October 10, 2011
Was he a shameless opportunist?
A gifted public relations expert who discovered little and never commanded a voyage of his own as some historians believe?
Or someone who deserves more credit?
Should this, in fact, be Columbus Day or Amerigo Day?
Let's do a little exploring of our own.
Born in 1454 in Florence, Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian merchant, employed by the Medicis and credited with four voyages — although the first is disputed.
But lets give it to him anyway.
We do know all his voyages were after Columbus.
His disputed first in 1497 and two others between 1499 and 1502 and another in 1503.
He, under the command of Alonso de Ojeda, explored the northern coast of South America to well beyond the mouth of the Amazon.
He gave names like "Gulf of the Ganges," and other Asian place-names he knew about, to the things he saw.
The big breakthrough came on his second trip, which was the realization that what he was looking at was not India at all, but an entirely new continent.
Map makers got busy when he returned.
One of them, an obscure German clergyman and amateur geographer named Martin Waldseemuller wrote of the new land mass that Vespucci had explored:
“I see no reason why anyone should justly object to calling this part ... America, after Amerigo, its discoverer, a man of great ability."
Adopting the Latin form Americus and the feminine ending to comply with Asia, Africa and Europa, it became America, both north and south.
Seemed like a natural.
So we have this distinction:
Columbus, who organized and captained his own voyages, got to the new world first, but Vespucci, helped by his buddy Martin, was the man who recognized that it was, indeed, a new world.
Of course, we do have people who were there in the first place, and there was Leif Erickson but that's another story.
Happy Columbus Day everybody.