A Florentine navigator and pilot major of Castile, Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), for whom America is named, is no longer accused of having conspired to supplant Columbus; but interpretation of documents concerning his career remains controversial.
The father of Amerigo Vespucci was Nastagio Vespucci, and his uncle was the learned Dominican Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, who had charge of Amerigo's education. The entire family was cultured and friendly with the Medici rulers of Florence. Domenico Ghirlandaio painted Amerigo in a family portrait when the youth was about 19. However, the explorer had reached his 40s at the time he began voyaging to America, so Ghirlandaio furnishes only an approximate idea of Vespucci's mature appearance.
It is known that Vespucci visited France, in his uncle's company, when about 24, and that his father intended him for a business career. He did engage in commerce, first in Florence and then in Seville in a Medici branch bank. Later, in Seville, he entered a mercantile partnership with a fellow Florentine, Gianetto Berardi, and this lasted until Berardi's death at the end of 1495.
Meanwhile, Columbus had made his first two voyages to the West Indies, and he returned from the second in June 1496. At this time, he and Vespucci unquestionably met and conversed, and Amerigo appears to have been skeptical of the Admiral's belief that he had already reached the outskirts of Asia. Moreover, Vespucci's curiosity about the new lands had been aroused, together with a determination, though no longer young, to see them himself.
If the letter he reputedly wrote to Pero Soderini, Gonfalonier (Standard-bearer) of Florence, may be taken at face value, Vespucci embarked from Cadiz in a Spanish fleet May 10, 1497. Serious doubts have been raised about the letter's authenticity, because it does not fit chronologically with authenticated events, and because the voyage, if made, presents serious geographical problems and passes unnoticed by the cartographers and historians of the time. Alberto Magnaghi (1875-1945) believed the letter fabricated, or mostly so, by Vespucci admirers in Florence, who had no idea of the problems they were raising.
If the letter is taken literally, the ships passed through the West Indies, sighting no islands, and in 37 days reached the mainland at some Central American point. This would antedate the Columbus discovery of the mainland of Venezuela by a year. Following the coast, the ships reached "Lariab, " tentatively taken for Tamaulipas. They then continued along the Gulf of Mexico, rounded the tip of Florida, and went northward to Cape Hatteras or Chesapeake Bay. On the return to Spain, they discovered the inhabited island of "lti," identified by some as Bermuda, though by 1522 the Bermudas were unpopulated. The expedition reached Cadiz in October 1498. This voyage should have revealed the insularity of Cuba, yet it failed to establish the fact in contemporary minds, and it remained for Sebastián Ocampo to do so in 1509.
Vespucci, in all probability, voyaged to America at the time ascribed, but he did not have command and as yet had had no practical experience of piloting. Amerigo, or whoever wrote the Soderini letter, deals in leagues covered, seldom in latitudes. These are badly off and at one point would have had the ships in the region of British Columbia. Inexperience could explain many of the errors, but the strong likelihood remains that the letter has been doctored.
In 1499 Vespucci sailed again, and this time there is documentary support of the expedition besides his own letters. His education had included mathematics, and he had surely learned a great deal from his first crossing. Alonso de Ojeda commanded the 1499 expedition at the start, and in his later report he named "Morigo Vespuche" as one of the pilots. From Cadiz, they first dropped to the Cape Verde Islands and then divided forces in the Atlantic. Ojeda went to the Guianas and then to Hispaniola without further discoveries.
Vespucci explored to Cape Santo Agostinho, at the shoulder of Brazil, after which he coasted westward past the Maracaibo Gulf until he too turned to Hispaniola. This may have been the first expedition to touch Brazil as well as the first to cross the Equator in New World waters. Vespucci probably discovered the Amazon mouth; he certainly did so if he remained close to land while sailing west.
Two years later, Amerigo went on by far his most important voyage, this time for Portugal, at the invitation of King Manuel I. In 1500 that King's commander, Pedro Álvares Cabral, on his way to the Cape of Good Hope and India, had discovered Brazil at latitude 16°52'S. Portugal claimed this land by the Treaty of Tordesillas, and the King wished to know whether it was merely an island or part of the continent Spanish explorers had encountered farther north. Vespucci, having already been to the Brazilian shoulder, seemed the person best qualified to go as an observer with the new expedition Manuel was sending. Vespucci did not command at the start—the Portuguese captain was probably Gonçalo Coelho—but ultimately took charge at the request of the Portuguese officers.
This voyage traced the South American coast from a point above Cape São Roque to approximately 47°S in Patagonia. Among the important discoveries were Guanabara Bay (Rio de Janeiro) and the Rio de la Plata, which soon began to appear on maps as Rio Jordán. Vespucci, whatever his earlier beliefs had been, now realized that this could be no part of Asia, as flora, fauna, and human inhabitants in no way corresponded to what ancient writers, and such later ones as Marco Polo, had described. The expedition returned by way of Sierra Leone and the Azores, and Vespucci, in a letter to Florence, called South America Mundus Novus (New World).
In 1503 Amerigo sailed in Portuguese service again to Brazil, but this expedition failed to make new discoveries. The fleet broke up, the Portuguese commander's ship disappeared, and Vespucci could proceed only a little past Bahia before returning to Lisbon in 1504. He did not sail again, and as there seemed no more work for him in Portugal he returned to Seville, where he settled permanently and where he had earlier married Maria de Cerezo. He was middle-aged, and the fact that there were no children might indicate that Maria was also past her youth.
Columbus never thought Vespucci had tried to steal his laurels, and in 1505 he wrote his son, Diego, saying of Amerigo, "It has always been his wish to please me; he is a man of good will; fortune has been unkind to him as to others; his labors have not brought him the rewards he in justice should have."
In 1507 a group of scholars at St-Dié in Lorraine brought out a book of geography entitled Cosmographiae introductio. One of the authors, Martin Waldseemüller, suggested the name America, especially for the Brazilian part of the New World, in honor of "the illustrious man who discovered it." To a conventional Ptolemy map of the Old World, there was now added as much of the new hemisphere as was then known, with the name America upon it. Some objected to this, and both Spain and Portugal proved slow and unwilling to adopt the name, but it prevailed, in part no doubt because of its pleasant sound. Vespucci was no party to this undoubted injustice to Columbus and possibly never heard of it.
In 1503 the Castilian crown created the Casa de Contratación at Seville to govern trade with the New World, and in 1508 King Ferdinand, regent for his mentally unstable daughter, Joanna, established the office of pilot major as a part of the Casa. Amerigo was the first holder of the office, and it became his duty to train pilots, examine them for proficiency in their craft, and collect data regarding New World navigation. This he incorporated in the great Padrôn Real, the master map kept in his Seville office. He remained pilot major until his death on Feb. 22, 1512, a month short of his fifty-eighth birthday.
Biographers differ sharply in their judgments of Vespucci. Frederick Julius Pohl, Amerigo Vespucci, Pilot Major (1944), rejects the first voyage entirely and considers the Soderini letter spurious, while Germán Arciniegas, Amerigo and the New World: The Life and Times of Amerigo Vespucci (trans. 1955), maintains that both voyage and letter are authentic. The controversy over the rival merits of Columbus and Vespucci is examined in De Lamer Jenson, ed., The Expansion of Europe: Motives, Methods, and Meanings (1967). A general survey of the Atlantic voyage is Gerald Roe Crone, The Discovery of America (1969).