1902 Encyclopedia > Amerigo Vespucci

Amerigo Vespucci
Italian navigator
(1451-1512)




AMERIGO VESPUCCI (1451-1512), navigator, was born at Florence on 9th March 1451. His father, Nastugio Vespucci, was a notary, and his uncle, to whom he owed his education, was a scholarly Dominican and a friend of Savonarola. As a student Amerigo showed a preference for natural philosophy, astronomy, and geography. He was placed as a clerk in the great commercial house of the Medici, then the ruling family in Florence. About 1490 he was sent by Lorenzo de' Medici to Spain, and in January 1492 he was at Cadiz, along with an associate, Donato Nicolini, probably as an agent of the Medici. Shortly after this he seems to have entered the service of a Florentine merchant, Juonato Berardi, established at Seville, who had fitted out the second expedition of Columbus in 1493. Berardi had also undertaken to fit out twelve ships for the king of Spain, and on his death in December 1495 Vespucci was commissioned to complete the contract. There is no proof that Vespucci accompanied Columbus on either his first or his second voyage, though there can be no doubt that the two Italians were known to each other. As Ferdinand had recalled the monopoly conceded to Columbus, the new passion for exploring became widespread and adventurers of all kinds were constantly leaving Spain for the West. On the authority of Vespucci himself, he sailed, possibly as astronomer, with one of these adventurous expeditions from Cadiz, on 10th May 1497. After touching at the Canaries, the four vessels are stated to have reached after twenty-seven days "a coast which we thought to be that of a continent"; from Vespucci's account this may have been Campeachy Bay. Thence they doubled Cape Sable and may even have reached Cape Hatteras. Finally, after sailing about a hundred leagues to an archipelago, the chief island of which was called Iti, they made for Spain and reached Cadiz on 15th October 1498. Still following Vespucci's own statement, he on 16th May 1499 started on a second voyage in a fleet of three ships under Alonzo de Ojeda. They reached the coast of Brazil about Cape St Roque, sailed north to the mouth of the Amazons, round to the Gulf of Maracaibo, and on to San Domingo. The expedition returned to Cadiz on 8th September 1500. Entering the service of Dom Manuel of Portugal, Vespucci took part in a new expedition to the " Land of Parrots " (Brazil), which left Lisbon on 10th May 1501. Cape St Roque was reached on 16th August; Rio Janeiro Bay was discovered and named on New Year's Day 1502 ; and in April the expedition appears to have got as far as South Georgia. It reached Lisbon again on 7th September 1502. Next year, on 10th June, Vespucci started from Lisbon on his fourth expedition, with six ships under Coelho, the object being to reach Malacca by sailing west. At the island of Fernando Noronha Vespucci's ship separated from the others and sailed to Bahia and then to Cape Frio, where he built a fort. He returned to Lisbon on 18th June 1504. In 1505 he went back to Spain and re-entered the service of Ferdinand, settling in Seville. According to one account, Vespucci made two other voyages to the isthmus of Panama. In 1508 he was appointed piloto mayor. He died at Seville on 22d February 1512.

If his own account is trustworthy, Vespucci reached the mainland of America eighteen days before Cabot. Yet he was attached to the expedition only in a subordinate capacity, and, had it not been that his name has become attached to the New World, it is probable he would scarcely have been heard of. It seems to be credible, however, that in a letter written soon after his return from his third voyage he referred to the newly discovered lands as the "New World." Vespucci's claim to have touched the American mainland before Cabot has been hotly disputed, and the controversial literature on the subject is voluminous. The facts, as accepted by those who admit his claims, or at least his good faith, are these. After his fourth voyage, that is after 1504, he wrote a diary called Le Quattre GiornaU. No fragment of the original exists, and it is only known by allusion. He also wrote several letters to his former schoolfellow Soderini, the gonfalier or chief magistrate of Florence. One of these only remains, and that not in the original, but in a Latin translation printed at the monastery of St Die in the Vosges on 25th April 1507. The statement is that a French translation of Vespucci's original had been given to King Rene, who was patronizing the college at St Die. Waldseemiiller (Hylacomylus) made use of this letter in his Cosmogmphiai Introductio, published at St Die in 1507. Here it is that we have the first suggestion of a name for the New World in the words—"A fourth part of the world, which, since Amerigo found it, we may call Amerige or America"; and again, " now a fourth part has been found by Amerigo Vespucci, and I do not see why we should be prevented from calling it Amerigi or America." Since Humboldt discussed the subject in his Examen Critique de i'Histoire de la Geographic du Nouveau Continent, vol. iv. (1837), the general weight of opinion has been that Vespucci did not make the 1497 voyage, and that he had no share in the first discovery of the American continent, but that there is not sufficient evidence to convict him of deliberate falsification. Varnhagen, however, in his Amerigo Vespucci (Lima, 1845) and many other writers on the subject maintain Vespucci's right to be regarded as a member of the expedition.

The whole question is very thoroughly discussed in vol. ii. of the Narrative and Critical History of America, edited by Justin Winsor (1886), where will be found ample references to all the authorities on the subject. See also Major's Prince Henry the Navigator (1808), and a recent re-examination of the evidence for the first voyage in "Aleune Considerazioni sul Primo Viaggio," by L. llugues, in the Bolletino of the Italian Geographical Society, 1885.







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