Amerigo Vespucci was a 16th-century Italian merchant and explorer remembered not only for his voyages that altered the course of history but for bestowing the New World with the name “America.”
Vespucci’s mapping of coastlines and constellations, cultural observations and identification of equatorial ocean currents led to the realization that his travels had taken him to a new continent, challenging the previously held belief that Christopher Columbus had reached the uncharted eastern edge of Asia.
Early Life and Education
Born March 9, 1454, in Florence, Italy, during the height of the Renaissance, Vespucci came from a prominent family with ties to the Medici dynasty. His father, a government notary, and his uncle, respected humanist Dominican friar Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, played influential roles in his education. Immersed in a world of trade and maritime culture from a young age, Vespucci developed interests and aptitude in astronomy, math, navigation and foreign languages.
Early in his career, Vespucci worked for the Medici family as a banker and later supervised ship operations in Seville, Spain. Accounts vary, but many believe that Vespucci met Christopher Columbus in Seville in 1496, after Columbus’s historic 1492 voyage, and assisted Columbus in preparing for future expeditions.
Fueled by his own passion for discovery, Vespucci joined a Spanish expedition while in his 40s, serving as an astronomer and mapmaker in search of a passage to India. Led by Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda, they set sail from Cadiz, Spain, in May 1499 and reached the northeastern coast of South America.
Despite their belief that they had arrived in Asia, Ojeda explored the coast of Venezuela while Vespucci ventured south to coastal Brazil. During the voyage, Vespucci charted the constellations, noting their differences from those seen in Europe. He also documented the diverse flora and fauna, made extensive observations about the indigenous tribes he encountered and described what he thought was the Ganges River, but is now known to be the mouth of the Amazon River.
In a letter recounting the journey, he wrote of discovering “an infinite number of birds or various forms and colors and trees so beautiful and fragrant that we thought we had entered the earthly Paradise.”
In May 1501, Vespucci embarked on another voyage, this time under the patronage of King Manuel I of Portugal, again seeking passage to India. Sailing along the Brazilian and Argentinian coasts, Vesupucci ventured further south to present-day Rio de Janeiro and the La Plata River. Once again, he observed unfamiliar constellations, unexplained equatorial currents and an absence of the riches he expected to find in India. Realizing that he was not in India or on an undiscovered island but on a separate continent across the Atlantic Ocean, he dubbed the land Mundus Novus, or the New World.
There are varying accounts and unconfirmed reports of Vespucci undertaking a third voyage to the New World in 1503, also in the name of Portugal.
Although Vespucci’s discoveries were not considered highly significant at the time, the publication of his correspondence with friends and colleagues chronicling his voyages, known as the “Vespucci Letters,” played a pivotal role in dispelling the belief that Columbus had reached Asia. The letters brought Vespucci fame (although some believe the letters are fake).
Vespucci's Namesake and Reputation
The term “America” first took shape in 1507, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller drew a map of the newly recognized continent and labeled it “Americus” in Vespucci’s honor. This map, often referred to as “America’s birth certificate,” marked the usage of the name “America.”
Vespucci, who became a naturalized citizen of Spain in 1505, was given the prestigious title of master navigator of Spain in 1508. Charged with training and recruiting navigators and managing the country’s map collections, he held the position until he died of malaria in Seville on February 22, 1512, at the age of 58.
“The Map That Named America,” U.S. Library of Congress
“Amerigo Vespucci,” by Frederick A.Ober
“Amerigo Vespucci: Italian explorer who named America,”LiveScience“
Amerigo Vespucci,” The Martimers’ Museum and Park