ALL ABOUT AMERIGO
The Explorer For Whom America Was Named, Amerigo Vespucci will long be remembered as the
man America was named after but who was this inconsequential explorer and how did he get his
name on two continents? Vespucci was born in 1454 to a prominent family in Florence, Italy.
As a young man he read widely, collected books and maps, and even studied under Michelangelo.
He began working for local bankers and was sent to Spain in 1492 to look after his
employer's business interests.
While in Spain, be began working on ships and ultimately went on his first expedition as a navigator
in 1499. This expedition reached the mouth of the Amazon River and explored the coast of South
America. Vespucci was able to calculate how far west he had traveled by observing the conjunction of
Mars and the Moon.
On his second voyage in 1501, Vespucci sailed under the Portuguese flag. After leaving Lisbon, it
took Vespucci 64 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean due to light winds. His ships followed the South
American coast to within 400 miles of the southern tip, Sierra del Fuego.While on this voyage,
Vespucci wrote two letters to a friend in Europe. He described his travels and was the first to
identify the New World of North and South America as separate from Asia.
(Until he died, Columbus thought he had reached Asia.)
Vespucci also described the culture of the indigenous people, and focused on their diet, religion, and
what made these letters very popular - their sexual, marriage, and childbirth practices. The letters were
published in many languages and were distributed across Europe (they were a much better seller than
Columbus' own diaries).
Vespucci was named Pilot Major of Spain in 1508. Vespucci was proud of this accomplishments,
"I was more skillful than all the shipmates of the whole world." (Wilford, 70) Vespucci's third voyage
to the New World was his last for he contracted malaria and died in Spain in 1512 at the age of 58.
The German clergyman-scholar Martin Waldseemüller liked to make up names. He even created his
own last name by combining words for "wood," "lake," and "mill." Waldseemüller was working on a
contemporary world map, based on the Greek geography of Ptolmey, and he had read of Vespucci's
travels and knew that the New World was indeed two continents.
In honor of Vespucci's discovery of the new forth portion of the world, Waldseemüller printed a wood
block map (called "Carta Mariana") with the name "America" spread across the southern continent of the
New World. Waldseemüller printed and sold a thousand copies of the map across Europe.
Within a few years, Waldseemüller changed his mind about the name for the New World but it was too
late. The name America had stuck. The power of the printed word was too powerful to take back.
Gerardus Mercator's world map of 1538 was the first to include North America and South America.
Thus, continents named for a Italian navigator would live on forever.