HOW AMERICA WAS NAMED
If, in the foregoing narrative, the author has seemed to champion his
hero unduly, going perhaps unnecessarily into the details of his
voyages, it may have been owing to anticipated opposition on the part
of his readers. There has always been a wide divergence of opinion
respecting the merits of Amerigo Vespucci, and the world has never
reconciled itself to his so-called usurpation of the glory rightly
belonging to Columbus.
Even so great a writer as Emerson allowed himself to say: "Strange
that broad America must wear the name of a thief! Amerigo Vespucci,
the pickle-dealer at Seville, who went out in 1499, a subaltern with
Hojeda, and whose highest naval rank was boatswain's mate, in an
expedition that never sailed, managed in this lying world to supplant
Columbus, and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name!"
We, who have followed the career of Amerigo Vespucci from its
beginning to its ending, know that he was not a thief; that—except by
implication, as having been a purveyor of naval stores—he was not a
"pickle-dealer"; that he held a far higher rank than boatswain's
mate—as attested by the royal proclamation we have cited, naming him
to be chief pilot of Spain; and that, so far as the evidence of his
contemporaries and his own letters show, he made no attempt whatever
to thrust his personality upon the world.
He did not "baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name,"
though it is true that the appellation by which a hemisphere is known
to-day was derived from Americus, Amerigo, or Americo—whether we
speak it in Latin, in Italian, or in Spanish.
How comes it then, the reader may well ask, that America derived its
name from the Florentine, Vespucci, when it should, by right of
"discovery," have been called after the Genoese, Columbus? The answer
to this question involves the following of clews centuries old,
through a labyrinth of falsehood and misstatement that was built up
three hundred years ago. The first clew may be found on page 197 of
this biography, where mention is made of the translation of Vespucci's
letter to Lorenzo de Medici, by Giocondo, in 1504, and issued by him
under the title Mundus Novus. This letter is said to have been first
published in Lisbon and Augsburg in 1504, and in Strasburg in 1505.
Pick up this book and nail it to the wall, where it may be observed by
all, for it was the very beginning of Vespucci's posthumous troubles.
We have read the letter and known it to have been a plain, unvarnished
account of Vespucci's third voyage, in which he chanced to say that he
thought he had discovered the fourth part of the globe, and proposed
to call it Mundus Novus, or the New World. He was quite right, and
within bounds, when he did this, for he was thinking only of that
portion of the southern hemisphere which he had found, and not of
the entire western hemisphere. He did not extend the term to cover the
northern regions, discovered by Columbus, for the latter had no idea
that they pertained to a new world; in fact—as we know—believed to
the last that they belonged to Asia or India.
"At no time during the life of Columbus, nor for some years after his
death," says a learned historian, "did anybody use the phrase 'New
World' with conscious reference to his discoveries. At the time of his
death their true significance had not yet begun to dawn upon the mind
of any voyager or any writer. It was supposed that he had found a new
route to the Indies by sailing west, and that in the course of this
achievement he had discovered some new islands," etc.
We must, then, acquit Vespucci of any intention of depriving Columbus
of his laurels, when he said he believed he had found a new world, for
he referred only to that portion of South America now known as Brazil.
Nor, so far as we know, was he either responsible for, or aware of,
the publication of his letters to Medici and Soderini—for those to
the latter were afterwards translated and printed—as he was, at that
time, on the ocean. In truth, as the letters were merely epistles to
friends, who would naturally be interested in his discoveries, and of
course overlook any defects of diction, he openly stated that he was
only waiting leisure for improving and elaborating them for issue in
pamphlet form. He never acquired this leisure, and the world, tired
of waiting, seized upon his material and brought it out in print,
without so much as saying "by your leave."
The second person to take liberties with Vespucci's name was one
Matthias Ringmann, a student in Paris, who was acquainted with Friar
Giocondo, and of course saw the Mundus Novus, which he published in
Strasburg in 1505. That same year he was offered the professorship of
Latin in a college at Saint-Die, a charming little town in the Vosges
Mountains, which had long been a seat of learning. It is said to have
been strangely associated with the discovery of America, from the fact
that here was written, about 1410, the book called Imago Mundi,
which Columbus read and probably took to sea with him on his first
great voyage. In a double sense, this obscure town and college,
nestling in a little-known valley of the Franco-German mountains, is
known in connection with the name America, as will now be shown.
Young Professor Ringmann found at Saint-Die a select and distinguished
company of scholars, composed of Martin Waldseemueller, professor of
geography; Jean Basin de Sendacour, canon and Latinist; Walter Lud,
secretary to Duke Rene, patron of literature, and especially of the
college of Saint-Die, which was to him as the apple of his eye. He was
the reigning Duke of Lorraine, and titular "King of Sicily and
Jerusalem," but had never strayed far from his own picturesque
province, though he had won a great victory over Charles the Bold in
1477. He is, no doubt, worthy an extended biographical sketch, but in
this connection can only be referred to as the patron of these great
teachers in Saint-Die, who, soon after the appearance of Ringmann
among them, conceived the plan of printing a new edition of Ptolemy.
One of them, Walter Lud, was blessed with riches, and as he had
introduced a printing-press, about the year 1500, the college was
amply equipped. So many discoveries had been made since the last
editions of Ptolemy had appeared, that the Saint-Die coterie felt
the need of new works on the subject, and sent Ringmann to Italy
hunting for the same. He, it is thought, brought back, among other
"finds" of great value, the letter written by Vespucci to Soderini
from Lisbon, in September, 1504, a certified manuscript copy of which
was made in February, 1505, and printed at Florence before midsummer,
No extended explanation is needed now to elucidate the scheme by which
Vespucci's letters were incorporated in the treatise published by
those wise men of Saint-Die, entitled Cosmographie Introductio, or
"Rudiments of Geography," and taken from the press on April 25, 1507.
It was a small pamphlet, with engravings of the crudest sort, but it
made a stir in the world such as has been caused by but few books
since. But one copy of this first edition is said to be extant, and
that is in the Lenox Library, New York City. It caused a flutter in
cosmographical circles, not alone at the time of its issue, but for
centuries thereafter, for in it first occurs in print the suggestion
that the "fourth part of the world," discovered by Amerigo Vespucci,
should be called AMERICA.
Professor Martin Waldseemueller was the culprit, and not Amerigo
Vespucci, for he says, in Latin, which herewith find turned into
English: "But now these parts have been more extensively explored and
another fourth part has been discovered by Americus Vespucius (as
will appear in what follows): wherefore I do not see what is rightly
to hinder us from calling it Amerige, or America—i.e., the land of
Americus, after its discoverer, Americus, a man of sagacious mind,
since both Europe and Asia have got their names from women. Its
situation and the manners and customs of its people will be clearly
understood from the twice two voyages of Americus, which follow."
It was a suggestion, merely, and by one who was a perfect stranger to
Vespucci; but it promptly "took," for the word America was euphonious,
it seemed applicable, and, moreover, it was to be applied only to that
quarter in the southern hemisphere which had been revealed by Amerigo
Vespucci. It was a suggestion innocently made, without any sort of
communication from Amerigo himself, intended to influence the opinion
of contemporaries or the verdict of posterity.
NORTH AMERICA FROM THE GLOBE OF JOHANN SCHOENER.
"But for these nine lines written by an obscure geographer in a little
village of the Vosges," says Henry Harrisse, "the western hemisphere
might have been called 'The Land of the Holy Cross,' or 'Atlantis,'
or 'Columbia,' 'Hesperides,' 'Iberia,' 'New India,' or simply 'The
Indies,' as it is designated officially in Spain to this day." ... "As
it was, however," says another writer, "the suggestion by
Waldseemueller was immediately adopted by geographers everywhere; the
new land beyond the Atlantic had, by a stroke of a pen, been
christened for all time to come."
The full title of the Cosmographie Introductio reads: "An
Introduction to Cosmography, together with some principles of Geometry
necessary to the purpose. Also four voyages of Americus Vespucius. A
description of universal Cosmography, both stereometrical and
planometrical, together with what was unknown to Ptolemy and has been
Notwithstanding the name was "promptly adopted" by the geographers, at
the same time it "came slowly into use," for geographical knowledge
was then in an inchoate state, especially as respected the New World.
It is said to have first appeared on a map ascribed to Leonardo da
Vinci in 1514; but in a pamphlet accompanying "the earliest known
globe of Johann Schoener," made in 1515, the new region is described as
the "fourth part of the globe named after its discoverer, Americus
Vespucius, who found it in 1497." Vespucci did not find it, and he
never made the claim that he discovered more than is given in his
letters; but this misstatement by another caused him to be accused of
falsifying the dates of his voyages in order to rob Columbus of his
It will be perceived, however, that the name was not applied at first
to the entire land masses of America, but merely to that portion now
known as Brazil, called by Cabral "Terra Sanctae Crucis," or "Land of
the Holy Cross," and by Vespucci, who continued his explorations,
"Mundus Novus." Further than this Vespucci never went, and,
moreover, he passed away "before his name was applied to the new
discoveries on any published map." He was living, of course, when the
Cosmographie appeared, and may have seen a copy of the book; but the
argument advanced by some that he dedicated this work to Duke Rene of
Lorraine, and hence must have written it, falls to the ground when
that dedication is examined. The worthy canon who translated
Vespucci's letter to Soderini into Latin, copied the dedication in the
original, which was addressed to "His Magnificence, Piero Soderini,
etc.," but substituted for the last-named his patron, Duke Rene. This
is proved by the title "His Magnificence," which was used in
addressing the Gonfaloniere of Florence, and never in connection with
Duke Rene of Lorraine.
It was not until near the middle of the sixteenth century that
"America" was recognized "as the established continental name," when,
after Mexico had been conquered by Cortes, Peru by Pizarro, and the
Pacific revealed by Balboa and Magellan, it first appears on the great
Mercator map of 1541. The appellation "America" had superseded Mundus
Novus on several maps previous to this, but only as a term applied to
restricted regions. "The stage of development," says the learned
author of the Discovery of America, "consisted of five distinct
steps. . . . 1. Americus called the regions visited by him beyond the
equator a 'New World,' because they were unknown to the ancients; 2.
Giocondo made this striking phrase, Mundus Novus, into a title for
his translation of the letter, which he published at Paris (1504)
while the author was absent from Europe, and probably without his
knowledge; 3. The name Mundus Novus got placed upon several maps as
an equivalent for Terra Sanctae Crucis, or what we call Brazil; 4.
The suggestion was made that Mundus Novus was the Fourth Part of the
Earth, and might properly be named America, after its discoverer; 5.
The name America thus got placed upon several maps as an equivalent
for what we call Brazil, and sometimes came to stand alone for what we
call South America, but still signified only a part of the dry land
beyond the Atlantic to which Columbus had led the way."
That there was no evil intention on Vespucci's part is amply proved by
the fact that, while he himself lived four years after the
Introductio was published, a certain contemporary of his, one
Ferdinand Columbus, who was most acutely interested in seeing justice
done the name and deeds of his father, survived Vespucci twenty-seven
years. He not only saw this book, but owned a copy, which, according
to an autograph note on the flyleaf, he had bought in Venice in July,
1521, "for five sueldos." This book is still contained in the
library he founded at Seville, and as it was copiously annotated by
him, it must have been carefully read; yet, though he has the credit
of having written a life of his father, Christopher Columbus, he makes
no mention whatever of the "usurpation" by Vespucci.
Ferdinand Columbus knew the Florentine, and was an intimate friend of
his nephew, Juan Vespucci; yet the question seems never to have arisen
between them as to the great discoverers' respective shares of glory.
The explanation lies in this fact: that Vespucci's name had been
bestowed upon a region far remote from that explored by his father,
who had never sailed south of the equator. Notwithstanding the good
feeling that prevailed between them, however, long after Ferdinand's
death, when the name America had become of almost universal
application, the veteran Las Casas, in writing his great history,
marvels that the son of the old Admiral could overlook the "theft and
usurpation" of Vespucci. The old man's indignation was great, for he
was a stanch friend of Columbus, and revered his memory. He made out a
very strong case against Vespucci—being in ignorance of the manner in
which his name came to be given to the lands discovered by
Columbus—and when, in 1601, the historian Herrera, who made use of
the Las Casas manuscripts, repeated his statements as those of a
contemporary, all the world gave him credence.
Vespucci's name rested under suspicion during more than three
centuries, and was not even partially cleared until 1837, when
Alexander von Humboldt undertook the gigantic task of vindication. It
was not so much to vindicate Vespucci, however, as to ascertain the
truth, that Humboldt made the critical and exhaustive examination
which appeared in his Examen Critique de l'Histoire de la Geographie
de Nouveau Continent.
Even Humboldt, however, did not secure all the evidence available, but
by the discovery of valuable documents the missing links in the chain
were supplied: by Varnhagen, Vespucci's ardent eulogist, by Harrisse,
and finally by Fiske. The last-named truthfully says: "No competent
scholar anywhere will now be found to dissent from the emphatic
statement of M. Harrisse—'After a diligent study of all the original
documents, we feel constrained to say that there is not a particle of
evidence, direct or indirect, implicating Amerigo Vespucci in an
attempt to foist his name on this continent.'" And moreover, "no shade
of doubt is left upon the integrity of Vespucci. So truth is strong,
and prevails at last."
This is the conclusion arrived at by the impartial historian, who,
without disparaging the deeds of Columbus, without detracting in any
manner from his great discoveries, has restored Amerigo Vespucci to
the niche in which he was placed by the German geographers four
hundred years ago, and from which he was torn by injudicious
iconoclasts, fearful for the fame of Spain's great Admiral.
It is enough for Columbus to have discovered America; it was far more
than Amerigo Vespucci deserved to have this discovery given his name,
by which it will be known forever; but this honor, though unmerited,
was at the same time unsought.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics