Florentine merchant and navigator Amerigo Vespucci is credited with two spectacular transatlantic voyages. His extensive feedback on the New World inspired Martin Wardseemüller, the famous cartographer, to name the continents 'America' after him.
Vespucci's voyages and documented evidence of his journeys have earned him the epithet 'enigmatic historian'. Amerigo began his career in seafaring as a representative of a Florentine Medici family. He looked after their operations in Spain.
Vespucci soon followed his dreams and joined a Alonso Ojeda expedition as a navigator. It was in the 1499 voyage that he is believed to have reached the northeastern coast of South America.
Most of his expeditions are shrouded in controversy. While his South American voyage in 1497 is considered apocryphal, the 1504 voyage also suffers the same fate. It was the famous cartographer Wardseemüller who declared to the world that Vespucci had reached the New World much before Christopher Columbus.
Once he named the continent America, the label and the claim stuck. Amerigo Vespucci's voyages were focused on calculating the circumference of the world and discovering virgin lands.
Amerigo Vespucci and His Voyages
Vespucci first visited France, at the age of 24, with his uncle. His stints in commerce took him from Florence to Seville. When he met Christopher Columbus in 1496, Vespucci was skeptical of the latter's claim of having reached the shores of Asia. It was Vespucci's curiosity and determination that egged him on to explore the new lands being spoken about.
First Voyage: 1497
Vespucci began his voyage from Cadiz on May 10, 1497. Though the voyage remains veiled in questioned authenticity, the fact that his ships passed through the West Indies is largely believed. Amerigo Vespucci documented a 37 day voyage, without sighting any islands prior to reaching the mainland of Central America.
He is then believed to have journeyed to Tamaulipas and continued along the Gulf of Mexico, before heading northward to Cape Hatteras. His logs declare that the crew discovered the island of lti, identified by many as Bermuda. The crew reached Cadiz in October, the following year.
Second Voyage: 1499
Amerigo Vespucci began his second voyage in 1499. The expedition was commanded by Alonso de Ojeda. The crew took separate routes on reaching the Cape Verde Islands. While Ojeda went to the Guianas before moving on to Hispaniola, Vespucci explored to Cape Santo Agostinho.
Moving along the coast of Brazil, he coasted the Maracaibo Gulf and made his way to Hispaniola. This expedition made Vespucci the first explorer to have set foot in Brazil and also the first to cross the Equator. Vespucci discovered the Amazon prior to sailing back home.
Third Voyage: 1500
In 1500, Amerigo made an important voyage, sponsored by King Manuel I of Portugal. Earlier, commander Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil en route to the Cape of Good Hope and India.
Though the land was claimed by Portugal by the Treaty of Tordesillas, the King wanted to know whether or not Brazil was an independent mainland or part of another territory. Vespucci seemed the best person to confirm the status of the mainland, and hence, he left on an expedition headed by Gonçalo Coelho.
He journeyed along the South American coast, discovering Rio de Janeiro and Rio de la Plata. Vespucci confirmed that the land discovered could in no way be a part of Asia, since the flora, fauna and human inhabitants did not correspond to the records of Marco Polo or other explorers. Vespucci returned via Sierra Leone, happy to have set foot on Mundus Novus.
Fourth Voyage: 1503
The 1503 voyage was devoid of any new discoveries, the captain and crew explored the southeastern side of South America and the Falkland Islands. In the course of the mapped route, the fleet broke up and Vespucci made it to Lisbon via Bahia.
After this expedition, that ended in 1504, Vespucci never sailed again. He returned to Seville and settled there permanently, with his wife Maria de Cerezo.
Dispute about Later Voyages
It should be noted, here, that there is considerable doubt about whether Vespucci undertook a third, fourth or any subsequent voyages. Many historians suspect manipulation on the part of Vespucci since the sole evidence of his voyages are his letters written to his friends and not any official logs or reports or archives.
The third voyage in 1500 and the fourth in 1503 were in accordance with the Portuguese. Surprisingly, the old Portuguese archives or letters or missives of those times do not find any mention of Vespucci.
Spain and Portugal were rivals in the race to explore the New World and they strongly guarded any new information and maps about their own discoveries, even to the extent of going to war over rival claims. These loopholes or inaccuracies have led many a historian to doubt the credibility of Vespucci's claim to have discovered the continent of America.
Although moving on in time, history records that Vespucci had acquired Spanish citizenship and in 1508 the Casa de Contratación de las Indias (or the Commercial House for the Indies) appointed him chief navigator. This important post required him to prepare official maps of sea routes to newly discovered lands.
He was also entrusted with examining the license for voyages of pilots and ships masters. He also had to coordinate and interpret all data that the captains were obliged to furnish from their foreign voyages. Vespucci held this position until his death due to malaria at the age of 58.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding his later voyages, Amerigo Vespucci will be remembered as the explorer after whom two major continents of the world have been named.
He did go on two voyages to the New World and that he was a genuine pioneer of Atlantic exploration and contributed to the prevalent knowledge about the New World. Vespucci can be considered as one of the true founders of cosmography and modern navigation by his sheer conviction that he had truly discovered new worlds.