Amerigo Vespucci - Frederick Ober

In the Service of Spain


Before we revert to the real hero of this biography, let us seek to identify the various names we find in Marco Polo's book, and in Toscanelli's letter to Columbus, with the objects to which they were applied. We will imagine ourselves with the first-named in far Cathay, with the second in his library at Florence, and with the third as he gropes his way along the shores of islands for the first time then revealed to European eyes.

If Columbus had known—what we now know—that thousands of miles intervened between the places he was seeking and those to which he misapplied their names, he would not have died in the belief that he had discovered a new way to the Old World. To anticipate a little what will be revealed later in the unfolding of this story: it was Amerigo Vespucci, and not Columbus, who first applied to this newly discovered hemisphere the title Mundus Novus, or New World. However, we will not discuss that question now, but merely remark that Cathay was identical with northern China, while Mangi was the southern territory of that vast empire which, in Marco Polo's time, was in possession of Kublai Khan. Chambalu, or Peking, was its capital, while the "most noble and vast city of Quinsay," or Cansay, is the ancient King-sze connected with Peking by the grand canal.

The large island of Cipango, or Zipangu, outlying upon the coast of Cathay, was probably Japan, or Formosa; though its golden-tiled temples may never have been seen by the Polos, nor its red pearls have come into their hands. Forty years after Columbus began his vain search, Pizarro found and plundered the gold-plated temples of Cuzco, which were as rich as any described by Marco Polo in his account of Cipango; and in the Bahamas archipelago, through which the Spaniards passed in the voyage of 1492, precious pink pearls have been discovered in great numbers and of surpassing beauty.

Vasco da Gama, in 1497, was to open the way by water to the vast Oriental seas—to Calicut and Cathay—but until the last quarter of the fifteenth century the commerce of the eastern hemisphere depended mainly upon transportation by land. "Voyages of much extent were almost unknown, and the mariner confined himself to inland waters, or hovered along the shores of the great Western Ocean, without venturing out of sight of land. . . . The thriving republics of Italy were the carriers of the world. For many centuries their citizens were almost the only agents for commercial communication with the countries of the East. Venice and Genoa maintained establishments on the farthest shores of the Mediterranean and Black seas.

"Immense caravans crossed the deserts of Arabia and Egypt, their camels laden with the costly fabrics of the Indies, which were received by the Italian traders from the hands of the Mahometans and distributed over Europe. Here and there upon the deserts a green oasis, with its bubbling spring or rippling rivulet, served these mighty trains for a resting-place, where man and beast halted to recover from the fatigues of their weary journeys. Occasionally, on these spots where the soil was of sufficient fertility to sustain a population, villages grew up. In rarer instances and in earlier ages, large cities had been built upon these stopping-places and were for the time the centres of the traffic. . . . Travellers of the present day occasionally visit their sites, and tell wonderful tales of the gigantic ruins of some Baalbec or Palmyra of the wilderness.

"It was not to be supposed that the shrewd spirit of mercantile enterprise and speculation would remain dormant in this state of affairs. Traders in every part of Europe were alive to the advantages to be derived from the discovery of a new route of transportation. Several efforts were made, and in some cases attended with immense profit and success, to communicate with India by the long and arduous journey round the Black Sea, and through the almost unexplored regions of Circassia and Georgia. The far-off shores of the Caspian were reached by some travelling traders, and the geographical knowledge they circulated on their return gave a new impulse to the growing spirit of adventure. Apocryphal as the narratives of Marco Polo and Mandeville appeared, there was a sufficient mixture of truth with exaggeration to stimulate the minds of men, ever greedy of gain, and the endless wealth of the grand khan and his people were the subjects of many eager and longing anticipations."

The Polos were merely the forerunners, the pioneers, to the far Cathay, and in the fourteenth century missionaries and merchants followed on their trail with varying success. The death of Kublai Khan had relieved them from their obligation to return; but soon after they had reached Venice, in 1295, a Franciscan monk, John of Monte Corvino, penetrated to Chambalu and established missions there. In the year 1338 an ambassador arrived at Avignon from the then reigning Khan of Cathay, and in return John de Marignoli, a Florentine, was sent to the court at Chambalu, where he remained four years as legate of the holy see. Commercial travellers followed after them, and about 1340 a guide-book was written by another Florentine, Francesco Pelotti, who was a clerk in the great trading-house of Bardi, or Berardi, with which, at a later date, Amerigo Vespucci was connected in Spain.

"When the throne of the degenerate descendants of Ghengis Khan began to totter to its fall, missions and merchants alike disappeared from the field. Islam, with all its jealousies and exclusiveness, had recovered its grasp over Central Asia. Night again descended upon the farther East, covering Cathay, with those cities of which the old travellers had told such marvels, Chambalu and Cansay, Zaitun and Chinkalan. And when the veil rose before the Portuguese and Spanish explorers of the sixteenth century those names were heard of no more . . .

"But for a long time all but a sagacious few continued to regard Cathay as a region distinct from any of the new-found Indies; while map-makers, well on into the seventeenth century, continued to represent it as a great country lying entirely to the north of China and stretching to the Arctic Sea. It was Cathay, with its outlying island of Zipangu, that Columbus sought to reach by sailing westward, penetrated as he was by his intense conviction of the smallness of the earth and of the vast extension of Asia to the eastward. To the day of his death he was full of the imagination of the proximity of the domain of the grand khan to the islands and coasts which he had discovered. And such imaginations are curiously embodied in some maps of the early sixteenth century, which intermingle on the same coast-line the new discoveries, from Labrador to Brazil, with the provinces and rivers of Marco Polo's Cathay."

Having shown the state of European geographical knowledge in the fifteenth century, in the hope thereby of throwing light upon the conditions which surrounded Vespucci at the time, we will now follow as closely as possible the career which was then opening before him. He was, as we have stated, keenly alive to what was taking place in the world around him, and especially interested in geographical discoveries. Although it is not likely that he had an abundance of ready money, having been so many years engaged in preparation for his great pursuit, without immediate recompense of any sort, yet we learn from the records of his life that he was already making a collection of all the charts, maps, and globes that he could find. He had assembled the best works of the most distinguished projectors, and for one of the finest then available, "a map of sea and land," made in 1439 by one Gabriel de Valesca, he paid the large sum of one hundred and thirty ducats, equivalent to more than five hundred dollars at the present day. There was danger then, his parents and friends thought, of the abstruse and unprofitable science of cosmography absorbing him entirely; but, though he may have indulged in the hope of devoting his life to the studies which had so enriched the mind of his friend Toscanelli, he was rudely awakened from his day-dream by a family catastrophe.

Mention has been made of one of his brothers, Girolamo, who, about the year 1480, left home and went to Asia Minor, including in his travels a trip to Palestine. He finally established himself in one of the Grecian cities, and, being of a hopeful turn, sent for and obtained the greater portion of his father's money, with which he engaged in trade. All went well for a time, and the Vespuccis congratulated themselves upon having a son of the family finally embarked on the full tide of commercial prosperity.

Nine years went by, and nothing but good news came from the absent Girolamo; but one day, in 1489, disastrous tidings arrived. A Florentine pilgrim, returning from a pious visit to the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem, brought Amerigo a letter from his brother. It was dated July 24th, and contained information to the effect that while Girolamo was attending religious services at a convent in his neighborhood his house was broken open and robbed. "At one fell swoop," he wrote, he had been deprived of all his earnings during those nine years of toil, besides the money his father had sent him, which represented the accumulations of a lifetime.

He did not explain how his entire capital was in cash at the time, when he was supposed to be in trade; but even if derelict, he was too far away to be sought out and his story investigated, so the loss was accepted by the family as an indication that Providence was not inclined to smile upon the substitution of the eldest for the youngest son as a retriever of the Vespucci fortunes. All looked now towards Amerigo to take up the distasteful business of money-making, for which he had been so long in training, but which hitherto he had so successfully evaded. In sorrow, it is said, but without a murmur, he turned his back upon his maps, globes, books, and astrolabes and faced the situation manfully.

A position had long been open to him with the great trading-house of Lorenzo de Medici, who was own cousin to the world-famous Lorenzo the Magnificent, and he had only to apply in order to receive it. For the Medici well knew the value of men—good and faithful men—trained, as Amerigo was, in the diplomacy as well as the routine of commercial life in that age. They needed just such a man as he in their foreign agency, and bidding farewell to his family he set sail from Leghorn for the Spanish city of Barcelona.

The Iberian peninsula afforded at that time a most attractive field for commercial as well as military adventure. The protracted wars with the Moors, which had been carried on for generations, were drawing to a close, but they had taken thither many a man athirst for glory, and the demand for supplies gave the merchants great opportunities for profits. The commerce of that day was, as we have seen, mainly in the hands of Italian merchants, and as early as 1486 the Florentine trader, Juan Berardi, obtained a safe conduct from Barcelona to Seville, where, a few years later, we find Amerigo busily engaged in outfitting vessels for the Spanish voyages of discovery.

It was in the year 1490, or 1491, that Amerigo Vespucci went to Spain, accompanied by his nephew Giovanni, and several other young Florentines, who were placed in his charge by their parents that they might receive the benefit of his experience and the advantages of foreign travel. Giovanni, or Juan, was greatly attached to his uncle, and subsequently went with him on his voyages to America. Many years later the historian, Peter Martyr, wrote of him: "Young Vespucius is one to whom Americus, his uncle, left the exact knowledge of the mariner's faculties, as it were by inheritance, after his death, for he is a very expert master in the knowledge of the compass and the elevation of the pole star by the quadrant. He is my particular friend, a witty young man in whose company I take great pleasure, and therefore have him often for my guest."

Whether Giovanni was associated with Amerigo in business is not exactly known, nor can we tell just when the latter removed from Barcelona into southern Spain; but there is a letter extant, written at Cadiz in 1492, signed jointly by himself and a young Florentine, Donato Nicollini, as agents either of the Medici or the house of Berardi. The following extract was copied by his biographer, Bandidi, from this manuscript in Amerigo's handwriting:

"As it is necessary for one of us, either Amerigo or Donato, to proceed in a short time to Florence, we shall be able to give you better information on all points by word of mouth than can possibly be done by letter. As yet, it has been impossible to do anything respecting the freight of salt, for want of a vessel, as for some time past, we are sorry to say, no ship has arrived here which was not chartered. Be assured that if one arrives we shall be active for your interests.

"You will have learned from the elder Donato the good-fortune which has happened to his highness the king. Assuredly the most high God has given him His aid; but I cannot relate it in full. God preserve him many years—and us with him.

"There is nothing new to communicate. Christ preserve you.



"We date this January 30, 1492."

The last decade of the fifteenth century, which Amerigo was to pass chiefly in Spain, has been termed by historians the most important epoch in modern history. It was, admittedly, the most important for Spain, also for that country (then unknown) which her sailors were to discover and explore, and which was to receive the name of the Florentine merchant then living obscurely in Cadiz or Seville.

"The foreign intercourse of the country," says the renowned author of Ferdinand and Isabella, "was every day more widely extended. Her agents and consuls were to be found in all the ports of the Mediterranean and the Baltic. The Spanish mariner, instead of creeping along the beaten track of inland navigation, now struck boldly across the great Western Ocean. The new discoveries had converted the land trade with India into a sea trade, and the nations of the peninsula, which had hitherto lain remote from the great highways of commerce, now became the factors and carriers of Europe.

"The flourishing condition of the nation was seen in the wealth and population of its cities, the revenue of which, augmented in all to a surprising extent, had increased in some forty and even fifty fold beyond what they were at the commencement of Ferdinand and Isabella's reign: the ancient and lordly Toledo; Burgos, with its bustling industrious traders; Valladolid, sending forth thirty thousand warriors from its gates; Cordova, in the south, and the magnificent Granada, naturalizing in Europe the arts and luxuries of the East; Saragossa, 'the abundant,' as she was called from her fruitful territory; Valencia, 'the beautiful'; Barcelona, rivalling in independence and maritime enterprise the proudest of the Italian republics; Medina del Campo, whose fairs were already the great mart for the commercial exchanges of the peninsula; and Seville, the golden gate of the Indies, whose quays began to be thronged with merchants from the most distant countries of Europe."