A statue of Amerigo Vespucci stands in the Uffizi museum in Florence, Italy.
Credit: Elena Korsukova | Shutterstock
Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci is best known for his namesake: the continents of North and South America. But why were these continents named after him, especially since his voyages happened after Christopher Columbus’ famed 1492 sail on the ocean blue?
Vespucci was the first person to recognize North and South America as distinct continents that were previously unknown to Europeans, Asians and Africans. Prior to Vespucci’s discovery, explorers, including Columbus, had assumed that the New World was part of Asia. Vespucci made his discovery while sailing near the tip of South America in 1501.
Amerigo Vespucci was born on March 9, 1454, in Florence, Italy. As a young man, he was fascinated with books and maps. The Vespuccis were a prominent family and friends with the powerful Medicis, who ruled Italy for more than 300 years. After being educated by his uncle, Vespucci himself worked for the Medicis as a banker and later supervisor of their ship-outfitting business, which operated in Seville, Spain. He moved to Spain in 1492.
This business allowed Vespucci to see the great explorers’ ships being prepared and to learn about the business of exploration. At the time, explorers were searching for a northwest route to the Indies, which would make trade easier. Vespucci’s business helped outfit one of Christopher Columbus’ voyages, and in 1496 Vespucci had the opportunity to talk with the explorer.
This meeting further encouraged Vespucci’s interest in travel and exploration. He wanted to see the New World with his own eyes — and the fact that his business was struggling made his decision to set out on his own voyage even simpler. Now in his 40s, Vespucci decided to leave business behind and embark on a journey while he still could.
First voyage and letter controversy
There is some controversy among historians about when Vespucci set sail on his first voyage. Many accounts place the sail date in 1499, seven years after Columbus landed in the Bahamas. On the 1499 voyage, Vespucci sailed to the northern part of South America and into the Amazon River. He gave places he saw names like the “Gulf of Ganges,” thinking, as his explorer contemporaries did, that he was in Asia. He also made improvements to celestial navigation techniques. Vespucci was a skilled navigator, and predicted Earth’s circumference accurately within 50 miles.
But a letter dated in 1497 suggests that the 1499 voyage may have in fact been Vespucci’s second trip. The letter is written in Vespucci’s voice, though some historians dispute his authorship and the facts of the document, claiming it a forgery. The letter, written to the Gonfalonier of Florence (a high official on the city-state's supreme executive council), accounts a 1497 expedition to the Bahamas and Central America. If the accounts of this letter are true, then Vespucci reached the mainland of the Americas a few months before John Cabot and more than a year before Columbus.
1501 voyage and recognition of South America
On May 14, 1501, Vespucci set sail to the New World under the Portuguese flag on what would be his most successful voyage.
Vespucci’s ships traveled along the South American coast down to Patagonia. Along the way, he encountered present-day Rio de Janeiro and Rio de la Plata. During this voyage, Vespucci came to suspect that he was looking at a continent entirely different from Asia. He verified his suspicion by sailing south to within 400 miles of Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America. This confirmed that he was encountering a new continent that extended far further south than anyone had guessed.
While on this voyage, Vespucci wrote letters to a friend in Europe describing his travels and identifying the New World as a separate continent from Asia. These letters also chronicle his encounters with the indigenous people and describe their culture. Vespucci described the natives’ religious practices and beliefs, their diet, marriage habits, and, most appealingly to readers — their sexual and childbirth practices. These letters were published in several languages and sold well (better than Columbus’ letters) across Europe. This pleased Vespucci who, who recorded his adventures to better leave “some fame behind me after I die.”[Countdown: The Top 10 Intrepid Explorers]
Later voyages and other accomplishments
Vespucci’s later voyages were not as successful as the 1501 expedition, and scholars are unsure of exactly how many later voyages he embarked upon. In 1503, he sailed to Brazil, but when his fleet failed to make any new discoveries, they disbanded. Vespucci pressed on, however, and discovered the island of Bahia and South Georgia before returning to Lisbon ahead of schedule.
Vespucci may have gone on two more voyages, in 1505 and 1507, but accounts are unclear. In 1505, he became a naturalized citizen of Spain, and in 1508, he was named a Pilot Major of Spain. This was a prestigious position that required him to use his considerable navigational skills. Vespucci helped develop and standardize navigational techniques and to select new pilots.
He worked at this post until his death on Feb. 22, 1512. He contracted malaria and died in Spain at nearly 58 years of age. Vespucci is buried in Florence.
The naming of America
Vespucci’s reputation has gone through periods of ridicule, and at times he has been viewed as schemer who attempted to steal glory from Columbus. But in reality, it wasn’t Vespucci’s ambition that got two continents named after him: it was the work of a German clergyman and amateur cartographer called Martin Waldseemüller.
In 1507, Waldseemüller and some other scholars were working an introduction to cosmology that would contain large maps. Waldseemüller proposed that a portion of Brazil that Vespucci had explored be named “America,” a feminized version of Vespucci’s first name. Waldseemüller wrote, “I see no reason why anyone should justly object to calling this part ... America, after Amerigo [Vespucci], its discoverer, a man of great ability.”
The name stuck. Waldseemüller's maps sold thousands of copies across Europe. Some reports suggest that Waldseemüller had second thoughts about the name America, but it was too late. In 1538, a mapmaker named Gerardus Mercator applied the name “America” to both the northern and southern landmasses of the New World, and the continents have been known as such ever since.