Today marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian financier, explorer, navigator, and cartographer whose first name is generally believed to be the basis for the name America.
While his elder brothers pursued scholarly careers, Amerigo embraced the life of a merchant, eventually becoming a clerk for the famous Florentine commercial family, the House of Medici, headed by Lorenzo de Medici. Vespucci eventually won enough favor from his employer to be dispatched to Spain to handle important business there. It was an opportune time, as the Spanish crown was embarking on its age of exploration, providing patronage for a slew of expeditions following Columbus’s famous voyage. In fact, Vespucci provided vital supplies to a number of Indies expeditions, including beef rations for one or two of Columbus’s voyages.
Eventually, at the invitation of King Manuel I of Portugal, Vespucci participated as observer in several voyages that were exploring the east coast of South America between 1499 and 1502. Such expeditions were long and dangerous, but Vespucci was off to a good start: during the first of these voyages, he was aboard the ship that discovered that South America extended much further south than previously thought.
These expeditions, among the first of their kind, became widely known in Europe after two accounts attributed to Vespucci were published between 1502 and 1504. These letters provided exciting details about the then-unnamed new continents, which Vespucci was first credited with recognizing as new lands, not the Indies that many believed.
In 1507, a Latin translation was eventually published by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in Cosmographiae Introductio, a book on cosmography and geography, as Quattuor Americi Vespuccij Navigationes – the Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci. Eventually, most Europeans learned about the newly discovered continents within a few years of their dissemination.
In 1508, after only two voyages to the New World, King Ferdinand of Spain made Vespucci chief navigator of the kingdom, a well-paid and prestigious position created specifically for him. He was commissioned to found a school of navigation that would help to standardize and develop navigation techniques used by Spanish explorers, and even managed to create a rudimentary but fairly accurate method of determining longitude (which would only be surpassed much later by chronometers). He continued his role until dying four years later from natural causes.
As for his best known for, it actually had little to do with him. Some have suggested that Vespucci was exaggerating his role and fabricating details in the two letters that were published in his lifetime (three others were discovered in the 18th century, but were of dubious authorship). Nowadays, most historians believe that even these two famous letters weren’t even written by him, although they could be fabrications written by others but partly based on his true accounts (it’s still being disputed).
Whoever is responsible, it was the publication and widespread circulation of these letters that may have prompted Waldseemüller, when drawing up an updated map of the world, to name the new continents America, after the man who had shared so much information about them (note that Waldseemüller’s translation was written in Latin, thus changing the explorer’s name to Americus Vespucius, the feminine form of which is America). As he explained, “I do not see what right any one would have to object to calling this part, after Americus who discovered it and who is a man of intelligence, Amerige, that is, the Land of Americus, or America: since both Europa and Asia got their names from women.”
This is just the most commonly accepted of several theories. As with most historical narratives, there are a lot of uncertainties. Whatever the case, it must be quite a fine legacy to be immortalized through two large continents, as well as being the shorthand for one of the most powerful countries in the world.