Amerigo Vespucci is often credited as the man after whom the American continents were named. This may or may not be the case. As was recently pointed out on an episode of QI, a British TV Quiz Show hosted by the master of erudition himself Stephen Fry, there remains doubt as to the veracity of this theory. At the time we're talking about, countries, less still continents, weren't generally named after the first names of people who weren't monarchs.
However, it is known that Vespucci was an explorer and cartographer who undertook a series of voyages from 1497. The first is thought to have been organised by King Ferdinand of Aragon in order to find out how far the mainland of the as-yet-unnamed landmass of America was far from Hispaniola in the Antilles.
Born on 9 March, 1454, to Stagio and Elizabetta Vespucci in the city-state of Florence Italy, Amerigo was the third of four brothers.
During his childhood, the very studious Amerigo read and collected maps and knowledge. His first job was working under a banker for the Medici family. His heart was not in commerce and he studied and dreamed of doing something else.
From 1478 - 1480 he represented the city state of Florence in the court of King Louis XI of Paris. Three years after that his father died and he returned to working in commerce. In the course of his profession he travelled to Spain. He was well into his forties when he made this trip; and it was in Spain that he was offered his first position on a ship, that of a navigator1, which he accepted.
It was seven years after King Ferdinand had sent another explorer Christopher Columbus out searching for a westerly route to the Indies when Vespucci made his first voyage. Three ships set out from Cadiz, Spain in the spring of 1497 bearing Vespucci as the navigator for this group. This was the most northerly of his voyages, which took him up North America before he returned to Spain in October.
In 1499 he set a more southerly course and followed the Brazilian coast past the Amazon river. Once again failing to find an opening to the Pacific he returned to Spain in poor health. The next year he went to work for Portugal and sailed out of Lisbon. This time he went down to the Plata River and returned via the South Georgia Islands.
Among the textbooks that Amerigo read as a young man was probably a Greek text by Ptolemy. For many centuries this was the definitive encyclopaedia on geographical and astronomical knowledge. Another work of literature was one by Dante Alighieri who wrote in his epic poem The Divine Comedy:
I turned to the right hand, and gave heed to the other pole and saw four stars never seen save by the first people.
Amerigo recalled these words when traveling along the Brazilian coast and saw far on his southern horizon four stars that he said were in the 'shape of an almond'. On his next expedition (1501 - 02) he was the First Mate and travelled as far as the mountains of Tierra Del Fuego. During this voyage he drew a sketch of six stars that is thought to be Crux (the Southern Cross) and α and β Centauri.
In 1503, as Captain of his own expedition, he gave up on the southerly route and looked for a way west along the Southern shore of the Caribbean. Reaching the Atrato river he traveled far up river gathering pearls and gold to take back to Europe. This was shortly after another explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa had taken a similar route. It would however be 1513 before Balboa would ever see the Pacific Ocean and 1520 before Magellan would sail on it.
Naming a New Land
Columbus never realised that there was another ocean (the Pacific) between the land he found and Asia. Amerigo never saw the Pacific either, but by celestial mechanics and the application of mathematics he computed a circumference of the world within 50 miles(80 km) of its real size, and deduced that what he was looking at was a hitherto unknown continent. He used the word 'the new world' to describe it while others just said 'terra incognito'2
For many years, the main controversy focussed on whether Vespucci deserved the honour of having a Continent named after him. However, many now doubt that he was the inspiration for the naming of the new landmass at all.
The traditional account is that Amerigo wrote and published accounts of the lives and culture of the natives in this new world, and his accounts caught the imagination of a German mapmaker. Martin Waldseemüller, the story goes, and accepted Amerigo's judgement that this was new territory and labelled it 'America'. Soon other map-makers followed suit, and in 1538 (26 years after the death of Amerigo Vespucci) a world map was published by Gerardus Mercator including two continents that he labelled 'North and South America'.
However, 19th Century geologist Jules Marcou suggested that Vespucci actually changed his name from Alberigo to Amerigo in honour of the new land, which he had named after the gold district of Amerrique in Nicaragua.
An alternative theory emerged in 1908. Briton Alfred Hudd suggested that America may have been named after Richard Ap Meryk, one of the Earls of Gwent, who donated a large amount of money to John Cabot's 1497 voyage from England to Newfoundland. It is thought that the name Amerike made its way into English documents of the time, including a map (which no longer survives) which was the true inspiration behind Waldseemüller's choice of names.
In 1505 Amerigo married Maria Carezo but had no children. Amerigo was fifty-four at that time. A few years before his death he opened a school to teach seamanship and in 1508 was given the title 'Piloto Mayor de Espana' which translates as 'Pilot Major' and signified that he was the head of the Spanish Navy.
Amerigo Vespucci died on 22 February, 1512, of malaria, and was buried in Seville, Spain.