/ Shannon Kristine Croft
Shannon Kristine Croft
2005 Oct 26
“Amerigo Vespucci was a map maker who lived a long time ago....” my 4th
grade teacher told my class. ”He made the first map of the New World and
signed his name at the bottom. When someone copied the map, they made a
mistake and thought that Amerigo was the name of the country. That is how
America got it’s name.” In my studies, I am learning that many pieces of
history that I learned early in school are not exactly true. This is one of
those stories. Amerigo was a map maker, but also much more. Amerigo was a voyager and explorer who was friends with Christopher Columbus. He contributed a lot to sailing by inventing new ways to measure speed and distance. Unlike Columbus, Amerigo had a thirst for world knowledge, not world conquest. A very different thinking from men of his time. Despite his achievements, Amerigo’s story is not without controversy. After his death his name was dishonored and then virtually forgotten.
Amerigo Vespucci was born in 1454, in Florence, Italy. He grew up during the Renaissance. Amerigo was the third son in his family, and usually third sons were put to work as soon as they were old enough, but luckily Amerigo’s father wanted all his sons to be educated. Amerigo was sent to San Marco to study with his uncle. He was facinated by astronomy and learned all the constellations. He also enjoyed studying maps. This knowledge helped Amerigo in his later voyages. During this time, many people in Europe spoke of the great wealth and fine goods that were available in the Indies, or the countries of the Far East. These goods came to Florence through trade, but at a high price. No Europeans of this time had ever been to the Indies because of Muslim Turks who controlled this area of the Middle East. They would not allow the Christian Europeans through their territory. Europeans, especially those in Florence, which was along a trade route, were desperate to find an alternate route to the Indies.
In 1489 when Amerigo was 38, he had an opportunity to go to Spain for business. It was
there that he met Christopher Columbus. Columbus also studied maps and had an idea that the east Indies could be reached by sailing west. Although, many people laughed at this idea, Amerigo didn’t. Columbus was able to get the Spanish king and queen to back his voyage, however they could not give him all the money that he needed. It was Amerigo who helped him get the rest of the money by speaking with a business friend, Gianetto Berardi, who loaned Columbus a large sum.
With Amerigo’s help, Columbus took several voyages, and ended up exploring the islands near Cuba, although he thought he was in Asia. Reports were coming back to the king that Columbus was an unfair governor in his colony. Columbus was unable to find any riches or treasure and he still believed that he was in the Indies. The king was concerned about the reports and asked Amerigo to go explore the area. In 1499 Amerigo and his crew set sail. They had good weather and were able to reach Brazil in about a month. They were the first Europeans to go there. They also past the equator and went farther south than any explorers had before. It was during this voyage that Amerigo figured out a way to calculate his longitude. Sailors could already track latitude using an instrument called an astrolabe to measure North Star’s height. Amerigo learned that by tracking the moon and doing some calculations on the time and circumference of the Earth that he could figure out his longitude. Amerigos method was used by sailors for the next 250 years. He returned from this voyage in 1500.
Amerigo’s knowledge and experience impressed the Portuguese king who asked Amerigo to go on a voyage to the Indies to mark Portuguese territory. Amerigo agreed and went on his second voyage in 1501. After 64 days at sea Amerigo did some calculation to see how close they were to Asia. It was at this time that Amerigo was able to do further calculations
about the earth. He discovered that the Earth was larger in circumference than previously thought. This discovery meant that he and his men were no where near Asia. The land they had been exploring had to be a fourth continent. They sailed for 10 months, learning about the native people. He never again referred to them as “Indians”. Amerigo returned in 1502 and his news astonished the Portuguese and Spanish kings. Amerigo set out for another voyage of the New World in 1503, but due to bad weather he was not able to go as far as he had planned.
On March 22, 1508 Amerigo was honored by the Spanish king. He was named Pilot Major of Spain. He was to draw a master map of all lands and islands. Anyone sailing had to use a map drawn by Amerigo or be fined. He also began teaching new seamen how to use the astrolabe and other instruments, test them and issue certificates to sail. He instructed the ships’ outfitters on what to supply the colonists and helped write laws to prevent stealing and smuggling. He instructed ship builders on how to make the Spanish ships stronger. Amerigo worked as pilot major for four years, but he occasionally suffered due to a case of malaria he had caught while on his voyages. On February 22, 1512, just before his 58th birthday, he died due to the malaria.
In 1507, several monks at a monastery in Saint-Dié, France wrote a book on geography and mathematics. They had received a copy of Amerigo Vespucci’s map and included it in the book. One of the monks, Martin Waldseemüller, copied Amerigo’s map and printed the name “America” on what is now South America. The monks agreed that it was fitting that the man who discovered it, should give the land its name. The map was reprinted several times and by 1538 had spread to other countries with the name “America” on the central and northern parts as well.
Years later, people began criticizing Amerigo Vespucci for naming the country after himself, and saying that he stole Columbus’ glory. This was not true since neither Amerigo, nor his family ever put his name on a map. Several letters were circulated that had Amerigo’s name on them, describing some of his voyages. These letters contained errors and many exaggerations. One letter told of a voyage he had taken in 1497. If the letter were true it would mean that he reached the mainland of the new world one year before Columbus. There is not enough evidence to tell if he really did take this voyage. Most historians now believe that the letters were not written by Amerigo, however at the time they were published, they hurt his credibility. Scholars at the time suggested that everything Amerigo said was a lie. Mistakes about Amerigo were repeated for hundreds of years. American history books stopped mentioning him. It was not until late in the 19th century that a scholar named Henry Harrisse studied the letters and government records and concluded that they were forgeries.
Amerigo Vespucci loved traveling and learning about the world. His voyages educated people about the truth of the world at a time when there were many legends and superstitions. He is credited for inventing the Method of Lunar Distances for finding longitude and he is praised for figuring out the true circumference of the earth when other geographers were thousands of miles off. Amerigo Vespucci’s greatest achievement was understanding that the land he and Columbus had explored was actually a new continent. Unlike what my teacher told me, those map makers in France did not make a mistake. They recognized the great contribution this man made to the world and honored him for it.
Forgotten Voyager. Minneapolis, 1991.
Amerigo Vespucci. New York, 1991.
Vespucci, trans. Patricia Hauduroy. Mankato, 1990.
© 2005 Shannon Kristine Croft
This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution License 2.5.