Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
HOW AMERICA WAS NAMED
 "THE New World is his monument." And yet the New World does not
bear the name of Columbus. So in this chapter I am going to tell
you how America was named.
As soon as Columbus had shown the way across the Sea of Darkness
many were eager to follow in his footsteps. "There is not a man,"
he says himself, "down to the very tailors, who does not beg to be
allowed to become a discoverer." Among the many who longed to sail
the seas there was a man named Amerigo Vespucci.
Like Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian. He was born in
Florence and there for nearly forty years he lived quietly, earning
his living as a clerk in the great merchant house of Medici. But
although he was diligent at business his thoughts were not wholly
taken up with it, and in his leisure hours he loved to read books
of geography, and pore over maps and charts.
After a time business took Amerigo to Spain. He was there when
Columbus returned from his famous first voyage, and very likely saw
him pass through the streets of Barcelona on his day of triumph.
Just when Amerigo and Columbus met we do not know. But very soon we
find Amerigo in the service of the merchant who supplied Columbus
with food and other necessaries for his second voyage. It has been
thought by some that Vespucci went with Columbus on this voyage,
but that is not very likely. It was about this time, however, that
Vespucci went on his first voyage in which he explored the coast of
 or of Central America. It is very doubtful which. Before
going on this voyage he had been in Spain about four years, and
not having succeeded very well as a merchant he decided to give up
trading and take to a sea life.
No voyages perhaps have been more written about and fought over than
those of Amerigo Vespucci. Some will have it that he went only two
voyages, and say he was a braggart and a vainglorious fool if he
said he went more. Others think that he went at least four voyages
and probably six. And most people are now agreed that these last are
right, and that he who gave his name to the great double Continent
of America was no swaggering pretender but an honest and upright
In the first two voyages that he made Vespucci sailed under the
flag of Spain. In the second two he sailed in the service of the
King of Portugal. But after his fourth voyage he returned again to
Spain. There he received a large salary and the rank of captain.
Later he was made Pilot Major of Spain, and was held in high honour
till his death.
Yet in all the voyages Vespucci went, whether under the flag of
Portugal or of Spain, he was never leader. He went as astronomer,
or as pilot, while other men captained the expeditions.
It is from Amerigo's letters alone that we gather the little we
know about his voyages. For although he says in one of his letters
that he has written a book called "The Four Voyages" it has never
been found, and perhaps was never published. One long letter,
however, which he wrote to an old schoolfellow was so interesting
that it was published and read by many people all over Europe. It
was, says an old English writer, "abrode in every mannes handes."
Amerigo's voyages led him chiefly to Central and South America and
he became convinced that South America was a continent. So soon,
what with the voyages of Vespucci
 and the voyages of other great
men, it became at last quite certain that there was a vast continent
beyond the Atlantic ocean. Map-makers, therefore, began to draw a
huge island, large enough to form in itself a continent, south of
the Equator. They called it the New World, or the land of the Holy
Cross, but the Northern Continent was still represented on the maps
by a few small islands, or as a part of Asia.
Thus years passed. Daring sailors still sailed the stormy seas
in search of new lands, and learned men read the tales of their
adventures and wrote new books of geography.
Then one day a professor who taught geography at the Monastery of
St. Diť in Alsace published a little book on geography. In it he
spoke of Europe, Asia and Africa, the three parts of the world as
known to the ancients. Then he spoke of the fourth part which had
been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci, by which he meant what we now
call South America. "And," continues this professor, "I do not see
what is rightly to hinder us calling this part Amerige or America,
that is, the land of Americus after its discoverer Americus."
This is the first time the word America was ever used, and little did
this old German professor, writing in his quiet Alsatian College,
think that he was christening the great double continent of the
New World. And as little did Amerigo think in writing his letter
to his old school fellow that he was to be looked upon as the
discoverer of the New World.
At first the new name came slowly into use and it appears for the
first time on a map made about 1514. In this map America is shown
as a great island continent lying chiefly south of the Equator.
All the voyages which Columbus had made had been north of the
Equator. No man yet connected the land south
 of the Equator with
him, and it was at first only to this south land that the name
America was given.
Thirty years and more went by. Many voyages were made, and it
became known for certain that Columbus had not reached the shores
of India by sailing west, and that a great continent barred the
way north as well as south of the Equator.
Then a famous map-maker gave the name of America to both continents.
But many Spaniards were jealous for the fame of Columbus, and they
thought that the Northern Continent should be called Colonia or
Columbiana. One, anxious that the part in the discovery taken by
Ferdinand and Isabella should not be forgotten, even tried to make
people call it Fer-Isabelica.
But all such efforts were in vain. America sounded well, people
liked it, and soon every one used it.
Amerigo Vespucci himself had nothing to do with the choice, and
yet because others gave his name to the New World many hard things
have been said of him. He has been called in scorn a "land lubber,
" a beef and biscuit contractor," and other contemptuous names.
Even one of the greatest American writers has poured scorn on him.
"Strange," he says, "that broad America must wear the name of a
thief. Amerigo Vespucci, the pickle dealer of Seville . . . whose
highest naval rank was a boatswain's mate in an expedition that
never sailed, managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and
baptise half the earth with his own dishonest name."
But it was the people of his day, and not Vespucci, who brought
the new name into use. Vespucci himself had never any intention of
being a thief or of robbing Columbus of his glory. He and Columbus
had always been friends, and little more than a year before he died
Columbus wrote a letter to his son Diego which Vespucci delivered.
In this letter Columbus says, "Amerigo Vespucci, the bearer of this
letter . . . has always been wishful to please me. He is a very
honest man. . . . He is very anxious to do something for me, if it
is in his power."
It was only accident which gave the name of America to the New
World, and perhaps also the ingratitude of the great leader's own
Later generations, however, have not been so unmindful of Columbus
and his deeds; Americans have not allowed his great name to be
wholly forgotten. The district in which the capital of the United
States is situated is called Columbia. In Canada too there is the
great province of British Columbia, and in South America the United
States of Colombia, besides many towns all named in honour of the