Amerigo Vespucci

  • From time immemorial Florence has produced many illustrious sons and daughters who have reached the pinnacle of fame but none so famous as one in whose honour two major continents of the world have been named. Amerigo Vespucci was a famous Italian navigator who has been credited world wide for the discovery of America. The continents of North and South America have been named after him.

    Amerigo Vespucci was born in Florence on the ninth of March in the year 1451. He was the third son of Ser Nastagio a notary in Florence and Lisabetta daughter of Ser Giovanni. The Vespucci family was considered as one of the cultured and respected families of Florence.

    Amerigo Vespucci began his education under the guidance of his uncle Giorgio Antonio who was a Platonic philosopher and a teacher of the Florentine nobility. He was a scholar who collected manuscripts. Amerigo began his education studying literature and Latin. As a young boy he spent a lot of time studying the stars. He wanted to travel and explore the world. He was very good in mathematics. He also liked to copy maps as a hobby. Later he studied physics, astronomy, geometry and cosmography.

    In 1483 due to the death of his father which led to financial constraints, Amerigo Vespucci joined Lorenzo de Pier Francesco of the Medici family as a steward.

    From 1478 to 1480 he joined the Parisian embassy since his relative Guido Antonio Vespucci was the ambassador of Florence to Louis XI of France.

    In 1492 Amerigo Vespucci went to Seville in Spain to fulfill his wish to explore the world. He joined a shipping company and began his quest for discovering “new worlds”. He was more interested in exploring new places rather than looking for monetary gains or exotic places. Through his intelligence he became the director of the company that had outfitted many ships for long voyages including that of Christopher Columbus third and fourth voyages to the new world.

    Amerigo Vespucci has been credited with four main voyages through which he explored new worlds. He began his first voyage when he was well into his forties. However accounts of his first voyage have come under a lot of controversy.

    In 1497 Amerigo Vespucci said that he had started on his first voyage to explore the “new world.” He set forth from Cadiz after obtaining three ships from King Ferdinand. He wrote a letter to Piero Soderini of Florence describing his discoveries. However historians have disputed this voyage, as there was no proof of journals, maps or even crewmembers that had undertaken this voyage with him.

    In 1499 Amerigo Vespucci undertook his second voyage with Alonzo de Ojeda, as captain there is sufficient evidence to prove that this voyage actually took place. This was when the coast of South America. He discovered the river Amazon and made observations on the currents of the sea, the Southern Cross and other Southern constellations. In this voyage Amerigo Vespucci discovered the northeastern coast of South America including Argentina, Cuba and the Bahamas.

    In 1500 Amerigo Vespucci returned to Spain and informed the people of his findings. He fell ill after this voyage. When he recovered he wrote an account of his voyage to Lorenzo de Pier Francesco de Medici. In this letter he describes the beautiful things he saw on his trips. These included animals, flowers, trees and the stars he saw in the sky during his voyage.

    In 1501 Amerigo Vespucci left for his third voyage. He now entered into the service of the Portuguese. This time they sailed from the port of Lisbon. . Another famous Spanish explorer called Gonzalez Coelho joined him. In this voyage he explored what may be termed as modern Brazil. He also found what is now known as modern day Rio de Janeiro He arrived in Lisbon in 1503.

    In 1503 Amerigo Vespucci set out on his fourth voyage the captain and crew explored the southeastern side of South America and the Falkland Islands. They returned to Lisbon in 1504 and recounted all their experiences to the mapmakers of the time.

    In 1505 he made his fifth expedition with Juan de la Cosa. They explored the Gulf of Darian and sailed up the Atrato River. They collected a lot of gold and pearls, which they brought back with them.

    In 1506 Amerigo Vespucci was preparing for the expedition of Pinzon. However this was abandoned in 1507.

    Most historians have accepted these voyages of Amerigo Vespucci though there are inaccuracies since it is difficult to identify the names and places with modern day names.

    A German mapmaker called Martin Waldsemuller was one of the first ones to believe in the discovery of Amerigo Vespucci. He suggested that the new worlds should be named after Amerigo Vespucci and hence we get the names of North America and South America. He published Cosmographiae Introductio where the name America first appeared.

    Although Christopher Columbus reached America before Amerigo Vespucci he had thought that he reached India and not America a fact that he believed in right up to his death. This has led some historians to dispute the claim that Amerigo Vespucci was the first discoverer of the new world. Some historians and even famous personalities like Emerson accuse Amerigo Vespucci of taking credit for the discovery of the new world. However it must be remembered that Amerigo Vespucci was in no way responsible for the name of America and not Columbus being given to the discovery of the new continents.

    At the time of the discovery of America the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci were more widely disseminated than those of Columbus. Florence was the center of the flow of information of the new world. In Florence there are accounts of the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci by the letters written by him and published by various publishers.

    As a result of his explorations in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s most of Europe realized that there was a “new world out there. They also realized that there were two large continents in the way of their destination Asia. As a result of his explorations cosmography was radically altered. This i.e. his letters perhaps were a greater contribution to history than his explorations. He was the first explorer to accept South America as a continent and not part of Asia. His letters and other documents appeared in English in the year 1894.

    The scientific applications of his discoveries are also of remarkable importance. He evolved an almost perfect system of computing longitude. Through his observations and calculations he arrived at a figure for the earth’s equatorial circumference, which was only 50 mi (80 km) short of the correct figure. He revolutionized geography by claiming that there was another ocean to cross. His theory overturned the theory of the day which was that one ocean covered the earth.

    Amerigo Vespucci was held in high esteem in Spain where he established himself after his voyages. In 1505 he became a Spanish citizen by means of a royal decree. By a decree of August 6, 1508 he was made piloto mayor de Espana a title, which he held till his death. This was a high and prestigious position. This title corresponds to the modern head of Admiralty.

    In 1505 Amerigo Vespucci married Maria Cerezo. The only proof of this marriage is that she received a pension after the death of Amerigo Vespucci in 1512. Antonio Giovanni nephew of Amerigo Vespucci was named piloto mayor after the death of his uncle. This makes us aware of the fact that Amerigo Vespucci and Maria had no children of their own.

    Although Amerigo Vespucci died in Spain in 1512, he will long be remembered as the explorer after whom two major continents of the world have been named despite the controversy surrounding the naming. He contracted malaria as a result of his voyages and died due to it at the age of 58. Columbus may have been the first to find the new world but Amerigo Vespucci was the man who recognized the new world.

    Although various historians belittled Amerigo Vespucci for a long time the conclusions of Alberto Magnahi in the 1920’s to the 1930’s are now widely accepted. These conclusions have restored Amerigo Vespucci‘s claim to greatness. Hence he has been restored his rightful place in history. He can be considered as the true founder of modern navigation. He was the man who brought cosmography into the modern ages with his conviction that he had indeed discovered new worlds. Thus we can conclude that the new continents were rightly named after him.

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