América, no invoco tu nombre en vano
[America, I don't call your name without hope]
Pablo Neruda, Canto General
AMERICA, we learn as schoolchildren, was named in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, for his discovery of the mainland of the New World. We tend not to question this lesson about the naming of America. By the time we are adults it lingers vaguely in most of us, along with images of wave-tossed caravels and forests peopled with naked cannibals. Not surprisingly, the notion that America was named for Vespucci has long been universally accepted, so much so that a lineal descendant, America Vespucci, came to New Orleans in 1839 and asked for a land grant "in recognition of her name and parentage." Since the late 19th century, however, conflicting ideas about the truth of the derivation have been set forth with profound cultural and political implications. To question the origin of America's name is to question the nature of not only our history lessons but our very identity as Americans.
Traditional history lessons about the discovery of America also raise questions about the meaning of discovery itself. It is now universally recognized that neither Vespucci nor Columbus "discovered" America. They were of course preceded by the pre-historic Asian forebears of Native Americans, who migrated across some ice-bridge in the Bering Straits or over the stepping stones of the Aleutian Islands. A black African discovery of America, it has been argued, took place around 3,000 years ago, and influenced the development of Mayan, Aztec, and Inca civilizations. The records of Scandinavian expeditions to America are found in sagas — their historic cores encrusted with additions made by every storyteller who had ever repeated them. The Icelandic Saga of Eric the Red, the settler of Greenland, which tells how Eric's son Leif came to Vinland, was first written down in the second half of the 13th century, 250 years after Leif found a western land full of "wheatfields and vines"; from this history emerged a fanciful theory in 1930 that the origin of "America" is Scandinavian: Amt meaning "district" plus Eric, to form Amteric, or the Land of (Leif) Eric.
Other Norsemen went out to the land Leif had discovered; in fact, contemporary advocates of the Norse connection claim that from around the beginning of the 11th century, North Atlantic sailors called this place Ommerike (oh-MEH-ric-eh), an Old Norse word meaning "farthest outland." (This theory is currently being promoted by white supremacists of the so-called Christian Party, who are intent on preserving the nation's Nordic character, and who argue that the Norse Ommerike derives from the Gothic Amalric, which, according to them, means "Kingdom of Heaven.") But most non-Scandinavians were ignorant of these sailors' bold exploits until the 17th century, and what they actually found was not seriously discussed by European geographers until the 18th century. Further, other discoveries of America have been credited to the Irish who had sailed to a land they called Iargalon, the land beyond the sunset, and to the Phoenicians who purportedly came here before the Norse. The 1497 voyage by John Cabot to the Labrador coast of Newfoundland constitutes yet another discovery of the American mainland, which led to an early 20th-century account of the naming of America, recently revived, that claims the New World was named after an Englishman (Welshman, actually) called Richard Amerike.
And yet, despite the issue of who discovered America, we are still confronted with the awesome fact that it was the voyages of Columbus, and not earlier ones, that changed the course of world history. Indeed, as Tzvetan Todorov, author of The Conquest of America (1984; tr. Richard Howard), has argued, "The conquest of America
heralds and establishes our present identity; even if every date that permits us to separate any two periods is arbitrary, none is more suitable, in order to mark the beginning of the modern era, than the year 1492, the year Columbus crosses the Atlantic Ocean." Columbus clearly made a monumental discovery in showing Europe how to sail across the Atlantic; Vespucci's great contribution was to tell Europe that the land Columbus had found was not Asia but a New World (and that a western route to Asia involved yet another ocean beyond it). The naming of America, then, becomes essential to a full understanding of our history and cultural values — ourselves — especially when considered in terms of the range of theories about the origin of the name.
Carew moves from the "fictions" of Columbus to those of
Vespucci with these striking words: "Alberigo Vespucci, and I
deliberately use his authentic Christian name, a Florentine
dilettante and rascal, corrected Columbus's error [thinking he
had found the Orient]
Vespucci, having sailed to the
American mainland declared that what Columbus had indeed stumbled
on was a New World." Carew then alludes to Vespucci's famous
letters about his voyages (more later about these controversial
letters), which caused a great stir throughout Europe when they
were published in the early 1500s. In them Vespucci "invented a
colonizer's America, and the reality that is ours never recovered
from this literary assault and the distortions he inflicted upon
it" because "the fiction of a 'virgin land' inhabited by savages,
at once a racist one and a contradiction, remains with us to this
day." But Carew, in developing his own fiction which derives
largely from a fanciful 19th-century treatise, goes on to say:
"Amerigo [sic] was undoubtedly a Florentine dilettante
[and] an extraordinarily clever one. Why would he
otherwise have changed his Christian name after his voyages to
Like Marcou, Carew wants us to believe that America was not named after Vespucci, but vice versa; that Vespucci had, so to speak, re-named himself after his discovery, gilding his given name by modifying it to reflect the significance of his discovery. For Carew, however, the "truth" he found in his reading of history becomes a source of rage: "Robbing peoples and countries of their indigenous names was one of the cruel games that colonizers played with the colonized . To rob people or countries of their names is to set in motion a psychic disturbance which can in turn create a permanent crisis of identity. As if to underline this fact, the theft of an important place-name from the heartland of the Americas and the claim that it was a dilettante's Christian name robs the original name of its elemental meaning."
And what of this elemental meaning? To define it Carew echoes Marcou, who quotes from his correspondence with Augustus Le Plongeon. An imaginative anthropologist studying the Mayan culture in Yucatan, Le Plongeon had written to the French scholar: "The name AMERICA or AMERRIQUE in the Mayan language means, a country of perpetually strong wind, or the Land of the Wind, and sometimes the suffix '-ique' and '-ika' can mean not only wind or air but also a spirit that breathes, life itself."
All this leads Carew to conclude that "we must, therefore, reclaim the name of our America and give it once again its primordial meaning, land of the wind, the fountainhead of life and movement." His assertions concerning the name and its origin demand closer scrutiny, for in his passion to dispel myths he has created new ones.
Vespucci's Good Name
First of all, Vespucci's name must be cleared. He has been wrongfully portrayed as a crafty opportunist ever since the mid-16th century when Bartholomew de Las Casas accused him of being a liar and a thief who stole the glory that belonged to Columbus. "The new continent," insisted Las Casas, "should have been called Columba and not as it is unjustly called, America." In his epoch-making History of the Indies, Las Casas demeans Vespucci and his achievement, slandering his name by describing what he (a friend of Columbus and his family) considered "the long premeditated plan of Vespucci to have the world acknowledge him as the discoverer of the largest part of the Indies." Vespucci's unfounded bad reputation persisted here throughout the 19th century. One of the climaxes of vilification was attained by Emerson, who comments in English Traits (1856): "Strange that broad America must wear the name of a thief. Amerigo Vespucci, the pickledealer at Seville, who went out, in 1499, a subaltern with Hojeda, and whose highest naval rank was boat-swain's mate in an expedition that never sailed, managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name." Vespucci was not the man described by Las Casas and Emerson, nor was he simply "an unimportant Florentine merchant," as he is described in the 1992 edition of Compton's Encyclopedia "published [by a Division of Encyclopedia Britannica] with the editorial advice of the faculties of the University of Chicago."
Vespucci was born in 1454 in Florence, where he was baptized,
according to the official record, "Amerigho" — not, as Carew
asserts, Alberigo. The use of the form Amerigho for
Amerigo is an instance of the orthographic anarchy that existed
in the spelling of proper names. The name Amerigo derives from
an old Gothic name, Amalrich. In all its forms found in Europe
(Greek "Aimulos," Latin "Aemelius") the underlying meaning was
that of work. Amalrich, which literally meant work ruler, or
designator of tasks, might be freely translated as master
workman. Old German forms of the name were Amalrich, Almerich,
Emmerich; the Spanish form was Almerigo; in England it was
Almerick, or Merica in old families in Yorkshire. It appeared in
feminine forms in Amelia and Emily; its masculine forms were
Amery, Emeric, and Emery. But as Charlotte Mary Yonge wrote in
her History of Christian Names (1884), it was "the Italian
form, Amerigo, which was destined to the most noted use
which should hold fast that most fortuitous title, whence
thousands of miles, and millions of men, bear the appellation of
the forgotten forefather of a tribe of the Goths — Amalrich, the work
ruler; a curiously appropriate title for the new world of labor
and of progress."
As was the custom of the Florentine nobility, Vespucci received an education that featured special instruction in the sciences connected with navigation — natural philosophy, astronomy, and cosmography — in which he excelled. Around 1490 he was sent to Spain by his employers, the famous Italian family of Medici, to join their business in fitting out ships. Vespucci was probably in Seville in 1492 when Columbus was preparing for his first historic voyage, as well as in 1493 when Columbus returned. Soon after, Vespucci was involved in fitting out the fleet for Columbus's second voyage. The two men eventually became friends; Columbus later wrote that he trusted Vespucci and held him in high esteem.
The period during which Vespucci made his own voyages falls between 1497(?) and 1504(?). At the beginning of 1505 he was summoned to the court of Spain for a private consultation, and, as a man of experience, was engaged to work for the famous Casa de Contratacion de las Indias (Commercial House for the West Indies), which had been founded two years before in Seville. In 1508 the house appointed him piloto mayor (pilot major, or chief navigator), a post of great responsibility, which included the examination of the pilots' and ships' masters' licenses for voyages. He also had to prepare the official map of newly discovered lands and of the routes to them (for the royal survey), interpreting and coordinating all data that the captains were obliged to furnish. Vespucci, who obtained Spanish citizenship, held this position until his death in Seville in 1512. In the face of the spurious charges that he was an ignorant usurper of the merits of others, the fact that Spain entrusted him, a foreigner, with the office of pilot major certainly bolsters his defense.
During the first half of the 20th century, scholars discovered further evidence that clears away the cloud of misunderstanding and ignorance by which Vespucci has long been obscured. Frederick J. Pohl's biography, Amerigo Vespucci, Pilot Major (1966), and Germán Arciniegas's Amerigo and the New World (1955; tr. Harriet de Onís) are among the best efforts that dispel the shadows to which he was relegated by those who maligned his fame. Nonetheless, both biographers disagree about the authenticity of his two published letters, key documents in a dramatic controversy: Arciniegas accepts them as genuine, whereas Pohl rejects them as forgeries. Their arguments both muster convincing evidence, suggesting an irreconcilable debate. But the question concerning the authenticity of these historic letters remains fundamental to the evaluation of Vespucci's achievement.
Two series of documents on his voyages are extant. The first or traditional series consists of the widely published letters, dated 1504, purportedly written by him. Addressed to his patron, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, who had sent Vespucci to Spain to do business for him there, the Mundus Novus (New World) — the title alone revolutionizing the European conception of the cosmos — was translated from the Italian into Latin, and originally printed in Vienna; the other letter, addressed to the gonfaloniere (chief magistrate) of Florence, Piero Soderini, was a more elaborate work. The second series consists of three private letters addressed to the Medici. In the first series of documents, four voyages by Vespucci are described; in the second, only two. Until the 1930s the documents of the first series were considered from the point of view of the order of the four voyages. According to the conflicting theory to which Pohl and other modern scholars subscribe, these documents should be regarded as the result of skillful, unauthorized manipulations by entrepreneurs, and the sole authentic papers would be the private letters, so that the verified voyages would be reduced to two. Most important, if the first series of documents are indeed forgeries, the "first" of the four voyages (dated 1497) never took place, and thus Vespucci could not be given priority of one year over Columbus on reaching the American mainland, nor could he be considered the first to explore the coastline of Central America, Mexico, and the southeastern coast of the United States.
The voyage completed by Vespucci between May 1499 and June 1500 as navigator of an expedition of four ships sent from Spain under the command of Alonso de Hojeda is certainly authentic. This is the second expedition of the traditional series. Since Vespucci took part as navigator, he certainly cannot have been inexperienced; however, it seems unlikely that he had made a previous voyage, though this matter remains unresolved. In the voyage of 1499–1500, Vespucci would seem to have left Hojeda after reaching the coast of what is now Guyana (Carew's homeland). Turning south, he is believed to have discovered the mouth of the Amazon River and explored the coast of present-day Brazil. On the way back, he reached Trinidad, sighting en route the mouth of the Orinoco River, and then made for Haiti. Vespucci thought he had sailed along the coast of the extreme easterly peninsula of Asia, where Ptolemy, the 2nd-century Greek geographer, believed the market of Cattigara to be; so he looked for the tip of this peninsula, calling it Cape Cattigara. He supposed that the ships, once past this point, emerged into the seas of southern Asia. As soon as he was back in Spain, he equipped a fresh expedition with the aim of reaching Asia. But the Spanish government did not welcome his proposals, and at the end of 1500 Vespucci went into the service of Portugal.
Under Portuguese auspices he completed a second expedition, which set sail from Lisbon on May 31, 1501. After a halt at the Cape Verde Islands, the expedition traveled southwestward, reached the coast of Brazil, and certainly sailed as far south as the Río de la Plata, which Vespucci was the first European to discover. In all likelihood the ships took a quick run still farther south, along the coast of Patagonia to the Golfo de San Juli n or beyond. His ships returned by an unknown route, anchoring at Lisbon on July 12, 1502. This voyage is of fundamental importance in the history of geography in that Vespucci himself became convinced that the lands he had explored were not part of Asia but a New World. Unlike Columbus, who, to his death, clung to the idea that he had found the shores of Asia, Vespucci defined what had indeed been found — and for this he has been rightfully honored.
Naming the New World
Vespucci not only explored unknown regions but also invented a system of computing exact longitude and arrived at a figure computing the earth's equational circumference only fifty miles short of the correct measurement. It was, however, not his many solid accomplishments but an apparent error made by a group of scholars living in St. Dié, near Strasbourg, France, in the mountains of Lorraine, then part of Germany, that led America to be named (ostensibly) after him; and this is largely why his reputation has suffered. His published letters had fallen into the hands of these German scholars, among whom was the young cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. Inspired to publish a new geography that would embrace the New World, the group collectively authored a revision of Ptolemy, which included a Latin translation of Vespucci's purported letter to Soderini, as well as a new map of the world drawn by Waldseemüller. In their resulting Cosmographiae Introductio, printed on April 25, 1507, appear these famous words (as translated from the original Latin; see below) written most likely by one of the two poet-scholars involved in the project: "But now these parts [Europe, Asia and Africa, the three continents of the Ptolemaic geography] have been extensively explored and a fourth part has been discovered by Americus Vespuccius [a Latin form of Vespucci's name], as will be seen in the appendix: I do not see what right any one would have to object to calling this part after Americus, who discovered it and who is a man of intelligence, [and so to name it] Amerige, that is, the Land of Americus, or America: since both Europa and Asia got their names from women" (see John W. Hessler's quincentennial edition of the Cosmographiae Introductio).
The new geography included in its appendix Waldseemüller's large, stunning map of the world, on which the New World is boldly labeled AMERICA — in the middle of present-day Brazil. This map is the first known map, printed or manuscript, to use the name America, and also the first to depict clearly a separate western hemisphere, with the Pacific as a separate ocean. The entire New World portion of the map roughly represents South America, and when later mapmakers added North America, they retained the original name; in 1538, the great geographer Gerard Mercator gave the name America to all of the Western Hemisphere on his Mapamundi. Waldseemüller's 1507 map, lost to scholars until 1901 when it was found in a German castle, is now reckoned to be the first to show the name, and the earliest record of its use. Moreover, the discoverer of the map went so far as to dub it the "Baptismal Certificate of the New World." Historians today agree that Vespucci, who was completely unaware of the project in Lorraine, had nothing to do with the so-called baptism. He clearly never tried to have the New World named after him or to belittle his friend Columbus. Nonetheless, the name America spread throughout Europe and quickly established itself through sheer force of usage.
The baptismal passage in the Cosmographiae Introductio has commonly been read as argument, in which the author said that he was naming the newly discovered continent in honor of Vespucci and saw no reason for objections. But, as etymologist Joy Rea has suggested, it could also be read as explanation, in which he indicates that he has heard the New World was called America, and the only explanation lay in Vespucci's name. In ignoring the possible intention of these words as explanation, most scholars have ignored the simple fact that place names usually originate informally in the spoken word and first circulate that way, not in the printed word. Moreover, to read the passage in the Cosmographiae Introductio as explanation lends credence to the theory, argued by Carew, Marcou, and others, that the early European explorers called the new continent Amerrique or, perhaps, another name with a similar pronunciation.
Even though the Latinization of Americus fits a pattern, why did the cosmographers not employ Albericus (hence the assumption that "Alberigo" was Vespucci's authentic Christian name), the Latinization that had already been used for Amerigo's name as the author of the Mundus Novus? Their substitution of Americus for the well-known Latinization Albericus might mean that they wanted a Latinization that would fit and explain the name America which they had already heard applied to the New World. Why did they ignore the common law in the naming of new lands: the use of the last names of explorers and the first names of royalty? Their ignoring it, Rea claims, further supports the idea that they were trying to force an explanation and that the only one they could think of was a Latinization of Vespucci's first name.
Another Amerindian Root
Did America get its name through oral tradition when those who had sailed with Columbus or Vespucci circulated stories that gold was to be found in the Amerrique Mountains of Nicaragua? According to Ricardo Palma's Tradiciones Peruanas (Peruvian Traditions, 1949), the ending of the word America indicates this origin: "The ending ic (ica, ique, ico made Spanish) is found frequently in the names of places, in the languages and native dialects of Central America and even of the Antilles. It seems to mean 'great, high, prominent' and is applied to mountains and peaks in which there are no volcanos." The Spanish Enciclopedia Universal Ilustrada (1907) gives Americ or América as a mountainous region in Nicaragua, adding that Columbus had landed on the coast of Nicaragua directly east of these mountains. Columbus, who met the Indians of this coast, presumably heard the name Amerrique from them: he was looking for gold and the Indians gave him some, telling him he could get more to the west in the mountains there.
The coast at the foot of the Amerrique Mountains that faces the Caribbean Sea is called the Mosquito Coast, named for the Mosquito Indians, who live there still. The Mosquitos are Caribs. It is almost certain that Columbus first heard the name of the mountains pronounced by a Carib. Amerrique, therefore, must derive from a Carib word, possibly one of the Carib culture words — not a word in the Mayan language, which was not spoken in Nicaragua, though it almost resembles in sound the Quiche Mayan iq' amaq'el meaning perpetual wind. Further dispelling the idea of a Maya connection to America, Robert M. Laughlin, curator of Mesoamerican Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, and an eminent anthropologist with expertise in Mayan culture, points out that "r" is rarely in the alphabets of Mayan languages.
The Caribs, traveling far from their Carib or Cariay coast, could see the Amerriques in the distance, and these mountains for them could have signified the mainland. The Indians in the Caribbean did have a word for the mainland, given in the Lexicografía Antillana (Antillean Dictionary, 1931) as babeque and defined as the name that Columbus understood the Indians to say when they were pointing to a land beyond Haiti and Cuba. Las Casas believed for a while that this must be Jamaica, but later decided it was the name for the mainland. Other historians have considered it the name the Caribs used for the mainland. Babeque, different as it sounds from Amerrique, could possibly be a variant of Amerrique. Very different spellings for the same Carib word reflect variants that sound little like each other; thus, the variants of the name Carib are Canibe, Galibi, Caniba, Canibal and Caliban.
The English Connection
Equally as amazing as the Amerrique theory, the little-known theory that "America" derives from the name of a Bristol-based Welshman, Richard Ameryk, emerged early in the 20th century. It constitutes an incredible Anglicization of the New World — and would, for obvious reasons, infuriate Carew. The theory was developed by Alfred E. Hudd, a member of the Clifton Antiquarian Club, which in 1910 published his work in its proceedings; the paper, "Richard Ameryk and the Name America," had been read to the group two years before. Hudd opens with a reference to Bristol's 1897 celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of North America by John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), the Italian navigator and explorer who had sailed for England, laying the groundwork for the later British claim to Canada. For his achievement Cabot received a handsome pension conferred upon him by the King, from the hands of the Collectors of Customs of the Port of Bristol. One of these officials, the senior of the two, who was probably the person who handed over the money to the explorer, was named Richard Ameryk (also written Ap Meryke [Welsh] on one deed, and elsewhere written Amerycke) who seems to have been a leading citizen of Bristol at the time. Hudd claims that the name given to the newly found land by the discoverer was "Amerika," in honor of the official from whom he received his pension.
On his return to England the flamboyant Cabot, who dressed in silk, was celebrated as "the Great Admiral." He had a reputation for his extravagance. He purportedly gave one of the islands he explored to a friend, another to his barber, and also promised some Italian friars that they could be bishops. Hudd reasons that if Cabot were so free with his gifts to his poorer friends, it is easy to understand his wish to show gratitude to the King's official, and that he may well have done so by conferring his name on "the new Isle" which, it was thought, lay off the coast of China — Cabot never realized that he had found a continent.
To back his claim that the name America was known in Bristol in the years just before 1500, and well before Waldseemüller's map, Hudd presents the often quoted words of a lost manuscript, one of the "Calendars" in which local events were recorded: "This year , on St. John the Baptist's day [June 24th], the land of America was found by the merchants of Bristowe, in a ship of Bristowe called the 'Mathew,' the which said ship departed from the port Bristowe the 2nd of May and came home again the 6th August following." If Hudd's suggestion is correct, the original manuscript documents the fact that the newly discovered land was already called America in Bristol before that name became known in Europe.
"Amerika," Hudd says, "seems much more like the name of the Bristol Customs official, than that of the Italian [Amerigo] and having been invented in Bristol, by Cabot, and having been the only name for 'the new island' for more than ten years after its discovery, the resemblance of the name to that of Vespucci struck [the authors of the Cosmosgraphiae Introductio] (to whom the English 'Richard Ameryk' was quite unknown), and thus through an error of his editor[s], to Vespucci was transferred the honour that the discoverer of North America, John Cabot, had intended to confer on the Bristolian 'Ameryk.'" Hudd fears that his main evidence, the original manuscript of Bristol's calendar, was lost in a fire and acknowledges that this important piece of the puzzle is missing. However, even if the name America were known in Bristol in 1497, Hudd has taken a majestic leap to suggest Ameryk's name as its origin. No proof exists to substantiate his claim that Cabot actually honored the Welshman by naming America after him. But if the name were indeed known in Bristol then, how was that possible?
More recently, two Englishman have championed the Amerike theory. Peter MacDonald, author of Cabot & the Naming of America: A Revelation (1997), asserts that Cabot named his discovery after Amerike because "[Richard] Amerike sought reward for his patronage by asking that any new-found lands should be named after him." MacDonald doesn't stop there. He also maintains that "since the flag of the United States of America is based on the design of Amerike's coat of arms, it is more than probable that its origins lie with Amerike and not with George Washington, whose family also bore arms of the Stars and Stripes" (see BBC British History).
Like MacDonald's book, Rodney Broome's Terra Incognita: The True Story of How America Got Its Name (2001) is a good read, but ultimately lacks the hard evidence to support the author’s claim. He presents a compelling inference at best. A longtime U.S. resident, Broome is originally from Bristol. He summarizes his argument this way in the Bristol Times: "Bristol merchants bought salt cod in Iceland until the King of Denmark stopped the trade in 1475. In 1479, four Bristol merchants received a royal charter to find another source of fish and trade. Not until 1960 did someone find bills of trading records indicating that Richard Amerike was involved in this business. Records show that in 1481, Amerike shipped a load of salt (for salting fish) to these men in Newfoundland and I believe the Bristol sailors named the area after the Bristol merchant they worked for."
The current (fifth) edition of Webster's New World College Dictionary admits the mystery that surrounds the origin of the name America, saying it derives from "Americus Vespucius but < ? Sp Amerrique, name of a mountain range in Nicaragua, used by early explorers for the newly discovered lands < ? AmInd." No definitive conclusions can be reached. Too many claims are, for lack of hard evidence, based on speculation. Theories about the true origin of the name are ultimately historical fictions, whose authors are inclined to impose their own political, cultural, or national agendas on the name and its origin. Yet behind these fictions lie compelling views of the New World. Taken together, they form a multicultural vision of its distinctive character. To hear Americus in the name; to hear the Amerrique Mountains and their perpetual wind; to hear the African in the Mayan iq' amaq'el; to hear the Scandinavian Ommerike, as well as Amteric, and the Algonquin Em-erika; to hear Saint Emeric of Hungary; to hear Amalrich, the Gothic lord of the work ethic; to hear Armorica, the ancient Gaulish name meaning place by the sea; and to hear the English official, Amerike — to hear such echoes in the name of our hemisphere is to hear ourselves.
[Return to Cohen's Profile]