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Amerigo Vespucci, a Lurid Pamphlet and the Naming of America

Amerigo Vespucci meets natives
This engraving is based on the exploits of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. The sketch and the quote are from a letter written about the "giant natives" of the island Tierra del Fuego, circa 1499-1500. Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

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On permanent display in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., is an enormous, 500-year-old world map that was the very first to use the name "America." It's the only surviving copy of what's known as the 1507 Waldseemüller Map, a priceless historical artifact discovered in the basement of a German castle in 1901 and purchased by the Library of Congress for $10 million in 2003.

1507 Waldseemüller map
The 1507 Waldseemüller map was the first map to name the new continent America. It's written in the part we would know today as "South America." The creators later realized they'd been mistaken in who discovered America.
Library of Congress

"It's the birth certificate of America," says Chet Van Duzer, a mapmaking historian who has worked with the Library of Congress and is now affiliated with the Lazarus Project, which uses multi-spectral imaging to recover and decipher ancient documents.

But equally as fascinating as the 1507 map is the one that's mounted next to it at the Library of Congress, the Carta Marina of 1516. This world map was published just nine years later by the very same man, Martin Waldseemüller, but the word "America" is nowhere to be found. In its place is simply "Terra Nova" or "New World."

1516 Carta Marina
Martin Waldseemüller's 1516 Carta Marina was the most up–to–date conception of the world at that time. It omitted the word "America" and called the area "Terra Nova."
Library of Congress

"The most amazing thing about the name 'America' is that the guy who invented it decided it wasn't the right name," says Van Duzer.

Amerigo Vespucci, the Self-Promoter

Everyone knows that Christopher Columbus "discovered" America in 1492, even though he never set foot in North America and died insisting that he had found a Western route to Asia. So why didn't the makers of the 1507 Waldseemüller map name the newly discovered lands "Columbia" instead of "America"?

Probably because Columbus didn't write a best-selling pamphlet about his travels full of sex, violence and naked cannibals like his fellow Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed to the New World a decade after Columbus.

"Vespucci was a better self-promoter than Columbus," says Van Duzer, "and his accounts are more lurid, shall we say, than Columbus's, so they were reprinted more often."

Vespucci published two wildly popular accounts of his voyages to the New World. The first, written in 1504, was called "Mondus Novis" and clearly asserted Vespucci's claim that the lands across the Atlantic were indeed a new continent, not an extension of Asia or just a big island.

"For this transcends the view held by our ancients... that there is no continent to the south beyond the equator, but only the sea which they named the Atlantic," wrote Vespucci. "But that this their opinion is false and utterly opposed to the truth, this my last voyage has made manifest; for in those southern parts I have found a continent more densely peopled and abounding in animals than our Europe or Asia or Africa." By following the South American coast to just 400 miles (643 kilometers) short of Tierra Del Fuego, Vespucci was convinced that he was traveling around a new continent.

"Mondus Novis" also included plenty of colorful details about the curious natives, whom Vespucci depicted as gentle and almost childlike in nature, but nevertheless barbarous and decidedly un-Christian in their customs, which included facial piercings, cannibalism and sexual promiscuity.

A second pamphlet known as the "Soderini Letter," which may not have been written entirely by Vespucci, made the rounds in 1505. The disputed text doubled down on Vespucci's descriptions of the naked locals and provided play-by-play accounts of a few violent clashes between Vespucci's men and the more aggressive tribes.

In one "laughable affair," Vespucci’s men welcomed some of the more adventurous Indians onto their ship where the Europeans decided to "fire off some of our great guns."

"[A]nd when the explosion took place, most of them through fear cast themselves (into the sea) to swim, not otherwise than frogs on the margins of a pond, when they see something that frightens them, will jump into the water, just so did those people," wrote Vespucci. "[A]nd those who remained in the ships were so terrified that we regretted our action."

Mapping the 'Land of Amerigo'

Vespucci's accounts were widely read throughout Europe, including the small village of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges in Lorraine, France, where mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller and his humanist partner Matthias Ringmann were compiling an ambitious new map of the world.

As the historians William Connell and Stanislao Pugliese note in "The Routledge History of Italian Americans," when Waldseemüller and Ringmann got their hands on Vespucci's Soderini Letter in 1507, "the two men believed it to be the latest word on the discoveries in the western ocean."

Waldseemüller and Ringmann had undoubtedly heard of Columbus, but were unimpressed. At the top of their giant 1507 map, which measures 4.2 feet by 7.6 feet (1.28 meters by 2.33 meters), they engraved portraits of the two men they believed to be the two greatest geographers of the ancient and modern world: the Greek mathematician Ptolemy and our friend Vespucci.

In a text that accompanied the 1507 Waldseemüller Map, the two men explained exactly why they named the new continent, which is modern-day South America, after Vespucci.

"[A]nd the fourth part of the earth, which, because Amerigo discovered it, we may call Amerige, the land of Amerigo, so to speak, or America."

Waldseemüller and Ringmann named the continent America "because Amerigo discovered it." Case closed.

A Humbling Correction, But Too Late

It didn't take long for Waldseemüller and Ringmann to realize their mistake. But since 16th-century mapmaking and printmaking was a painstakingly slow process, it took a full nine years — downright speedy in those days — for the men to publish a corrected map, the Carta Marina of 1516, along with a wordy mea culpa.

"We will seem to you, reader, previously to have diligently presented and shown a representation of the world that was filled with error, wonder, and confusion," wrote the mapmakers. "As we have lately come to understand, our previous representation pleased very few people. Therefore, since true seekers of knowledge rarely color their words in confusing rhetoric, and do not embellish facts with charm but instead with a venerable abundance of simplicity, we must say that we cover our heads with a humble hood."

In the Carta Marina of 1516, the name America is gone, substituted with "Terra Nova." Presumably the men had figured out that Columbus, not Vespucci, was the true discoverer of America. But by 1516, at least six other world maps had been published using the name America. And despite Waldseemüller and Ringmann's belated retraction, the original name stuck.

America was America from then on.

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