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AMERIGO VESPUCCI (1451—1512)

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Originally appearing in Volume V27, Page 1054 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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AMERIGO VESPUCCI (1451—1512), merchant and adventurer, who gave his name of Amerigo to the new world as America, was born at Florence on the 9th of March 1451. His father, Nastagio (Anastasio) Vespucci, was a notary, and his uncle, Fra Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, to whom he owed his education, was a scholarly Dominican and a friend of Savonarola. As a student Amerigo is said to have shown a preference for natural philosophy, astronomy and geography, He was placed as a clerk in the great commercial house of the Medici, then the ruling family in Florence. A letter of the 3oth of December 1492 shows that he was then in Seville; and till the lath of January 1496 he seems to have usually resided in Spain, especially at Seville and Cadiz, probably as an agent of the Medici. In December 1495, on the death of a Florentine merchant, Juanoto Berardi, established at Seville, who had fitted out the second expedition of Columlius in 1493, and had also under-taken to fit out twelve ships for the king of Spain (April 9th, 1495), Vespucci was commissioned to complete the contract. As Ferdinand, on the loth of April 1495, recalled the monopoly conceded to Columbus (this order of April loth, 1495, was cancelled on June 2nd, 1497), " private " exploring now had an opportunity, and adventurers of all kinds were able to leave Spain for the West. Vespucci claims to have sailed with one of these " free-lance " expeditions from Cadiz on the loth of May 1497. Touching at Grand Canary on the way, the four vessels he accompanied, going thirty-seven days on a west-south-west course, and making l000 leagues, are said to have reached a supposed continental coast in 16° N., 7o° W. from Grand Canary (June 16th, 1497). This should have brought them into the Pacific. They sailed along the coast, says Vespucci, for 8o leagues to the province of Parias (or Lariab), and then 87o leagues more, always to the north-west, to the " finest harbour in the world," which from this description should be in British Columbia or thereabouts. Thence roc leagues more to north and north-east to the islands of the people called " Iti," from which they returned to Spain, reaching Cadiz on the 15th of October 1498. Still following Vespucci's own statement, he, on the 16th of May 1499, started on a second voyage in a fleet of three ships under Alonzo de Ojeda (Hojeda). Sailing south-west over 500 leagues they crossed the ocean in forty-four days, finding land in 5° S. Thence, encountering various adventures, they worked up to 15° N., and returned to Spain by way of Antiglia (Espanola, San Domingo), reaching Cadiz on the 8th of September 15oo. Entering the service of Dom Manuel of Portugal, Vespucci claims to have taken part in a third American expedition, which left Lisbon on the loth (or 15th) of May 15oi. Vespucci has given two accounts of this alleged third voyage, differing in many details, especially dates and distances. From Portugal he declares that he sailed to Bezeguiche (Cape Verde), and thence south-west for 700 leagues, reaching the American coast in 5° S. on the 7th (or 17th) of August. Thence eastward for 300 (150) leagues, and south and west to 52° S. (or 73° 3o'; in his own words, " r3° from the antarctic pole," i.e. well into the antarctic continent). He returned, he adds, by Sierra Leone (June loth), and the Azores (end of July), to Lisbon (September 7th, 1502). His second Portuguese (and fourth and last American) voyage, as alleged by him, was destined for Malacca, which he supposed to be in 330 S. (really in 2° 14' N.). Starting from Lisbon on the loth of May 1503, with a fleet of six ships, and reaching Bahia by way of Fernando Noronha (?), Vespucci declares that he built a fort at a harbour in 18° S., and thence returned to Lisbon (June 18th, 1504). In February 1505, being again in Spain, he visited Christopher Columbus, who entrusted to him a letter for his son Diego. On the 24th of April 1505, Vespucci received Spanish letters of naturalization; and on the 6th of August 1508 was appointed piloto mayor or chief pilot of Spain, an office which he held till his death, at Seville, on the 22nd of February 1512. If his own account had been trustworthy, it would have followed that Vespucci reached the mainland of America eight days before John Cabot (June 16th against June 24th, 1497). But Vespucci's own statement of his exploring achievements hardly carries conviction. This statement is contained (i.) in his letter written from Lisbon (March or April 1503) to Lorenzo Piero Francesco di Medici, the head of the firm under which his business career had been mostly spent, describing the alleged Portuguese voyage of March 15or—September 1502. The original Italian text is lost, but we possess the Latin translation by " Jocundus interpreter," perhaps the Giocondo who brought his invitation to Portugal in 1501. This letter was printed (in some nine editions) soon after it was written, the first two issues (Mundus Novus and Epistola Albericii de Novo Muncie), without place or date, appearing before 1504, the third, of 1504 (Mundus Nevus), at Augsburg. Two very early Paris editions are also known, and one Strassburg (De Ora Antarctica) of 15o5, edited by E. Ringmann. It was also included in the Paesi novamente retrovati of 1507 (Vicenza) under the title of Novo Mondo da Alb. Vesputio. The connexion of the new world with Vespucci, thus expressed, is derived from the argument of this first letter, that it was right to call Amerigo's discovery a new world, because it had not been seen before by any one. This prepared the way for the American name soon given to the continent. (ii.) In Vespucci's letter, also written from Portugal (September 1504), and probably addressed to his old school-fellow Piero Soderini, gonfaloniere of Florence 1502—1512. From the Italian original (of which four printed copies still exist, without place or date, but probably before 1507) a French version was made; and from the latter a Latin translation, published at St Die in Lorraine in April 1507, and immediately made use of in the Cosmographiae Introductio (St Die, 1507) of Martin Waldseemuller (Hylacomylus), professor of cosmography in St Die University. Here we have perhaps the first suggestion in a printed book that the newly discovered fourth part of the world should be called " America, because Americus discovered it." Since Alexander von Humboldt discussed thesubject in his Examen critique de l'histoire de la geographie .du nouveau continent (1837), vol. iv., the general weight of opinion (in spite of F. A. de Varnhagen, Amerigo Vespucci, son caractere, ses ecrits. . . sa vie . . . , Lima, 1865, and other pro-Vespuccian works) has been that Vespucci did not make the 1497 voyage, and that he had no share in the first discovery of the American continent. See also R. H. Major, Prince Henry the Navigator (London, 1868), pp. 367—88; F. A. de Varnhagen, Le Premier voyage de Amerigo Vespucci (Vienna, 1869) ; Nouvelles recherches sur les derniers voyages du navigateur florentin (Vienna, 1869) ; Ainda Amerigo Vespucci, Neves estudos (Vienna, 1874) ; Luigi Hugues, Il terzo viaggio di A. Vespucci (Florence, 1878) ; " Alcune considerazioni sul Prime Viaggio di A. Vespucci," in the Bolletino of the Italian Geographical Society, series ii. vol. x. pp. 248-63, 367—80 (Rome, 1885) ; " Il quarto Viaggio di A. Vespucci," in the same Bolletino, year xx., vol. xxiii. pp. 532—54 (Rome, 1886) ; " Sul nome' America ' in the same Bolletino, series iii. vol. i. pp. 404—27, 515—30 (Rome, 1888), and an earlier study under the same title (Turin, 1886) ; " Sopra due lettere di A. Vespucci," in the same, series iii. vol. iv. pp. 849—72, 929—51 (Rome, 1891); Narrative and Critical History of America, edited by Justin Winsor, vol. ii. pp. 129—86 (1886) ; The Letters of A. Vespucci (translation, &c., by Clements R. Markham, London, Hakluyt Society, 1894) ; H. Harrisse, A. Vespuccius (London, 1895); Jos. Fischer and F. R. von Weiser, The Oldest Map with the Name America ... (Innsbruck, 1903) ; Angelo Maria Bandini and Gustavo Uzielli, Vita di Amerigo Vespucci (Florence, 1898) ; B. H. Soulsby in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (London, February 1902), pp. 201-9. (C. R. B.)
End of Article: AMERIGO VESPUCCI (1451—1512)
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