How did America get its name

01:00 Mon 21st May 2001 |

A. It was named after - though not by - the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451 or 1454-1512). Vespucci sailed a number of times to what was then known as the Indies under both the Spanish and Portuguese flags.

Q. But he didn't discover the New World, though, did he
No. As we all know 'In fourteen hundred and ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue.' Between 1492 and 1504 Columbus made four voyages to the Caribbean and along the coasts of Central America and what is now Venezuela as far as the Orinoco delta. However, Columbus continued to believe that he had discovered an unknown part of Asia, rather than a new continent, which is where Vespucci has the edge.

Q. How
The number of voyages made by Vespucci is in dispute. He claimed to have sailed first in 1497, but there is little or no evidence to support this. The next - or first documented - voyage took place in 1499-1500 and they travelled as far as the mouth of the Amazon.

There is no dispute about the details of the voyage of 1501-2. They sailed down the coast of South America to within 400 miles of Tierra del Fuego. It was on this trip that Vespucci and others became convinced that they were exploring a new world. Letters written by Vespucci during this voyage were published throughout Europe and caused quite a stir. In them he identifies the Indies as new lands and not Asia as had previously been thought. He also described the culture of the indigenous people they found there, and detailed their diet, religion, sexual and childbirth practices. Some of the descriptions suggest that they may even have sailed along the Florida coast and further north.

His final journey (1503-4) took him back to the coastline of Brazil, with the aim of finding a way through or around the new-found land mass to Asia. They even sighted what later became known as the Falkland Islands. Not finding a route through he returned to Spain.

Q. So, why America
A. In 1507 a German scholar, Martin Waldseemller reprinted the letters, Quattuor Americi Navigationes (The Four Voyages of Amerigo) and a pamphlet of his own entitled Cosmographiae Introductio, in which he suggested that the newly discovered world be named 'ab Americo Inventor ... quasi Americi terram sive Americam' ('from Amerigo the discoverer if it were the land of Americus or America'). He stated that 'now another fourth part has been discovered by Americus Vespucius, and therefore I see no reason why we should not call it Amerige or America'.

He also produced a map on which the name America appears for the first time. A thousand copies were printed and sold throughout Europe. Here it was applied only to South America. The name stuck - even though Waldseemller later changed his mind - and was later used for North America, too. By 1538 Mercator's map of the world used the name for the whole land mass.

Q. So Columbus really has missed out
A. He does have places named after him. The country of Colombia for one; also the province of British Columbia in Canada and the Columbia River, the District of Columbia and any number of towns named Columbus in the USA. But it's not quite the same as having a continent named after you, and especially galling if the person who did get the job might possibly have played slightly dirty.

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By Simon Smith

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