Captain America: Amerigo Vespucci and the Eponymous Continent
A procession of men file ashore. They say prayers and sing hymns as they reach terra firma. They had been at sea for over two months, but only saw three weeks of sunshine. For forty-four days, they knew nothing but “constant rain, thunder and lightning.” Indeed, the conditions were so harsh, and their supplies so low by the time they reached land, that they may well have died if the journey had taken only a few days more. But, as Amerigo Vespucci put it, “the Most High was pleased to display before us a continent, new lands, and an unknown world. At sight of these things we were filled with as much joy as anyone can imagine usually falls to the lot of those who have gained refuge from varied calamity and hostile fortune.”1
The new lands and unknown world upon which this beleaguered troop had landed was the shore of South America, in an area we now call Brazil. Vespucci, now on his third major voyage (though this fact is much debated among historians), and his crew sailed for the King of Portugal, Manuel I. On his earlier voyages for the King of Portugal, Vespucci and crew had sailed west, hoping to explore the westward passage to Asia that Columbus would go to the grave believing he’d found. And that was the original intention of his third voyage. But, after it was complete, Vespucci knew they had traveled not to Asia, but toward a previously unexplored continent (well, by Europeans anyway). As Vespucci so eloquently put it in his now famous letter, Mundus Novus, the fact that area he helped explore constituted a continent “transcends the view held by our ancients, inasmuch as most of them hold that there is no continent to the south beyond the equator, but only the sea which they named the Atlantic; and if some of them did aver that a continent there was, they denied with abundant argument that it was a habitable land. But that this their opinion is false and utterly opposed to the truth, this my last voyage has made manifest…”2
Having reached the New World, Vespucci and his ship mates sailed south along the coast, reaching what is now Rio de Janeiro and then continued on to present day Cananéia3. As their vessels sailed down the Brazilian coast line, Vespucci & Co. “often landed and mingled and associated with the natives of those regions,” Vespucci reporting that these peoples received the Portuguese crew “in brotherly fashion.”4
And while Vespucci found many of the indigenous customs abhorrent, he documented the peoples he encountered as anthropologically as any upper class, sixteenth-century European probably had the capacity to. Unlike Columbus, Vespucci made no notes of wanting to enslave or otherwise subjugate the inhabitants of Brazil, he merely expressed his dismay at customs such as face piercing and ritualized canabalism.5
When Vespucci returned to Europe in 1502, disembarking in Lisbon, he penned the now famous Novus Mundo of which this article has made use. Writing to his patron, Lorenzo Pietro di Medici, he laid out his experiences in the brave new world of Brazil, and his impressions on all he had seen and done.6
Vespucci’s third voyage marks a turning point in European intellectual history, as this European explorer recognized that the Americas were, in fact, a continent(s) separate from Asia. And, it was due to his observations and cartographic work on this journey, that we now call the Americas the Americas. And while he had a sense of the importance of his cartographic observations, Vespucci is not credited with naming the land masses of the western hemisphere after himself. The word America comes from a map created by a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, in 1507, using the Latin version of Amerigo, Americus, to denote these ‘new’ land masses. According to Waldseemüller:
“But now these parts [Eurasia and Africa] have been more widely explored, and also another fourth part [Americas] has been discovered by Americus Vesputius… and I do not see why anyone should justifiably forbid it to be called Amerige, as if “Americus’ Land”, or America, from its discoverer Americus, a man of perceptive character; since both Europa and Asia have received their names from women.”7
- Amerigo Vespucci, Mundus Novus, 2-3, 1503.
- Vespucci, Mundus Novus, 2-3.
- Wikipedia, “Amerigo Vespucci”
- Vespucci, Mundus Novus, 4.
- Vespucci, Mundus Novus
- Roberto Almagià, “Amerigo Vespucci,” history.com
- Wikipedia, “Martin Waldseemüller”