It is 521 years since Amerigo Vespucci embarked on his second voyage. Despite not being the first to discover America, he managed to define it as a separate continent as well as to have it named after him
Many people have had the privilege of having streets or even cities named after them. Some were even commemorated by having countries and states named after them. But only one man, Amerigo Vespucci, was commemorated in the form an entire continent. All it took him was a bit of international politics, some falsification of historical evidence, and most importantly – not being there first.
During the late 15th century, with the beginning of the Age of Exploration (also known as the Age of Discovery), Spain, Portugal, followed by Britain, France and the Netherlands, along with other European world powers, have turned into rulers over large parts of the world. During nearly three hundred years of European expansion, the world changed fundamentally: European settlers displaced local populations, with help of either weapons or diseases, brought millions of black slaves from Africa to America, spread Christianity, and in addition to the suffering they caused, they also brought to Europe treasures such as gold, tomatoes, potatoes, and more.
The exodus from Europe to “discover” other lands, much to the dismay of the original inhabitants, was initiated by Portuguese mariners in the early 15th century. The great push westward was, however, carried out by their neighbors from Spain. By 1492, hundreds of years of religious war in the Iberian peninsula came to an end with the decisive victory of the Christians over the Muslim heretics. The rulers of the unified state, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and his wife, Queen Isabella I of Castile, turned outwards, to commerce and expansion. That was when the “Age of Exploration” began, with the commercial and political rivalry between Spain and Portugal, which, equipped with the technological advancements of the age of the Renaissance, has led to a process that reshaped the world map.
The New Ships
The development of new ships was accompanied by other significant technological improvements in the fields of cartography, astronomy, navigation and weapons. Especially helpful were the new maps created by the Arabs, based on ancient Greek knowledge among other things, that revealed the structure of the continents of Africa and Asia to the Europeans. Gradually, European mariners learned to recognize and navigate the skies of the southern hemisphere. Other developments along with the development of global trade, were the modern telescope (early 17th century), the sextant (1730), the gyroscope (1743) and naturally, increasingly more accurate marine maps, and an in-depth knowledge of the global wind and current systems.
The Race to India
The conquest of the Islamic Emirate of Granada in southern Spain brought much capital into the coffers of Fernando and Isabella, which they set out to spend on competition with Portugal. Portugal had already begun expanding to the Azores and the Canary Islands at the time. One of the people who knew how to exploit this to the fullest was Christopher Columbus, an ambitious adventurer of Italian descent, who pursued funding for a great challenge that he thought would bring him and his sponsors fortune and fame – finding the westward route from Europe to India. According to his incorrect calculations, which were based on an erroneous estimate of Earth’s radius, such a route would greatly shorten the trade routes to the Far East.
On one of his following voyages, Columbus landed in central America in 1498, but took it for another large island and couldn’t find a way to continue westwards from there to India. Failing to find a new trade route, Columbus began losing the trust of the Spanish crown, who could not yet comprehend that he had discovered a much greater reward than the one he set out to find – a entire new continent to populate and plunder.
Meanwhile, the race westwards heated up in 1497 with the discovery of North America by Giovanni Caboto of Venice, who, whilst on a mission from England, landed in Nova Scotia. He thus de facto invalidated the decree issued by the Pope only three years earlier, which stated that all new lands discovered in the West would be divided between Portugal and Spain. The Portuguese kept their focus on the other direction, and in 1498 Vasco da Gama became the first European to encircle Africa and reach India by sea, thus opening the marine route eastward.
Amerigp Vespucci awakens a sleeping America. Engraving by Italian artist Giovanni Stradano, ca. 1638 | Source: Wikipedia
Years had passed and Europe still had not realized that all these new discoveries were part of a new and hitherto unfamiliar continent. This realization eventually came only in 1501, nine years after Columbus’s first voyage, owing to another Italian adventurer – Amerigo Vespucci from Florence, a member of an influential family in Renaissance Italy.
Vespucci was a trader of naval equipment, who arrived in Seville, Spain, as the representative of the Medici family for ship equipment, later becoming an independent ship dealer, supplying ships to explorers in the late 15th century. It wasn’t long before he too became interested in the large profits that these exploratory voyages promised to expedition leaders and became one himself.
It is difficult to determine with certainty when Vespucci’s first voyage took place, since much of the information about him came from his own reports, with no additional supporting evidence. It is highly likely that he had made up some of his voyage tales in retrospect, pursuing the goal of self-glorification and striving to get the credit for being the first European to set foot on the land of the new continent.
In fact, most of the information about his voyages comes from two letters he sent to his relatives upon his return. The first one was written in 1501 to his patron Lorenzo de Medici, on which we will elaborate herein. The second and most controversial letter was supposedly sent to the governor of Florence, Piero Soderini in 1504, reviewing four alleged voyages, the first of which brought him to Central America in 1497. Vespucci seemed to have fabricated this voyage, as there are lines of evidence pointing to him being in Seville that year, engaged in organizing equipment for Columbus’s third expedition. Except for this letter there is no other evidence for him having embarked on such a voyage.
Vespucci likely embarked on his first real voyage only in 1499, as part of a joint expedition with Alonso de Ojeda, under Spanish auspices, which brought him to Trinidad and Venezuela. However, his first truly significant voyage was the one that left on the 13th of May 1501, this time under the Portuguese flag. According to his report, which was likely exaggerated, he sailed along the eastern coast of South America, nearly 4000 kilometers, towards Patagonia. Even if he did not make it that far south, it is clear that the size of the land that he could observe along the coasts of today’s Brazil was mind boggling. Vespucci had no more doubts – it wasn’t the islands of India nor East Asia, but rather a completely new and huge continent.
Upon his return to Lisbon, he wrote the following to his patron of the Medici family:
“The Most High was pleased to display before us a continent, new lands, and an unknown world. At sight of these things we were filled with as much joy [...] We knew that land to be a continent and not an island both because it stretches forth in the form of a very long and unbending coast, and because it is replete with infinite inhabitants”.
In his letter to Soderini Vespucci claims to have set out on an additional voyage in 1503, however this is not supported by any further evidence. Concurrently, he began to promote himself as the “discoverer of America”. His letters to Medici and Soderini were published in many languages across Europe. He described his journeys in great detail, including the cultures he encountered along the way, their customs and beliefs, the diet of the ‘natives’ and even their sexual customs. Vespucci had established for himself the name of a renowned explorer, even if only for a short while, relishing in his success in doing so and writing that he was happy to leave “some fame behind me after I die”.
The route of Vespucci’s journey on Waldseemüller's map. Perpetuated the name “America” | Source: Wikipedia
This fame was far greater than could have been imagined. Among others, it persuaded the German geographer Martin Waldseemüller to write about the four voyages of Amerigo Vespucci in his 1507 book “Cosmographiae Introductio”, and to name the continent “America”, in recognition of Vespucci’s contribution: “Now truly these parts [Europe, Africa, Asia] have been more widely explored, and another, fourth, part has been discovered by Americus Vespucius (as will appear in what follows), and I do not see why anyone should rightly forbid naming it Amerige—land of Americus, as it were, after its discoverer Americus, a man of acute genius—or America, since both Europe and Asia have received their names from women”.
Vespucci was widely respected in Spain, officially becoming a Spanish citizen in 1506. Two years later, King Ferdinand appointed him as “chief navigator” of the kingdom, in recognition of his discoveries. Unfortunately, he did not have many years left to enjoy the fame, and in 1512 he died of malaria at the age of 58, in Spain. In the meantime, his critics began to gnaw at his status, raising doubts as to the reliability of his letters, which had caused him to become almost forgotten over the years. Waldseemüller also changed his mind and did not use the name America on the next three maps he published, but the name had already taken hold in the public consciousness.
Such land discovery voyages and campaigns continued in the following years, giving birth to colonialism and imperialism, with the European world powers dividing the world up among themselves while ignoring the local inhabitants who had lived there for hundreds and thousands of years before being “kindly discovered” by the white man. The age of discovery is commonly thought to have ended by the end of the 17th century, since at this point naval technology had improved enough to allow sailors to reach anywhere in the world. The fifth continent, Australia, was discovered in 1606, but was only investigated in 1770, during James Cook’s famous voyage. Antarctica was discovered only in 1820.
After 1911, with the conquest of the South Pole, there remained no more land to be discovered on Earth. Since then, mankind has reached the peaks of the Himalayas, the depths of the oceans and even the moon, in a race for prestige and status between the two world powers – the United States and the Soviet Union. What will be the next destination for exploration then? Perhaps Mars.