As a school boy I learned that America was named for Amerigo Vespucci, and that fact was pretty much the end of the story. On further examination I later found there is quite a story behind the name, with a surprising element of chicanery and chutzpah. It begins with the discovery of Brazil.
Portuguese and Spanish sailors quickly learned that the easiest route around the south tip of Africa’s Cape of Good Hope involved sailing far to the west in the northeasterly trade winds. After crossing the doldrums near the equator, they used the southeasterly trade winds until they picked up the westerlies, beyond 20˚ south latitude, then sailed eastward with a following wind to India. The westward arc was a longer distance than sailing directly along the coast of west Africa, but provided much easier and faster sailing. Also, taking such a route assured that someone would eventually discover Brazil.
It was while making such a maneuver in 1500 that the Spanish navigator, Martin Pinzón, a seasoned explorer who had commanded the Pinta on Columbus’s first voyage, became the first European to see the coast of Brazil. He landed near the eastern tip of Brazil, then sailed north, encountering sea water fresh enough to drink many miles from land. This phenomenon induced him to turn and sail into one of the mouths of the Amazon River. While there he cut and loaded a cargo of logwood (used to make dyes), captured some twenty or more natives, and returned to Spain. Upon reporting his find, the authorities determined from his logbook that the land discovered, was east of the line set by the Treaty of Tordesillas and therefore rightly belonged to Portugal.
In the same year, Portugal sent Pedro Álvares Cabral to cement Portugal’s advantage in south Asia. In March of 1500 he left Portugal with a fleet of fourteen vessels, sailing the westward arc that utilized the trade winds. Cabral, like Pinzón, happened to encounter the eastern tip of Brazil where he sighted and named Monte Pascoal (Easter Mountain). They sailed into a large bay, now named Baia Cabrália in honor of Cabral. Sensing a good thing, Cabral immediately sent one ship, commanded by Captain Nicolau Coehlo directly back to Portugal with a detailed letter to inform investors and King Manuel I of their discovery. Cabral then continued on to India. News of the discovery quickly spread around Europe, and that same year was recorded on Juan de Cosa’s Mappemonde.
This first contact with Brazil provided no clue about its immense wealth of resources, and it was first considered only a place to stop for wood and water on the way to India. Historian Greenlee said “Few voyages have been of greater importance to posterity, and few have been less appreciated in their time.”
Manuel I of Portugal sent a ship to Brazil in 1501 commanded by Gonçalo Coelho. Traveling with Coelho was a Florentine named Amerigo Vespucci, who was invited by the king to accompany this voyage and write about it. To understand how Vespucci came by such an invitation we must digress and learn a bit about the man.
Amerigo Vespucci, born in 1454, has become one of the most controversial characters in the history of discovery. Assessments of Vespucci range from a charlatan who, at one extreme, never even saw the New World, to a great navigator and discoverer who rightly deserves to have two continents and a nation named for him. He was born to an upperclass family with an ambassador, a bishop, and bankers in the family, and all connected with the powerful Medici family of Florence. In short, Amerigo was very well connected. Amerigo became an employee of the commercial enterprises of Lorenzo de Medici, and at about 40 years of age was sent to Seville as the head of a Medici affiliate. In this position Vespucci was involved with outfitting the Columbus fleet for its third voyage in 1498. He became well acquainted with Columbus, who praised him as a most excellent and honest ship chandler. But Amerigo aspired to the fame of an explorer and left the mundane world of business and finance. His first actual voyage occurred in 1499, on which he traveled to the West Indies under the command of Alonso de Ojeda. Perhaps Amerigo even helped finance that 1499 voyage. On this voyage Vespucci gained some practical experience in navigation.
Apparently something happened between him and Ojeda, and Vespucci abandoned the expedition in Hispaniola and returned to Seville on another ship ahead of Ojeda. Then Vespucci wrote a full account of the 1499 voyage as though it had been his own expedition with no mention of Ojeda, and through his writing convinced the king and financiers that he was an experienced navigator. This may be a good example of a person with some knowledge but little practical experience, who has the gift of convincing people that he is far more capable than his experience would suggest. Vespucci also wrote an elaborate descriptive account of a bogus voyage that supposedly sailed two years earlier, in 1497, under his command.
Soon Vespucci came to the attention of Manuel I who had just appointed Gonçalo Coelho to go assess Portugal’s new possession in 1501. Thus Vespucci received a royal invitation to go along on this voyage and write about it. Because Amerigo had some earlier experience as a navigator under Ojeda, he took on the job of navigation officer, and he wrote of the voyage with great flourish and self-serving skills. His report was important because it was the first chance for Portugal to see just what they had acquired under the new Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the undiscovered world between Spain and Portugal.
Vespucci published his account in the form of long letters, called Lettera in 1504, and a second tract, Mundus Novus. Both received great distribution and circulation in Spain, Portugal, and other parts of Europe. These letters brought great recognition to Amerigo. Unfortunately there was no benefit or fame for the captain of the expedition, Coelho, because Vespucci never mentions him in either publication. Vespucci claimed to be on his third voyage but, of course, it was really only his second. Again the thirst for information about the New World made Vespucci a well-known name and gave him great publicity.
Many historians now challenge parts of Amerigo’s writing as false and often exaggerated, especially his claim that the voyage would have been lost without his knowledge of navigation, “Though a man without practical experience, yet through the teaching of the marine chart for navigation, I was more skilled than all the shipmasters of the world.” This guy had chutzpah. To be fair, Vespucci’s narratives were very descriptive and thorough in relating the sights and people along the coastal area of Brazil. Furthermore, they were widely read and popular among the educated class. His deceptions were about where he went and when.
(To be continued soon in part 2)