AMERICA, we learn as schoolchildren, was named in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, for his discovery of the mainland of the New World. We tend not to question this lesson about the naming of America. By the time we are adults it lingers vaguely in most of us, along with images of wave-tossed caravels and forests peopled with naked cannibals. Not surprisingly, the notion that America was named for Vespucci has long been universally accepted, so much so that a lineal descendant, America Vespucci, came to New Orleans in 1839 and asked for a land grant “in recognition of her name and parentage.” Since the late 19th century, however, conflicting ideas about the truth of the derivation have been set forth with profound cultural and political implications. To question the origin of America’s name is to question the nature of not only our history lessons but our very identity as Americans.
Traditional history lessons about the discovery of America also raise questions about the meaning of discovery itself. It is now universally recognized that neither Vespucci nor Columbus “discovered” America. They were of course preceded by the pre-historic Asian forebears of Native Americans, who migrated across some ice-bridge in the Bering Straits or over the stepping stones of the Aleutian Islands. A black African discovery of America, it has been argued, took place around 3,000 years ago, and influenced the development of Mayan, Aztec, and Inca civilizations. The records of Scandinavian expeditions to America are found in sagas — their historic cores encrusted with additions made by every storyteller who had ever repeated them. The Icelandic Saga of Eric the Red, the settler of Greenland, which tells how Eric’s son Leif came to Vinland, was first written down in the second half of the 13th century, 250 years after Leif found a western land full of “wheatfields and vines”; from this history emerged a fanciful theory in 1930 that the origin of “America” is Scandinavian: Amt meaning “district” plus Eric, to form Amteric, or the Land of (Leif) Eric.
Other Norsemen went out to the land Leif had discovered; in fact, contemporary advocates of the Norse connection claim that from around the beginning of the 11th century, North Atlantic sailors called this place Ommerike (oh-MEH-ric-eh), an Old Norse word meaning “farthest outland.” (This theory is currently being promoted by white supremacists of the so-called Christian Party, who are intent on preserving the nation’s Nordic character, and who argue that the Norse Ommerike derives from the Gothic Amalric, which, according to them, means “Kingdom of Heaven.”) But most non-Scandinavians were ignorant of these sailors’ bold exploits until the 17th century, and what they actually found was not seriously discussed by European geographers until the 18th century. Further, other discoveries of America have been credited to the Irish who had sailed to a land they called Iargalon, the land beyond the sunset, and to the Phoenicians who purportedly came here before the Norse. The 1497 voyage by John Cabot to the Labrador coast of Newfoundland constitutes yet another discovery of the American mainland, which led to an early 20th-century account of the naming of America, recently revived, that claims the New World was named after an Englishman (Welshman, actually) called Richard Amerike.
And yet, despite the issue of who discovered America, we are still confronted with the awesome fact that it was the voyages of Columbus, and not earlier ones, that changed the course of world history. Indeed, as Tzvetan Todorov, author of The Conquest of America (1984; tr. Richard Howard), has argued, “The conquest of America … heralds and establishes our present identity; even if every date that permits us to separate any two periods is arbitrary, none is more suitable, in order to mark the beginning of the modern era, than the year 1492, the year Columbus crosses the Atlantic Ocean.” Columbus clearly made a monumental discovery in showing Europe how to sail across the Atlantic; Vespucci’s great contribution was to tell Europe that the land Columbus had found was not
" >Asia but a New World (and that a western route to Asia involved yet another ocean beyond it). The naming of America, then, becomes essential to a full understanding of our history and cultural values — ourselves — especially when considered in terms of the range of theories about the origin of the name.
The Maya Connection
The most explosive, haunting, almost credible etymology — the so-called Amerrique theory which was first advanced in 1875 — reappeared in the late 1970s in an essay by Guyanan novelist Jan Carew, titled “The Caribbean Writer and Exile.” Here Carew focuses on the identity struggle of Caribbeans who are “subject to successive waves of cultural alienation from birth — a process that has its origins embedded in a mosaic of cultural fragments — Amerindian, African, European, Asian.” He adds that “the European fragment is brought into sharper focus than the others, but it remains a fragment.” It is in his discussion of this European fragment that he turns to the early historical accounts written by “European colonizers, about their apocalyptic intrusion into the Amerindian domains” — histories which, he argues, are largely fictions “characterized, with few exceptions, by romantic evasions of truth and voluminous omissions.”
Carew moves from the “fictions” of Columbus to those of Vespucci with these striking words: “Alberigo Vespucci, and I deliberately use his authentic Christian name, a Florentine dilettante and rascal, corrected Columbus’s error [thinking he had found the Orient] … Vespucci, having sailed to the American mainland declared that what Columbus had indeed stumbled on was a New World.” Carew then alludes to Vespucci’s famous letters about his voyages (more later about these controversial letters), which caused a great stir throughout Europe when they were published in the early 1500s. In them Vespucci “invented a colonizer’s America, and the reality that is ours never recovered from this literary assault and the distortions he inflicted upon it” because “the fiction of a ‘virgin land’ inhabited by savages, at once a racist one and a contradiction, remains with us to this day.” But Carew, in developing his own fiction which derives largely from a fanciful 19th-century treatise, goes on to say: “Amerigo [sic] was undoubtedly a Florentine dilettante … [and] an extraordinarily clever one. Why would he otherwise have changed his Christian name after his voyages to the Americas?”
Carew is resurrecting the ideas of Jules Marcou, a prominent French geologist who while studying North America argued, as did other 19th-century writers, that the name America was brought back to Europe from the New World; and that Vespucci had changed his name to reflect the name of his discovery. Specifically, Marcou introduced the name of an Indian tribe and of a district in Nicaragua called Amerrique, and asserted that this district — rich in gold — had been visited by both Columbus and Vespucci, who then made this name known in Europe (see Marcou’s map). For both explorers the words Amerrique and gold became synonymous. Subsequently, according to Marcou’s account, Vespucci changed his Christian name from Alberico to Amerigo. Carew cites Marcou to back his claim that “in the archives of Toledo, a letter from Vespucci to the Cardinal dated December 9, 1508, is signed Amerrigo with the double ‘r’ as in the Indian Amerrique … and between 1508 and 1512, the year in which Vespucci died, at least two other signatures with the Christian name Amerrigo were recorded.” (See Marcou’s 1875 article in the Atlantic Monthly and his more elaborate work published subsequently in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution .)
Like Marcou, Carew wants us to believe that America was not named after Vespucci, but vice versa; that Vespucci had, so to speak, re-named himself after his discovery, gilding his given name by modifying it to reflect the significance of his discovery. For Carew, however, the “truth” he found in his reading of history becomes a source of rage: “Robbing peoples and countries of their indigenous names was one of the cruel games that colonizers played with the colonized…. To rob people or countries of their names is to set in motion a psychic disturbance which can in turn create a permanent crisis of identity. As if to underline this fact, the theft of an important place-name from the heartland of the Americas and the claim that it was a dilettante’s Christian name robs the original name of its elemental meaning.”
And what of this elemental meaning? To define it Carew echoes Marcou, who quotes from his correspondence with Augustus Le Plongeon. An imaginative anthropologist studying the Mayan culture in Yucatan, Le Plongeon had written to the French scholar: “The name AMERICA or AMERRIQUE in the Mayan language means, a country of perpetually strong wind, or the Land of the Wind, and sometimes the suffix ‘-ique’ and ‘-ika’ can mean not only wind or air but also a spirit that breathes, life itself.”
All this leads Carew to conclude that “we must, therefore, reclaim the name of our America and give it once again its primordial meaning, land of the wind, the fountainhead of life and movement.” His assertions concerning the name and its origin demand closer scrutiny, for in his passion to dispel myths he has created new ones.
Vespucci’s Good Name
First of all, Vespucci’s name must be cleared. He has been wrongfully portrayed as a crafty opportunist ever since the mid-16th century when Bartholomew de Las Casas accused him of being a liar and a thief who stole the glory that belonged to Columbus. “The new continent,” insisted Las Casas, “should have been called Columba and not as it is unjustly called, America.” In his epoch-making History of the Indies, Las Casas demeans Vespucci and his achievement, slandering his name by describing what he (a friend of Columbus and his family) considered “the long premeditated plan of Vespucci to have the world acknowledge him as the discoverer of the largest part of the Indies.” Vespucci’s unfounded bad reputation persisted here throughout the 19th century. One of the climaxes of vilification was attained by Emerson, who comments in English Traits (1856): “Strange … that broad America must wear the name of a thief. Amerigo Vespucci, the pickledealer at Seville, who went out, in 1499, a subaltern with Hojeda, and whose highest naval rank was boat-swain’s mate in an expedition that never sailed, managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name.” Vespucci was not the man described by Las Casas and Emerson, nor was he simply “an unimportant Florentine merchant,” as he is described in the 1992 edition of Compton’s Encyclopedia “published [by a Division of Encyclopedia Britannica] with the editorial advice of the faculties of the University of Chicago.”
Vespucci was born in 1454 in Florence, where he was baptized, according to the official record, “Amerigho” — not, as Carew asserts, Alberigo. The use of the form Amerigho for Amerigo is an instance of the orthographic anarchy that existed in the spelling of proper names. The name Amerigo derives from an old Gothic name, Amalrich. In all its forms found in Europe (Greek “Aimulos,” Latin “Aemelius”) the underlying meaning was that of work. Amalrich, which literally meant work ruler, or designator of tasks, might be freely translated as master workman. Old German forms of the name were Amalrich, Almerich, Emmerich; the Spanish form was Almerigo; in England it was Almerick, or Merica in old families in Yorkshire. It appeared in feminine forms in Amelia and Emily; its masculine forms were Amery, Emeric, and Emery. But as Charlotte Mary Yonge wrote in her History of Christian Names (1884), it was “the Italian form, Amerigo, which was destined to the most noted use … which should hold fast that most fortuitous title, whence thousands of miles, and millions of men, bear the appellation of the forgotten forefather of a tribe of the Goths — Amalrich, the work ruler; a curiously appropriate title for the new world of labor and of progress.”
Some Hungarian scholars believe Vespucci was named after Saint Emeric (c. 1000–1031), son of the first king of Hungary. He was known in Latin as Sanctus Americus, after being canonized for his pious life and purity. As a further reflection of national pride, a theory native to Hungary holds that the European explorers of the New World, or their priests, named it after this popular saint, in the old tradition of bestowing place names in honor of saints. However, no proof of this etymology exists. Concerning Vespucci, he actually was named after his grandfather, as indicated in the baptism register of his church in Florence: “Amerigho et Matteo di ser Nastagio [his father] di ser Amerigho [his grandfather] Vespucci.” His grandfather’s burial stone there is inscribed with the elder’s name as Amerigo Vespuccio.
As was the custom of the Florentine nobility, Vespucci received an education that featured special instruction in the sciences connected with navigation — natural philosophy, astronomy, and cosmography — in which he excelled. Around 1490 he was sent to Spain by his employers, the famous Italian family of Medici, to join their business in fitting out ships. Vespucci was probably in Seville in 1492 when Columbus was preparing for his first historic voyage, as well as in 1493 when Columbus returned. Soon after, Vespucci was involved in fitting out the fleet for Columbus’s second voyage. The two men eventually became friends; Columbus later wrote that he trusted Vespucci and held him in high esteem.
The period during which Vespucci made his own voyages falls between 1497(?) and 1504(?). At the beginning of 1505 he was summoned to the court of Spain for a private consultation, and, as a man of experience, was engaged to work for the famous Casa de Contratacion de las Indias (Commercial House for the West Indies), which had been founded two years before in Seville. In 1508 the house appointed him piloto mayor (pilot major, or chief navigator), a post of great responsibility, which included the examination of the pilots’ and ships’ masters’ licenses for voyages. He also had to prepare the official map of newly discovered lands and of the routes to them (for the royal survey), interpreting and coordinating all data that the captains were obliged to furnish. Vespucci, who obtained Spanish citizenship, held this position until his death in Seville in 1512. In the face of the spurious charges that he was an ignorant usurper of the merits of others, the fact that Spain entrusted him, a foreigner, with the office of pilot major certainly bolsters his defense.
During the first half of the 20th century, scholars discovered further evidence that clears away the cloud of misunderstanding and ignorance by which Vespucci has long been obscured. Frederick J. Pohl’s biography, Amerigo Vespucci, Pilot Major (1966), and Germán Arciniegas’s Amerigo and the New World (1955; tr. Harriet de Onís) are among the best efforts that dispel the shadows to which he was relegated by those who maligned his fame. Nonetheless, both biographers disagree about the authenticity of his two published letters, key documents in a dramatic controversy: Arciniegas accepts them as genuine, whereas Pohl rejects them as forgeries. Their arguments both muster convincing evidence, suggesting an irreconcilable debate. But the question concerning the authenticity of these historic letters remains fundamental to the evaluation of Vespucci’s achievement.
Two series of documents on his voyages are extant. The first or traditional series consists of the widely published letters, dated 1504, purportedly written by him. Addressed to his patron, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who had sent Vespucci to Spain to do business for him there, the Mundus Novus (New World) — the title alone revolutionizing the European conception of the cosmos — was translated from the Italian into Latin, and originally printed in Vienna; the other letter, addressed to the gonfaloniere (chief magistrate) of Florence, Piero Soderini, was a more elaborate work. The second series consists of three private letters addressed to the Medici. In the first series of documents, four voyages by Vespucci are described; in the second, only two. Until the 1930s the documents of the first series were considered from the point of view of the order of the four voyages. According to the conflicting theory to which Pohl and other modern scholars subscribe, these documents should be regarded as the result of skillful, unauthorized manipulations by entrepreneurs, and the sole authentic papers would be the private letters, so that the verified voyages would be reduced to two. Most important, if the first series of documents are indeed forgeries, the “first” of the four voyages (dated 1497) never took place, and thus Vespucci could not be given priority of one year over Columbus on reaching the American mainland, nor could he be considered the first to explore the coastline of Central America, Mexico, and the southeastern coast of the United States.
The voyage completed by Vespucci between May 1499 and June 1500 as navigator of an expedition of four ships sent from Spain under the command of Alonso de Hojeda is certainly authentic. This is the second expedition of the traditional series. Since Vespucci took part as navigator, he certainly cannot have been inexperienced; however, it seems unlikely that he had made a previous voyage, though this matter remains unresolved. In the voyage of 1499–1500, Vespucci would seem to have left Hojeda after reaching the coast of what is now Guyana (Carew’s homeland). Turning south, he is believed to have discovered the mouth of the Amazon River and explored the coast of present-day Brazil. On the way back, he reached Trinidad, sighting en route the mouth of the Orinoco River, and then made for Haiti. Vespucci thought he had sailed along the coast of the extreme easterly peninsula of Asia, where Ptolemy, the 2nd-century Greek geographer, believed the market of Cattigara to be; so he looked for the tip of this peninsula, calling it Cape Cattigara. He supposed that the ships, once past this point, emerged into the seas of southern Asia. As soon as he was back in Spain, he equipped a fresh expedition with the aim of reaching Asia. But the Spanish government did not welcome his proposals, and at the end of 1500 Vespucci went into the service of Portugal.
Under Portuguese auspices he completed a second expedition, which set sail from Lisbon on May 31, 1501. After a halt at the Cape Verde Islands, the expedition traveled southwestward, reached the coast of Brazil, and certainly sailed as far south as the Río de la Plata, which Vespucci was the first European to discover. In all likelihood the ships took a quick run still farther south, along the coast of Patagonia to the Golfo de San Juli n or beyond. His ships returned by an unknown route, anchoring at Lisbon on July 12, 1502. This voyage is of fundamental importance in the history of geography in that Vespucci himself became convinced that the lands he had explored were not part of Asia but a New World. Unlike Columbus, who, to his death, clung to the idea that he had found the shores of Asia, Vespucci defined what had indeed been found — and for this he has been rightfully honored.