The name of Americus Vespuccius or Amerigo Vespucci, as the Spaniards call him, appears prominent in history as one of the discoverers of America. He has no valid title to that distinction. Proofs accumulate as investigations proceed, which show conclusively that he was the author or abettor of a stupendous historical fraud by which Columbus was cheated out of the honor of having his name given to this continent.
Vespuccius first appears in history as a mercantile agent of the Medici family of Florence, first in Barcelona and soon afterward in Seville, in Spain. He was then about forty years of age, having been born in Florence in 1451. In Seville he was actively engaged in furnishing supplies for ships fitting out for exploring and mercantile expeditions. In that capacity he had much personal intercourse with Columbus, whilst the admiral was preparing the large fleet for his second voyage. The narratives of the great Genoese inspired Vespuccius with a strong desire to make a mercantile venture in a voyage to the new-found world, and he had ambitious dreams of becoming a discoverer likewise. He studied geography and the kindred sciences, to fit himself for such an expedition; and when, in May, 1499, Alonzo de Ojedo sailed from Port St. Mary, opposite Cadiz, with four ships, following the southern route of Columbus to South America, Vespuccius accompanied him simply as an adventurer and self-constituted geographer. They discovered mountains in South America, when off the coast of Surinam, and then ran along the continent to the island of Trinidad, which Columbus had named the year before. Thence they cruised along the coasts and islands of Venezuela, and crossing the Caribbean Sea, touched at Hispaniola. Proceeding towards Spain, they engaged in kidnapping the natives of the Antilles, and in June, 1500, entered the port of Cadiz, the four vessels crowded with captives who were sold as slaves to the Spanish grandees.
Vespuccius, who seems to have been a shrewd, audacious, and unscrupulous man, immediately sent an account of the discoveries, in a letter, to one of the Medici family, assuming for himself the credit of that discovery; and in order to establish his claim to first discoverer of the American continent, he antedated the time of the commencement of the voyage, making it in 1497, the year before Columbus and Cabot made their respective discoveries, and saying that the expedition was absent from Spain twenty-five months. To this statement, the learned and conscientious Charlevoix says: "Ojeda, when judicially interrogated, gave the lie direct." Herrera, an early Spanish historian, accuses Vespuccius of falsifying the dates of two voyages in which he was engaged, and of confounding the one with the other, "in order that he might arrogate to himself the glory of having discovered the continent."
Vespuccius in other letters, told of other voyages and great discoveries which he had made whilst in the service of the King of Portugal, but contemporary navigators and chroniclers made no mention of them. They were probably fictions of the boastful Florentine who had become expert in the construction of charts, and was familiar with the details of the numerous exploring voyages made from Spain and Portugal in his day. Finally, when Columbus was dead and no voice of accusation or denial could escape his lips, these letters of Vespuccius, giving an account of his pretended voyages and discoveries, were published at St. Diey, in Lorraine, and dedicated to the reigning duke of that country, which was then, as now, a German province. In that publication the name of America, as applied to our continent, was used. For this Vespuccius is responsible. It is possible that the letters themselves were forgeries, and that Vespuccius was not blameable for their publication; but he became an abettor in the fraud by not repudiating them. They were published in 1507, the year after the death of Columbus and four years before that of the Florentine.
That Vespuccius is responsible for the fraud involved in giving his name to the newly-discovered continent, seems clear from other circumstances. He was in communication with a learned German schoolmaster and cosmographer, named Woldseemuler, who pedantically transformed his name (Wood-lake-miller) into the Greek one of Hylacomylus. He was a correspondent of the Academy of Cosmography which the Duke of Lorraine had established at Strasburg, and at the request or suggestion of Vespuccius he proposed to the members of that academy, under whose auspices the letters of Americus were published, the name of America for the western continent. At about the same time Hylacomylus issued at St. Diey a little work entitled "Cosmographie Rudimenta," in which it was proposed to name the continent America. He took an active part in the publication of the letters of his friend, and he may be regarded as the chief perpetrator of the fraud with Vespuccius as the accessory, at least, because he sanctioned it by his silence. "Considering the intimacy of the two parties," says the learned Viscount Santarem, "there is no doubt that the geographer was guided by the navigator in what he did." Referring to the honor so conferred on Americus Vespuccius, the late Dr. Francis Lieber wrote to the author of this history: "Ethically speaking, there has never been erected a monument so magnificent, enduring and cruelly unjust; as if the Madonna di Sisto were not called by Raphael's name but by that of the man who framed it first." It is probably too late now, after centuries of use, to correct the injustice by changing the name of America. Washington, with his usual clear conception of right, did justice to Columbus by giving to the territory in which the seat of our national government was permanently established, the name of the District of Columbia.
Return to Our Country, Vol. I