Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), known as Americus Vespucius in Latin, is the Italian explorer that America is named after. He called it the New World. While Columbus thought he was in the Indies, a part of Asia, Vespucci discovered that South America was not part of Asia at all but a new continent.
He went on at least two voyages (1499-1500 and 1501-1502), maybe as many as four. He sailed for both Spain and Portugal. He explored the coast of South America from Venezuela to Patagonia in Argentina (I am using the present-day names). He was the first Western explorer to see the Amazon and Rio de la Plata. He went as far as 50 degrees south of the equator.
He was looking for a passage to India, thinking that South America was the east coast of Asia. According to Ptolemy and Marco Polo the Asian coast turned west at the Cape of Catigara, at 8.5 degrees south of the equator. From there Vespucci hoped to sail on to Taprobane (Sri Lanka). But the coast went on and on and on, hardly ever turning. This was not Asia but some new continent.
He saw new stars that no one could see from Europe. He stayed up late at night trying to find the southern pole star.
He saw new kinds of monkeys, wolves and wild cats – and lost faith in the story of Noah’s Ark.
He saw new kinds of human societies, ones that seemed to have no religion, government, private property or hang-ups about sex, but which also practised cannibalism.
He saw people living in the Torrid Zone (the tropics), more people than in Europe in fact, disproving the ancient Greek idea that it was too hot for people to live there.
The published accounts of his voyages were overblown. We know that by comparing them to his private letters. It seems that printers sensationalized his accounts to sell more books. It worked: Vespucci’s books outsold Columbus three to one. So much so that Vespucci was widely regarded as the one who discovered the New World. So, when German mapmaker Martin Waldseemuller updated Ptolemy’s map of the world in 1507, he named Vespucci’s new continent after him: America.
The sensationalized accounts, unfortunately, also helped to fix in the Western mind the stereotype of native Americans as savages, both noble and not. It has been confirmation bias ever since.
In 1508 Spain made Vespucci the country’s top navigator. He taught and licensed pilots and kept an up-to-date map of all their discoveries for the Spanish Crown. By then he was a Spanish citizen.
Vespucci came from a rich family in Florence, Italy. Leonardo da Vinci knew him. The powerful Medici family sent him to Seville in the south of Spain to look after their business interests. Vespucci probably saw Columbus return from his first voyage. He knew Columbus: he helped to supply his second and third voyages.
Simonetta Vespucci, the woman that Botticelli painted as Venus on a clamshell, was his cousin-in-law.
- The term “America”
- Native Americans according to the first Western accounts
- Simonetta Vespucci
- confirmation bias