We all learned the poem in elementary school about Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492. We learned about the voyage of Columbus on the Santa Maria and how he “discovered” the new world, while seeking the riches of Asia, which he called the “Indies.” So if Columbus discovered the new world, why don’t we call our county Columbia or some rendition of his name? Where did America’s name come from? Well, let’s dive in and find out.
The Legacy of Columbus
In 1492 Columbus sailed from Spain with his three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. He had a profitable deal with Spain. Spain promised Columbus ten percent of whatever riches he ascertained, the governorship of any land he discovered, as well as the title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.” His crew sailed the Atlantic and arrived on the Island of San Salvador (known today as Watling Island), in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. Believing it to be the Indies (Asia), Columbus called the indigenous peoples “Indians,” a name which cemented itself in the vernacular even to this day.
On his second voyage, Columbus led over 1,000 men aboard 17 ships to return to what he thought was Asia. He found the crew that he left behind slaughtered, which caused Columbus to go on a killing and enslavement spree of his own to avenge their deaths. All this made it difficult for him to stand on moral high ground and propose that his mission was ordained by God.
In 1495 he sold 550 captives to Spain to generate income for his expedition. He led a third envoy in 1498 and a fourth in 1502 back to the Caribbean and bits of South America. Columbus died in 1506, still believing that he discovered the continent of Asia.
One of Columbus’s biggest legacies is referred to as the Columbian Exchange. It was the exchange of animals, diseases, ideas, and plants between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Crops such as peanuts, tobacco, potatoes, squash, corn, and others were brought to Europe and Africa. Wheat, rice, pigs, sheep, cattle, sugarcane, olives, and others were bought to the Americas. Columbus had a large impact, both negative and positive, but the continents of North and South America are not named after him, so where did America’s name come from?
While Columbus was regaling Europeans about his adventures in the Indies, other expeditions were taking place. One of these excursions took place in 1499, led by Alonso de Ojeda. Spain commissioned the voyage, which ultimately landed in South America, in present day Guyana. Along for the journey was an Italian merchant by the name of Amerigo Vespucci.
Born around 1454 in Florence, Italy, Vespucci was the son of an Italian Notary named Nastagio Vespucci. He made a way into banking and became involved with the famous Medici family. He also had close ties with Giannotto Berardi, who was one of Columbus’ financiers. Vespucci was likely present when Columbus returned from his first voyage. Upon Berardi’s death, Vespucci took over as manager of the Sevilla agency.
Amerigo Vespucci joined the voyage with Ojea in 1499 as a navigator. Some of Vespucci’s writings account for an earlier journey to the new world in 1497-1498, but the veracity of this account is debated. He left Ojeda once they reached Guyana and sailed further south past the Amazon river (which he is credited with discovering) all the way down to Cape St. Augustine. He returned to Spain with an offer for a second trip, but the monarchy turned him down.
Vespucci, having been denied by the Spanish, approached the Portuguese government. He fascinated them with the idea of reaching the eastern Asian coastline and the Indian Ocean. He set sail with a new crew on May 13, 1501. This time, he is presumed to have reached the coastline of Patagonia, which is modern day Argentina. He returned to Lisbon on July 22, 1502.
Amerigo Vespucci disagreed with Columbus and declared that the land that had been discovered was not Asia, but was a “new world.” He was a skilled cartographer and took note of the stars in the sky, the coastline, and the geography. As a skilled astronomer and cartographer, he began to doubt that he was in Asia. His observations did not match what Marco Polo wrote about hundreds of years earlier, so he believed that they found a new world.
Like Columbus, Vespucci wrote letters to his companion in Europe about his travels. These letters described his adventures and his encounters with the indigenous populations. He described their beliefs, diet, marriage habits, and even their sexual and child birthing practices. His sensual accounts became best-sellers in Europe and soon became more popular than Columbus’ tales.
Our Nation’s Namesake
So where did America’s name come from? Well it wasn’t directly from Vespucci. Amerigo Vespucci suffered ridicule in the past and was even blamed for trying to take credit from Columbus. In fact, Amerigo had nothing to do with the naming of the continents. Even if he did, he would be in the right. Columbus went to the grave believing that he discovered Asia, but if fact he didn’t. Vespucci rightly claimed that they discovered a new world. The reason America is named after Amerigo is due to a cartographer, a map maker.
In 1507 a German clergyman and amateur cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, was working on a map of the world with other cartographers. He suggested that part of Brazil be named America. America is a feminized version of Amerigo’s name. Waldseemüller stated, “I see no reason why anyone should justly object to calling this part … America, after Amerigo [Vespucci], its discoverer, a man of great ability.” His maps were printed thousands of times across Europe and the name stuck. In 1538, a cartographer named Gerardus Mercator applied the name “America” to both the northern and southern continents in his maps, and they have been known as such ever since.
Whether you find it justified that America’s name is derived from Amerigo Vespucci or not, you can’t deny his accomplishments. He did sail down the coast of South America and was one of the first to question Columbus’ claim that he discovered Asia. In the end, it wasn’t Vespucci that cemented his name in history, but a couple map makers.