.

He had, to be sure, carried his talents to a rival sovereign, and served him as faithfully as he had King Ferdinand; but the latter bore him no ill-will for that. It is not certain, in truth, that he had not connived at Vespucci's entering the service of Portugal for a time, as, in view of his return to Spain, he received all the benefit of his experience. It was by means of Vespucci's voyage, most probably, that it was definitely ascertained how far Portugal had encroached upon territory assigned by the pope to her great rival, Spain. Deep and crafty was the diplomacy of King Ferdinand, and it is within the bounds of probability that he himself sent the silent, observant, faithful Vespucci to take service with King Emanuel for a season.

The overlapping voyages of Vespucci and Pinzon, in 1499, 1500, 1501, and 1503, had decided the question of sovereignty in South America—at least its northern coasts—in favor of Spain. These two, then, were soon commissioned by Ferdinand to equip a fleet, of which they were to be the joint commanders. This fleet was to sail for Brazil, and thence, after establishing colonies, or forts, continue the explorations they had severally so auspiciously begun. On April 11, 1505 (it is on record), the king made Vespucci a grant of twelve thousand maravedis, and on the 24th of the same month letters of naturalization were issued in his behalf, "in consideration of Amerigo Vespucci's fidelity, and his many valuable services to the crown."

Before proceeding to relate the story of Vespucci's renewed service with King Ferdinand, let us, however, return to the subject of his intercourse with Columbus, with whom, as there is strong evidence in proof, he was on terms of intimate friendship. This proof is found in a letter written by Columbus, at a time (as already mentioned) when he was in disfavor at court, and after his return from the last and most unfortunate voyage. It furnishes evidence of the most positive character that Vespucci and Columbus did not consider themselves as rivals, but were actually on the best of terms. It was written nearly a year after the first publication of Vespucci's letter to Lorenzo de Medici, alluded to in the previous chapter; yet the relations between the two discoverers were such as might have existed between men united by fraternal ties.

"To my very dear Son, Don Diego Columbus—at the Court.


"Diego Mendez departed from this place on Monday, the 3d of this month. After his departure I held converse with Amerigo Vespucci, the bearer of this letter, who goes to court on some business connected with navigation. He has always been desirous of serving me, and is an honorable man, though fortune has been unpropitious to him, as to many others; and his labors have not been as profitable as he deserves. He goes on my account, and with a great desire to do something which may redound to my advantage, if it is in his power.

"I know not here what instructions to give him that will benefit me, because I am ignorant of what will be required there; but he goes determined to do for me all that is possible. See what can be done to advantage there, and labor for it, that he may know and speak of everything, and devote himself to the work; and let everything be done with secrecy, that no suspicions may arise. I have said to him all that I can say touching the business, and have informed him of all payments which have been made me, and what is due.

"This letter is also intended for the adelantado [Don Bartholomew, Christopher's brother], that he may avail himself of any advantage and advice on the subject. His highness believes that the ships were in the best and richest portion of the Indies, and if he desires to know anything more on the subject, I will satisfy him by word of mouth, for it is impossible for me to tell him by letter.

"May the Lord have you in His holy keeping.

"Done at Seville, the 5th of February, 1505.

"Thy father, who loves thee better than himself,

"S. A. S.
"X. M. Y.
"Xpo. Ferens."

This precious document was found in the archives of Spain by Navarrete, whose volumes constitute a veritable mine of Spanish history. The superscription at the foot of the letter was adopted by Columbus after he became a "Don," and is supposed to mean: "Servus, Supplex Altissimi Salvatori; Christus, Maria, Josephus"; or, in English: "Humble Servant of the most high Saviour; Christ, Mary, Joseph." The original letter is contained in the collection of an indirect descendant of Columbus, the Duke of Veragua. It bears ample testimony to the important fact that, while the great Columbus was not permitted to present himself at court, his friend Vespucci not only had access to the throne but strong influence there.