A Celebration of Women Writers

"Part I, Chapter 5." by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-)
From: This country of ours; the story of the United States by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-) New York, George H. Doran company, 1917.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


CHAPTER 5
HOW AMERICA WAS NAMED

"THE New World is his monument." And yet the New World does not bear the name of Columbus. So in this chapter I am going to tell you how America was named.

 

As soon as Columbus had shown the way across the Sea of Darkness many were eager to follow in his footsteps. "There is not a man," he says himself, "down to the very tailors, who does not beg to be allowed to become a discoverer." Among the many who longed to sail the seas there was a man named Amerigo Vespucci.

 

Like Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian. He was born in Florence and there for nearly forty years he lived quietly, earning his living as a clerk in the great merchant house of Medici. But although he was diligent at business his thoughts were not wholly taken up with it, and in his leisure hours he loved to read books of geography, and pore over maps and charts.

Amerigo Vespucci, 1451-1512;

After a time business took Amerigo to Spain. He was there when Columbus returned from his famous first voyage, and very likely saw him pass through the streets of Barcelona on his day of triumph. Just when Amerigo and Columbus met we do not know. But very soon we find Amerigo in the service of the merchant who supplied Columbus with food and other necessaries for his second voyage. It has been thought by some that Vespucci went with Columbus on this voyage, but that is not very likely. It was about this time, however, that Vespucci went on his first voyage in which he explored the coast of Venezuela or of Central America. It is very doubtful which. Before going on this voyage he had been in Spain about four years, and not having succeeded very well as a merchant he decided to give up trading and take to a sea life.

meets Columbus;

No voyages perhaps have been more written about and fought over than those of Amerigo Vespucci. Some will have it that he went only two voyages, and say he was a braggart and a vainglorious fool if he said he went more. Others think that he went at least four voyages and probably six. And most people are now agreed that these last are right, and that he who gave his name to the great double Continent of America was no swaggering pretender but an honest and upright man.

his voyages disputed;

In the first two voyages that he made Vespucci sailed under the flag of Spain. In the second two he sailed in the service of the King of Portugal. But after his fourth voyage he returned again to Spain. There he received a large salary and the rank of captain. Later he was made Pilot Major of Spain, and was held in high honour till his death.

 

Yet in all the voyages Vespucci went, whether under the flag of Portugal or of Spain, he was never leader. He went as astronomer, or as pilot, while other men captained the expeditions.

 

It is from Amerigo's letters alone that we gather the little we know about his voyages. For although he says in one of his letters that he has written a book called "The Four Voyages" it has never been found, and perhaps was never published. One long letter, however, which he wrote to an old schoolfellow was so interesting that it was published and read by many people all over Europe. It was, says an old English writer, "abrode in every mannes handes."

his letters

mentioned in Sir Thomas More's "Utopia"

Amerigo's voyages led him chiefly to Central and South America and he became convinced that South America was a continent. So soon, what with the voyages of Vespucci and the voyages of other great men, it became at last quite certain that there was a vast continent beyond the Atlantic ocean. Map-makers, therefore, began to draw a huge island, large enough to form in itself a continent, south of the Equator. They called it the New World, or the land of the Holy Cross, but the Northern Continent was still represented on the maps by a few small islands, or as a part of Asia.

 

Thus years passed. Daring sailors still sailed the stormy seas in search of new lands, and learned men read the tales of their adventures and wrote new books of geography.

 

Then one day a professor who taught geography at the Monastery of St. Dié in Alsace published a little book on geography. In it he spoke of Europe, Asia and Africa, the three parts of the world as known to the ancients. Then he spoke of the fourth part which had been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci, by which he meant what we now call South America. "And," continues this professor, "I do not see what is rightly to hinder us calling this part Amerige or America, that is, the land of Americus after its discoverer Americus."

Waldsee-Müller calls the newly discovered land America, 1507;

This is the first time the word America was ever used, and little did this old German professor, writing in his quiet Alsatian College, think that he was christening the great double continent of the New World. And as little did Amerigo think in writing his letter to his old school fellow that he was to be looked upon as the discoverer of the New World.

 

At first the new name came slowly into use and it appears for the first time on a map made about 1514. In this map America is shown as a great island continent lying chiefly south of the Equator.

 

All the voyages which Columbus had made had been north of the Equator. No man yet connected the land south of the Equator with him, and it was at first only to this south land that the name America was given.

 

Thirty years and more went by. Many voyages were made, and it became known for certain that Columbus had not reached the shores of India by sailing west, and that a great continent barred the way north as well as south of the Equator.

 

Then a famous map-maker gave the name of America to both continents.

 

But many Spaniards were jealous for the fame of Columbus, and they thought that the Northern Continent should be called Colonia or Columbiana. One, anxious that the part in the discovery taken by Ferdinand and Isabella should not be forgotten, even tried to make people call it Fer-Isabelica.

other names suggested

But all such efforts were in vain. America sounded well, people liked it, and soon every one used it.

 

Amerigo Vespucci himself had nothing to do with the choice, and yet because others gave his name to the New World many hard things have been said of him. He has been called in scorn a "land lubber," "a beef and biscuit contractor," and other contemptuous names. Even one of the greatest American writers has poured scorn on him. "Strange," he says, "that broad America must wear the name of a thief. Amerigo Vespucci, the pickle dealer of Seville . . . whose highest naval rank was a boatswain's mate in an expedition that never sailed, managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptise half the earth with his own dishonest name."

Ralph Waldo Emerson's opinion of Americus

But it was the people of his day, and not Vespucci, who brought the new name into use. Vespucci himself had never any intention of being a thief or of robbing Columbus of his glory. He and Columbus had always been friends, and little more than a year before he died Columbus wrote a letter to his son Diego which Vespucci delivered. In this letter Columbus says, "Amerigo Vespucci, the bearer of this letter . . . has always been wishful to please me. He is a very honest man. . . . He is very anxious to do something for me, if it is in his power."

Vespucci a friend of Columbus

It was only accident which gave the name of America to the New World, and perhaps also the ingratitude of the great leader's own generation.

 

Later generations, however, have not been so unmindful of Columbus and his deeds; Americans have not allowed his great name to be wholly forgotten. The district in which the capital of the United States is situated is called Columbia. In Canada too there is the great province of British Columbia, and in South America the United States of Colombia, besides many towns all named in honour of the great discoverer.

 

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom