An Outlook

March 9 marks the anniversary of the birth of Amerigo Vespucci. Born in 1454, most likely in Florence, Vespucci was an explorer of some fame during his lifetime, though as time progressed and other explorers emerged on the scene, his achievements fell considerably behind many of his contemporaries.

Vespucci’s chief contribution to history was being the first to recognize that the land to the west (today’s South America) was not India, as most of his predecessors claimed, but rather an entirely new continent.

When you first begin to research Vespucci, however, this achievement is not the primary information you discover. Indeed, what you first learn about Vespucci, beginning in the history textbooks we all labored through in school, is one of the most classic examples of historical misinformation on record. Allow me to explain.

As I stated earlier, the explorers who first discovered the lands to the west of Europe, mistakenly believed that they had arrived in India. Indeed, one of chief reasons the royalty of Europe financed explorations was in the hopes of discovering a sea route to the east which would expedite trade (particularly spice trade) while avoiding the perils of an overland route or the necessity of rounding Cape Horn at the southern tip of Africa (an extremely perilous undertaking).

Vespucci’s exploration led him to unequivocally state that the lands to the west were not India, and that they were a completely different continent, or different part of the “world.” Thus, the continents of North and South America and the islands which constitute the Caribbean became known as the “New World.”

So how did Amerigo Vespucci become linked with naming the “New World” America, you wonder? Well, the answer lies with a largely forgotten clergyman who lived near the monastery of St. Deodatus in the Vosges Mountains in the Duchy of Lorraine on the French/German border.

This clergyman led a small group of researchers who began gathering all the information they could about the known world, including the fantastic stories of the lands across the ocean to the west. In conjunction with this project, the clergyman in question adopted the pseudonym Hylacomylus (from the Greek word for “wood,” the Latin word for “lake,” and the Greek word for “mill”) which was later translated back into his native German, creating the family name of Waldseemüller – the name he is generally known by today.

In April of 1507, Waldseemüller and his group published a 103-page volume encompassing the results of their research entitled Cosmographiae Introductio. Much of the material included in the volume was standard information (i.e. principles of cosmography, distances between key locations, details on climate, etc.), but it also contained the mistake which would ultimately make Amerigo Vespucci, a second-rate amateur explorer, famous for centuries to come.

During the course of his research, Waldseemüller found continual references by sailors and explorers to a great land to the west they called “America” or “Amerika.” Waldseemuller also read an extended account of Vespucci’s travels and the fact that Vespucci had realized that the lands to the west were entirely new. And then Waldseemüller took two unlike things, combined them, and put them into print. Here, in part, is what Waldseemüller wrote:

“Now these parts of the earth (Europe, Africa, and Asia) have been more extensively explored and a fourth part has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci (as will be described in what follows). Insomuch as both Europe and Asia received their names from women, I see not reason why anyone should object to calling this part Amerige (from the Greek ‘ge’ meaning ‘land of’), i.e. the land of Amerigo, or America, after Amerigo, its discoverer, a man of great ability.”

Included in Waldseemüller’s book was a huge map with the “New World” labeled as America. Because this book constitutes the first published work to use the term “America” it has simply been assumed that Waldseemüller named the new lands to the west, that his version of the story is correct, and that his words reflect his thoughts on proper form the new name should assume.

Now go back and carefully re-read what Waldseemüller wrote. You will notice that Waldseemüller isn’t offering an original name he is simply musing on what form the name should take. Indeed, his preference seems to lie with the name Amerige, but he is willing to accept the name America because it was already in use!

When you pause to consider the situation, you quickly realize that Waldseemüller, a non-sailor, would never presume to name an entirely new section of the world. Additionally, his book was published 15 years after Columbus’ voyage and it seems preposterous to believe that no one had offered any name whatsoever for this “New World” prior to the publication of a book by a monk.

Waldseemüller listed the correct name for the “New World” but his personal preference for meaningful names led him to error in his explanation of the name’s origin. And then the power of the printing press transformed his error from fallacy to “fact.”

To his credit, Waldseemüller realized his mistake shortly after Cosmographiae Introductio was published. He offered a public retraction of his assertion that Vespucci had discovered the New World, but it was too late. The public, through his book, had an explanation that seemed to make sense and they refused to let go.

Thus, classroom textbooks today continue to perpetuate the rather innocent error of Brother Hylacomylus/Waldseemüller almost 500 years ago – much to the delight, I’m sure, of one Amerigo Vespucci.