Amerigo Vespucci - Frederick Ober

Pilot-Major of Spain


If Vespucci had been as heedful of posthumous fame as Columbus, who lost no opportunity for trumpeting his deeds to the world, we should be better prepared to present a continuous narrative of his life than it is possible to gather from the fragmentary material he has left behind him. "The transactions of Vespucci at court," says Mr. Fiske, the eminent historian, "and the nature of the maritime enterprises that were set on foot or carried to completion during the next few years, are to be gathered chiefly from old account-books, contracts, and other business documents, unearthed by the indefatigable Navarrete, and printed in his great collection. . . . Unfortunately, account-books and legal documents, having been written for other purposes than the gratification of the historian, are—like the 'geological record'—imperfect. Too many links are missing, to enable us to determine with certainty just how the work was shared among these mariners (Vespucci, La Cosa, Pinzon, and Solis), or just how many voyages were undertaken. But it is clear that the first enterprise contemplated (by King Ferdinand) was a voyage by Pinzon, in company with either Solis or Vespucci, or both, for the purpose of finding an end to the continent or a passage into the Indian Ocean. What Vespucci had failed to do in his last voyage for Portugal, he now proposed to do in a voyage for Spain."

While the large fleet for this purpose was being prepared, it is believed, Vespucci and La Cosa made two voyages, one in 1505 and another in 1507, to Darien and the Pearl Coast, which resulted more profitably to them than any others they had undertaken. As these voyages were simply for commercial purposes, and as Vespucci seems to have held in contempt the mere acquisition of riches, especially when the promotion of discovery was not the aim of his expeditions, he makes no mention of them whatever. In truth, but for the finding of two letters, sent to the Venetian senate by its diplomatic agents in Spain, dated 1505 and 1507, these fifth and sixth voyages of Vespucci would have been overlooked entirely. The omission illustrates his carelessness in respect to the chronicling of his deeds, his heedlessness as to fame and glory. As one of his eulogists truly says: "In none of his writings does Vespucci claim for himself advancement, honor, or emolument, nor does he seek to delude his patrons with visions of untold wealth. His letters are the easy effusions of a great mind filled with admiration at the fertile regions, balmy climate, and primitive races of the New World. Ever modest, he merges himself in the greatness of his undertaking; and if the civilized world with one accord gave his name to the regions he was the first in modern times to visit, it was a tribute which it deemed just and paid unasked."

Owing to the protests of Portugal, it is thought, the great fleet intended for the extension of discovery along the southern coast of Brazil was dispersed and its vessels diverted to other seas. Vespucci had been active in its equipment, and during the uncertainty existing in Spain after the death of Queen Isabella, and the consequent derangement of affairs at court, he appears prominently in the business. He was despatched to court by the board of trade of Seville, especially commissioned to extricate them from the dilemma in which they found themselves: unable to determine whether they were to act in the name of the crazy princess, Juana, her foreign consort, Philip, or the old king, Ferdinand. In order to be able to meet any emergency, Vespucci was furnished with three different letters and sets of instructions. "You will take," wrote the president of the board of trade to Amerigo, "three letters: for the king, Vila, his grand chamberlain, and the secretary, Gricio, besides five memorials: one upon the despatch of the armament, two others received from Hispaniola concerning the tower which King Ferdinand commanded to be built upon the Pearl Coast, and the remaining two upon the caravels which are on service in Hispaniola, and concerning what things are necessary for the fortress which is building there. If Gricio is at court, and attends to the affairs of the Indies, give him the letter, show him the memorials, and he will guide you to the ear of the king and obtain for you good despatch. We are informed, however, that the king has intrusted the business of the Indies to M. de Vila, his grand chamberlain, and if that is the case go directly to him. What we principally desire is a full understanding of the agreement which has been entered into between the king, our lord (Philip, the consort of Juana Loca), and King Ferdinand, in order that we may be able to give to each prince that which is his."

Without going further into the affairs of court at this period—merely pausing to remark that after the death of Philip the old king soon extricated his kingdom from the state of embarrassment into which it had been plunged—we cannot but note that Amerigo Vespucci must have been a man of weight and influence to be selected for such a mission. It was a visit to the court previous to this which Columbus had in mind when he gave him the letter to his son Don Diego. The biographer of Columbus, Mr. Irving, has tried to make it appear that he was used by Columbus to further his own ends, for he says: "Among the persons whom Columbus employed at this time in his missions to the court was Amerigo Vespucci. He describes him as a worthy but unfortunate man, who had not profited as much as he deserves by his undertakings, and who had always been disposed to render him a service. His object in employing him appears to have been to prove the value of his last voyage, and that he had been in the most opulent parts of the New World, Vespucci having since touched upon the same coast, in a voyage with Alonzo de Ojeda."

Now, this amiable apologist, in his persistent efforts to thrust Amerigo Vespucci into positions subordinate to Columbus, defeats his own purpose and disparages his own hero, for by his very words can he be discredited. He himself says: "The incessant applications of Columbus [at court], both by letter and by the intervention of friends, appear to have been listened to with cool indifference. No compliance was yielded to his requests, and no deference paid to his opinions . . . In short, he was not in any way consulted in the affairs of the New World."

And this was at about the time that Amerigo Vespucci was intrusted with most important business at court by the board of trade of Seville; about the time that he was called to court and highly honored by the king; just before the time that he was made captain of a fleet, with a salary of thirty thousand maravedis per annum. There was, in truth, no man in the employ of Spain more highly regarded than Vespucci for his talents, for his honesty, for his loyalty to the government. At the settlement of accounts pertaining to the fleet which had been intended for South America, more than five million maravedis passed through his hands—and he was never charged with having diverted a single centavo to himself.

Nothing can so abundantly testify to the respect in which Vespucci was held as his relations with King Ferdinand. While he has the unique honor of being almost the only man that Columbus never quarrelled with, it is also to his credit that he acquired, and retained to the last, the respect and confidence of the king. Ferdinand was always mistrustful of Columbus, and with good reason, but never refused Vespucci a favor—if he asked one—or hesitated to give him an audience. The reason was, most probably, that, aside from his deceitfulness (which was a quality the crafty Ferdinand could tolerate in no one but himself), Columbus was constantly importuning him for further honors and emoluments; while Vespucci rarely, if ever, craved glory or riches for himself. Nothing came of Vespucci's intercession at court for Columbus, and soon the latter dropped out of sight. He died in 1506, utterly neglected by the court and king, and in such obscurity that he was unnoticed in the local annals of the day.

In the mean time, Amerigo Vespucci was at the height of his career, trusted by the sovereign and honored by all with whom he came in contact. On the return of King Ferdinand to absolute power in Spain, through the death of his son-in-law Philip and the regency for his insane daughter Juana, he called Vespucci and La Cosa to court in order to consult with them respecting nautical affairs and future discoveries. In February, 1508, Vespucci, Pinzon, and Solis, who, together with La Cosa, were then the most highly honored navigators in Spanish employ, were charged with the safe conduct to the king's treasury of six thousand ducats in gold, for which service they received six thousand maravedis each.

Another consultation was held with the king, whose favorable opinion of Vespucci was so strengthened that the year following he created for him the office of pilot-major, as the most eminent navigator in his kingdom. This position was given him in March, 1508, and from that time till his death, in February, 1512, he received a salary of seventy-five thousand maravedis per annum. He was charged to examine and instruct all pilots in the use of the astrolabe "to ascertain whether their practical knowledge equalled their theoretical, and also to revise maps, and to make one of the new lands which should be regarded as the standard. . . . He was to correct the errors carried into the charts by the teachings and the maps of Columbus and others. The inaccuracy of the Columbus charts was so notorious that their use was subsequently prohibited, and a penalty imposed upon the pilot who should sail by them." Vespucci was at the head of a government department pertaining to pilotage, navigation, and charts. It was then unique in the world, and the weight of authority behind it was adverse to the use of charts made by Columbus; notwithstanding which Mr. Irving says: "When the passion for maritime discovery was seeking to facilitate its enterprises, the knowledge and skill of an able cosmographer like Columbus would be properly appreciated, and the superior correctness [?] of his maps and charts would give him notoriety among men of science."

The importance of this position created for Vespucci will appear from the royal order, or commission, which reads: " ... We command that all pilots of our kingdom and lordships, who now are, shall henceforward be, or desire to be, pilots on the routes to the said islands and terra firma which we hold in the Indies, and other parts of the ocean sea, shall be instructed in and possess all necessary knowledge of the use of the quadrant and astrolabe; and in order that they may unite practice with theory, and profit thereby in the said voyages which they may make to the said lands, they shall not be able to embark as pilots in the said vessels, nor receive wages for pilotage, nor shall merchants be able to negotiate with them as such, nor captains receive them aboard their ships, without their having been first examined by you, Amerigo Despuchi, our pilot-major, and received from you a certificate of examination and approbation, certifying that they are possessed, each one, of the knowledge aforesaid; holding which certificate, we commend that they be held and received as expert pilots, wherever they shall show themselves—for it is our will and pleasure that you should be examiner of said pilots. And that those who do not possess the required knowledge shall the more easily acquire it, we command that you shall instruct, at your residence in Seville, all such as shall be desirous of learning and remunerating you for the trouble. . . . And as it has been told us that there are many different charts, by different captains, of the lands and islands of the Indies belonging to us, which charts differ greatly from each other—therefore, that there may be order in all things, it is our will and pleasure that a standard chart shall be made; and that it may be the more correct, we command the officers of our board of trade in Seville to call an assembly of our most able pilots that shall at that time be in the country, and, in the presence of you, Amerigo Despuchi, our pilot-major, there shall be planned and drawn a chart of all the lands and islands of the Indies, which have hitherto been discovered belonging to our kingdom; and upon this consultation, subject to the approval of you, our pilot-major, a standard chart shall be drawn which shall be called the Royal Chart, by which all pilots must direct and govern themselves. This shall remain in the possession of our said officers, and of you, our said pilot-major; and no pilot shall use any other chart, without incurring a penalty of fifty doubloons, to be paid to the board of trade in the city of Seville. . . . And it is our will and pleasure that, in virtue of the above, you, the said Amerigo Despuchi, shall use and exercise the said functions of our pilot-major, and shall be able to do, and shall do, all things pertaining to that office contained in this our letter."

The remainder of Amerigo Vespucci's life may almost be summed up in the statement that he held this responsible post during the four years succeeding to his appointment, for he received his commission on March 22, 1508, and died on February 22, 1512. It was an onerous position, "and his appointment to it by Ferdinand was the highest proof of the estimation in which he was held by that monarch that could have been bestowed upon him." It was a recognition of his supereminent qualities, as cosmographer and navigator, at a time when Spanish enterprise was reaching out to every part of the western world; and as he discharged its duties with fidelity and skill, confining himself closely to his desk, no leisure was afforded him for further voyaging, for writing out the long-deferred accounts of his travels, or for recreation of any sort. He made one short visit to Florence, where he was received with honor, as the most distinguished son of a city world-famous for its great men, and where the portrait was painted which has been universally accepted as authentic, representing him as advanced in years.

As already mentioned, authentic information relating to the latter years of Vespucci is of a fragmentary character, and is contained mainly in the official papers found in the archives of Simancas and Seville, by Don Martin Fernandez de Navarrete, to whom the biographers of Columbus were so deeply indebted. The date of the first of these papers is July, 1494, and relates to payments made to Berardi, as outfitter of the ships for the voyages of Columbus. By royal decree, April 11, 1505, the queen's treasurer is commanded to pay to Vespucci twelve thousand maravedis. Another decree, of March 22, 1508, grants Vespucci, as chief pilot of the kingdom, a salary of fifty thousand maravedis, subsequently increased to seventy-five thousand. Then follows the royal declaration (from which we have quoted), setting forth the duties of the pilot-major, which was issued during the regency of the crazy queen, Juana, and addressed to "Amerigo Despuchi."

There is no reference to the date and place of Vespucci's death; but this is not considered singular, in view of the fact that the demise of Columbus was officially unnoticed at the time. There is, rather, no direct reference; though confirmation of that event occurs in the continuation of his accounts to the day of his death, and after, one of which relates to the payment of ten thousand nine hundred and thirty-seven maravedis to Manuel Catano, a canon of Seville, as the executor of Vespucci's will, "that amount being the balance of his salary due at the date of his death."

One of the very few references to the wife of Vespucci is contained in a royal decree of May 22, 1512, which grants a pension for life to his widow, Maria Cerezo, of ten thousand maravedis per annum. By a later decree, this pension is declared a fixed charge against the salary of the chief pilot and his successors. These were, in order of succession, Juan Diaz de Solis and Sebastian Cabot, after whom came others not so famous as these great navigators.

These papers are cited to show that Amerigo Vespucci was not looked upon as an adventurer by the dignitaries of Spain; that, on the contrary, he was held in great esteem, honored with the highest office in the gift of the king, in which his great accomplishments could have full scope. He filled that office with eminent ability, to the complete satisfaction of King Ferdinand, and when he died, on February 22, 1512, he left behind a name untarnished, a reputation for probity unsullied. Despite the honors accorded him by the kings of Spain and Portugal, however, and the high positions he occupied, he left no fortune for his heirs. His valuable papers were bequeathed to his nephew, Juan Vespucci, whom he loved like a son; but his widow was left in circumstances so straitened that she was actually dependent upon the pension granted her by the crown.