Amerigo Vespucci - Frederick Ober

How America was Named


If, in the foregoing narrative, the author has seemed to champion his hero unduly, going perhaps unnecessarily into the details of his voyages, it may have been owing to anticipated opposition on the part of his readers. There has always been a wide divergence of opinion respecting the merits of Amerigo Vespucci, and the world has never reconciled itself to his so-called usurpation of the glory rightly belonging to Columbus.

Even so great a writer as Emerson allowed himself to say: "Strange that broad America must wear the name of a thief! Amerigo Vespucci, the pickle-dealer at Seville, who went out in 1499, a subaltern with Hojeda, and whose highest naval rank was boatswain's mate, in an expedition that never sailed, managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus, and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name!"

We, who have followed the career of Amerigo Vespucci from its beginning to its ending, know that he was not a thief; that—except by implication, as having been a purveyor of naval stores—he was not a "pickle-dealer"; that he held a far higher rank than boatswain's mate—as attested by the royal proclamation we have cited, naming him to be chief pilot of Spain; and that, so far as the evidence of his contemporaries and his own letters show, he made no attempt whatever to thrust his personality upon the world.

He did not "baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name," though it is true that the appellation by which a hemisphere is known to-day was derived from Americus, Amerigo, or Americo—whether we speak it in Latin, in Italian, or in Spanish.

How comes it then, the reader may well ask, that America derived its name from the Florentine, Vespucci, when it should, by right of "discovery," have been called after the Genoese, Columbus? The answer to this question involves the following of clews centuries old, through a labyrinth of falsehood and misstatement that was built up three hundred years ago. The first clew may be found on page 197 of this biography, where mention is made of the translation of Vespucci's letter to Lorenzo de Medici, by Giocondo, in 1504, and issued by him under the title Mundus Novus. This letter is said to have been first published in Lisbon and Augsburg in 1504, and in Strasburg in 1505.

Pick up this book and nail it to the wall, where it may be observed by all, for it was the very beginning of Vespucci's posthumous troubles. We have read the letter and known it to have been a plain, unvarnished account of Vespucci's third voyage, in which he chanced to say that he thought he had discovered the fourth part of the globe, and proposed to call it Mundus Novus, or the New World. He was quite right, and within bounds, when he did this, for he was thinking only of that portion of the southern hemisphere which he had found, and not of the entire western hemisphere. He did not extend the term to cover the northern regions, discovered by Columbus, for the latter had no idea that they pertained to a new world; in fact—as we know—believed to the last that they belonged to Asia or India.

"At no time during the life of Columbus, nor for some years after his death," says a learned historian, "did anybody use the phrase 'New World' with conscious reference to his discoveries. At the time of his death their true significance had not yet begun to dawn upon the mind of any voyager or any writer. It was supposed that he had found a new route to the Indies by sailing west, and that in the course of this achievement he had discovered some new islands," etc.

We must, then, acquit Vespucci of any intention of depriving Columbus of his laurels, when he said he believed he had found a new world, for he referred only to that portion of South America now known as Brazil. Nor, so far as we know, was he either responsible for, or aware of, the publication of his letters to Medici and Soderini—for those to the latter were afterwards translated and printed—as he was, at that time, on the ocean. In truth, as the letters were merely epistles to friends, who would naturally be interested in his discoveries, and of course overlook any defects of diction, he openly stated that he was only waiting leisure for improving and elaborating them for issue in pamphlet form. He never acquired this leisure, and the world, tired of waiting, seized upon his material and brought it out in print, without so much as saying "by your leave."

The second person to take liberties with Vespucci's name was one Matthias Ringmann, a student in Paris, who was acquainted with Friar Giocondo, and of course saw the Mundus Novus, which he published in Strasburg in 1505. That same year he was offered the professorship of Latin in a college at Saint-Die, a charming little town in the Vosges Mountains, which had long been a seat of learning. It is said to have been strangely associated with the discovery of America, from the fact that here was written, about 1410, the book called Imago Mundi, which Columbus read and probably took to sea with him on his first great voyage. In a double sense, this obscure town and college, nestling in a little-known valley of the Franco-German mountains, is known in connection with the name America, as will now be shown.

Young Professor Ringmann found at Saint-Die a select and distinguished company of scholars, composed of Martin Waldseemueller, professor of geography; Jean Basin de Sendacour, canon and Latinist; Walter Lud, secretary to Duke Rene, patron of literature, and especially of the college of Saint-Die, which was to him as the apple of his eye. He was the reigning Duke of Lorraine, and titular "King of Sicily and Jerusalem," but had never strayed far from his own picturesque province, though he had won a great victory over Charles the Bold in 1477. He is, no doubt, worthy an extended biographical sketch, but in this connection can only be referred to as the patron of these great teachers in Saint-Die, who, soon after the appearance of Ringmann among them, conceived the plan of printing a new edition of Ptolemy.

One of them, Walter Lud, was blessed with riches, and as he had introduced a printing-press, about the year 1500, the college was amply equipped. So many discoveries had been made since the last editions of Ptolemy had appeared, that the Saint-Die coterie felt the need of new works on the subject, and sent Ringmann to Italy hunting for the same. He, it is thought, brought back, among other "finds" of great value, the letter written by Vespucci to Soderini from Lisbon, in September, 1504, a certified manuscript copy of which was made in February, 1505, and printed at Florence before midsummer, 1506.

No extended explanation is needed now to elucidate the scheme by which Vespucci's letters were incorporated in the treatise published by those wise men of Saint-Die, entitled Cosmographie Introductio, or "Rudiments of Geography," and taken from the press on April 25, 1507.

It was a small pamphlet, with engravings of the crudest sort, but it made a stir in the world such as has been caused by but few books since. But one copy of this first edition is said to be extant, and that is in the Lenox Library, New York City. It caused a flutter in cosmographical circles, not alone at the time of its issue, but for centuries thereafter, for in it first occurs in print the suggestion that the "fourth part of the world," discovered by Amerigo Vespucci, should be called AMERICA.

Professor Martin Waldseemueller was the culprit, and not Amerigo Vespucci, for he says, in Latin, which herewith find turned into English: "But now these parts have been more extensively explored and another fourth part has been discovered by Americus Vespucius (as will appear in what follows): wherefore I do not see what is rightly to hinder us from calling it Amerige, or America—i.e., the land of Americus, after its discoverer, Americus, a man of sagacious mind, since both Europe and Asia have got their names from women. Its situation and the manners and customs of its people will be clearly understood from the twice two voyages of Americus, which follow."

It was a suggestion, merely, and by one who was a perfect stranger to Vespucci; but it promptly "took," for the word America was euphonious, it seemed applicable, and, moreover, it was to be applied only to that quarter in the southern hemisphere which had been revealed by Amerigo Vespucci. It was a suggestion innocently made, without any sort of communication from Amerigo himself, intended to influence the opinion of contemporaries or the verdict of posterity.

North America from the globe of Johann Schoener.


"But for these nine lines written by an obscure geographer in a little village of the Vosges," says Henry Harrisse, "the western hemisphere might have been called 'The Land of the Holy Cross,' or 'Atlantis,' or 'Columbia,' 'Hesperides,' 'Iberia,' 'New India,' or simply 'The Indies,' as it is designated officially in Spain to this day." ... "As it was, however," says another writer, "the suggestion by Waldseemueller was immediately adopted by geographers everywhere; the new land beyond the Atlantic had, by a stroke of a pen, been christened for all time to come."

The full title of the Cosmographie Introductio reads: "An Introduction to Cosmography, together with some principles of Geometry necessary to the purpose. Also four voyages of Americus Vespucius. A description of universal Cosmography, both stereometrical and planometrical, together with what was unknown to Ptolemy and has been recently discovered."

Notwithstanding the name was "promptly adopted" by the geographers, at the same time it "came slowly into use," for geographical knowledge was then in an inchoate state, especially as respected the New World. It is said to have first appeared on a map ascribed to Leonardo da Vinci in 1514; but in a pamphlet accompanying "the earliest known globe of Johann Schoener," made in 1515, the new region is described as the "fourth part of the globe named after its discoverer, Americus Vespucius, who found it in 1497." Vespucci did not find it, and he never made the claim that he discovered more than is given in his letters; but this misstatement by another caused him to be accused of falsifying the dates of his voyages in order to rob Columbus of his deserts.

It will be perceived, however, that the name was not applied at first to the entire land masses of America, but merely to that portion now known as Brazil, called by Cabral "Terra Sanctae Crucis," or "Land of the Holy Cross," and by Vespucci, who continued his explorations, "Mundus Novus." Further than this Vespucci never went, and, moreover, he passed away "before his name was applied to the new discoveries on any published map." He was living, of course, when the Cosmographie appeared, and may have seen a copy of the book; but the argument advanced by some that he dedicated this work to Duke Rene of Lorraine, and hence must have written it, falls to the ground when that dedication is examined. The worthy canon who translated Vespucci's letter to Soderini into Latin, copied the dedication in the original, which was addressed to "His Magnificence, Piero Soderini, etc.," but substituted for the last-named his patron, Duke Rene. This is proved by the title "His Magnificence," which was used in addressing the Gonfaloniere of Florence, and never in connection with Duke Rene of Lorraine.

It was not until near the middle of the sixteenth century that "America" was recognized "as the established continental name," when, after Mexico had been conquered by Cortes, Peru by Pizarro, and the Pacific revealed by Balboa and Magellan, it first appears on the great Mercator map of 1541. The appellation "America" had superseded Mundus Novus on several maps previous to this, but only as a term applied to restricted regions. "The stage of development," says the learned author of the Discovery of America, "consisted of five distinct steps. . . . 1. Americus called the regions visited by him beyond the equator a 'New World,' because they were unknown to the ancients; 2. Giocondo made this striking phrase, Mundus Novus, into a title for his translation of the letter, which he published at Paris (1504) while the author was absent from Europe, and probably without his knowledge; 3. The name Mundus Novus got placed upon several maps as an equivalent for Terra Sanctae Crucis, or what we call Brazil; 4. The suggestion was made that Mundus Novus was the Fourth Part of the Earth, and might properly be named America, after its discoverer; 5. The name America thus got placed upon several maps as an equivalent for what we call Brazil, and sometimes came to stand alone for what we call South America, but still signified only a part of the dry land beyond the Atlantic to which Columbus had led the way."

That there was no evil intention on Vespucci's part is amply proved by the fact that, while he himself lived four years after the Introductio was published, a certain contemporary of his, one Ferdinand Columbus, who was most acutely interested in seeing justice done the name and deeds of his father, survived Vespucci twenty-seven years. He not only saw this book, but owned a copy, which, according to an autograph note on the flyleaf, he had bought in Venice in July, 1521, "for five sueldos." This book is still contained in the library he founded at Seville, and as it was copiously annotated by him, it must have been carefully read; yet, though he has the credit of having written a life of his father, Christopher Columbus, he makes no mention whatever of the "usurpation" by Vespucci.

Ferdinand Columbus knew the Florentine, and was an intimate friend of his nephew, Juan Vespucci; yet the question seems never to have arisen between them as to the great discoverers' respective shares of glory. The explanation lies in this fact: that Vespucci's name had been bestowed upon a region far remote from that explored by his father, who had never sailed south of the equator. Notwithstanding the good feeling that prevailed between them, however, long after Ferdinand's death, when the name America had become of almost universal application, the veteran Las Casas, in writing his great history, marvels that the son of the old Admiral could overlook the "theft and usurpation" of Vespucci. The old man's indignation was great, for he was a stanch friend of Columbus, and revered his memory. He made out a very strong case against Vespucci—being in ignorance of the manner in which his name came to be given to the lands discovered by Columbus—and when, in 1601, the historian Herrera, who made use of the Las Casas manuscripts, repeated his statements as those of a contemporary, all the world gave him credence.

Vespucci's name rested under suspicion during more than three centuries, and was not even partially cleared until 1837, when Alexander von Humboldt undertook the gigantic task of vindication. It was not so much to vindicate Vespucci, however, as to ascertain the truth, that Humboldt made the critical and exhaustive examination which appeared in his Examen Critique de l'Histoire de la Geographie de Nouveau Continent.

Even Humboldt, however, did not secure all the evidence available, but by the discovery of valuable documents the missing links in the chain were supplied: by Varnhagen, Vespucci's ardent eulogist, by Harrisse, and finally by Fiske. The last-named truthfully says: "No competent scholar anywhere will now be found to dissent from the emphatic statement of M. Harrisse—'After a diligent study of all the original documents, we feel constrained to say that there is not a particle of evidence, direct or indirect, implicating Amerigo Vespucci in an attempt to foist his name on this continent.'" And moreover, "no shade of doubt is left upon the integrity of Vespucci. So truth is strong, and prevails at last."

This is the conclusion arrived at by the impartial historian, who, without disparaging the deeds of Columbus, without detracting in any manner from his great discoveries, has restored Amerigo Vespucci to the niche in which he was placed by the German geographers four hundred years ago, and from which he was torn by injudicious iconoclasts, fearful for the fame of Spain's great Admiral.

It is enough for Columbus to have discovered America; it was far more than Amerigo Vespucci deserved to have this discovery given his name, by which it will be known forever; but this honor, though unmerited, was at the same time unsought.