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We saw in Part 1 that Vespucci wrote a fantasized account of a voyage supposedly taken in 1497, in which he claimed to have discovered the mainland of a new massive continent. At that time it was still thought of as one very big continent. The key point was that Columbus did not touch the actual mainland until his third voyage in 1498—one year after Vespucci’s claim. Now we need to pick up the thread of the story with Vespucci’s account.
They anchored a short distance north of the eastern bulge of Brazil (south of the present city of Fortaleza) with the intent of trading with some native people they could see near the shore. When two sailors went ashore with trade goods, the natives showed no interest in talking or dealing with them in any way. The men went off with the natives away from the shore and five days later there was still no sign of them. Then, a crowd of women and girls gathered on the beach and Coelho sent ashore the handsomest young sailor he had to talk with the women, hoping no doubt that he could charm them into returning the other two men. The women gathered around the young sailor with great interest, touching and feeling in a most suggestive way. Meanwhile, one strong woman came up behind the man and killed him with one blow to the head. The ladies then dragged the poor sailor by the feet to a nearby mound, roasted him over a fire, and ate chunks of his flesh within sight of the ship’s horrified crew.
As cover for the women’s festivities, native men appeared and shot volleys of arrows toward the ship as a defiant warning to leave them alone. Coelho had no interest in a battle at this time and ordered the ship to set sail. A few days later they met a friendlier tribe of people, three of whom volunteered(?) to go with the ship back to Portugal. Before returning to Portugal they sailed along much of the northeastern coast of Brazil, with Vespucci recording all that he saw. Vespucci was one of the few men of the period who wrote in great detail about the people, the flora and fauna. He showed a real appreciation for the local landscapes, and described everything thoroughly. In a letter to his former employer, Lorenzo de Medici, Vespucci provided the earliest reliable description of the landscape and natives of the coastal areas of Brazil. Two excerpts provide an example:
“This land is very delightful, and covered with an infinite number of green trees and very big ones which never lose their foliage, and throughout the year yield the sweetest aromatic perfumes and produce an infinite variety of fruit grateful to the taste and healthful for the body.”
“The men are accustomed to bore holes in their lips and cheeks and in these holes they place bones and stones; and do not believe they are little. Most of them have at least three holes and some seven and some nine, in which they place stones of green and white alabaster, and which are as large as a Catalan plum, which seems unnatural; they say they do this to appear more ferocious; an infinitely brutal thing. Their marriages are not with one woman but with as many as they like, and without much ceremony.”
In describing their warlike quality, Vespucci wrote that he could not understand their inclination for war because they had no sense of ownership of land or any other wealth of possessions. He asked why they went to war, and learned that, “they wished to avenge the death of their ancestors” who at some time had been killed by men of another tribe.
Following a battle, the victorious warriors buried their own dead, but gathered their dead enemies for a feast of human flesh. Prisoners from the enemy tribe, both male and female, were taken as slaves and required to marry within the tribe. This would enrich the gene pool a bit.
When Coehlo and Vespucci returned to Portugal, the king expressed his disappointment with the voyage because they brought back no wealth of gold and silver. Only logwood, parrots, monkeys, and a few native people. Discovery of the real mineral wealth of Brazil came much later.
Vespucci sailed under Coelho’s seasoned command but regarded him as an inferior seaman. Vespucci’s writings described Coelho as “a very presumptuous and headstrong man,” and claimed that several ships of the venture were lost “all through the pride and folly of our admiral.” Vespucci shamelessly portrayed himself as the superior seaman, and praised himself frequently.
Vespucci’s letters had wide circulation and were eagerly read in Europe. People were avid to hear anything about the new lands that had lain undiscovered for so long. The avid interest among Europeans about the New World is comparable to the wide interest created by the moon landing event in modern times.
Vespucci’s letters promoted such wide interest that some felt that he had unjustly undercut Columbus’s premier position. Several factors worked to enhance Vespucci’s wider appeal to the public. First, his reports became available to the public sooner than those of Columbus. Furthermore, Columbus wrote for the eyes of the pious Queen Isabella, so he included no lurid details of the sexual or cannibalistic habits of the natives. Such details certainly added greatly to the wide popularity of Vespucci’s narratives. Within a few years, about forty editions of Vespucci’s Mundus Novus appeared in Latin, Italian, French, German, Flemish, and even Czech.
At this same time, a German professor and cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, was in the process of creating an updated version of Ptolemy’s Cosmography. In it he included a Latin translation of Vespucci’s letter and proposed, “I do not see why anyone would object to its being called after the discoverer Americus [Latin form of Amerigo], Land of Americus, or, America, since both Europe and Asia have derived their names from women.” This suggestion was based on Vespucci’s fabrication that he had landed on the continental mainland (Brazil) a year before Columbus. Waldseemüller put the name America on his map in 1507, and his idea spread quickly, until other writers and cartographers also began calling the land America. Eventually the deception was exposed by a friend of Columbus, Bishop Las Casas, and by Sebastian Cabot, who is known to have created a fictitious voyage of his own. Despite the exposés, the appeal of the name America had already caught on and there was no turning back.
Several other names were suggested, e.g. Atlantis and Columbiana, but by the time anyone realized that Columbus had discovered the mainland prior to Vespucci, the name America was already too well fixed to make a change.
Portuguese historian and mathematician, Duarte Leite Pereira da Silva, published História dos Descobrimentos [History of the Discoveries] in 1959. In his study of Vespucci, Leite wrote, “The portrait of Vespucci as a renowned astronomer, acute cosmographer, skilled navigator and audacious discoverer, is purely imaginary, and was made up by his compatriots, whom other admirers followed, thanks to the printing press. In truth Vespucci was cunning, vain, ambitious and with but a superficial knowledge of exact sciences, who as a merchant made two voyages with Spaniards and Portuguese, whom he assisted in their discoveries.”
Other historians tend to agree, partly because many of Vespucci’s computations of distances, latitudes, and longitudes are so far off that they must be considered fake. Of course not everything Vespucci wrote is false. Many of his latitude measurements are reasonably close, though no better than other navigators. Also, the well-written and detailed narratives he wrote about Brazil are much to his credit. Nevertheless, by predating his fantasy voyage to 1497, Vespucci managed to get credit for discovering the mainland of the new continent.
So Vespucci took a voyage with Ojeda in 1499, and through some creative writing made it sound like two voyages, one of which shows himself discovering the mainland of the continent in 1497, a year before Columbus accomplished it in his third voyage. This bit of chicanery gave his name a permanent place in history.
Markham, C. R. Introduction; in The Letters of Amerigo Vespucci and other documents illustrative of his career. London: Hakluyk Society, no. 90, 1894, reprinted 2010.
Morison, S. E., The European discovery of America: The southern voyages.
New York: Oxford University Press. 1974.