Amerigo Vespucci

81

Amerigo Vespucci : biography

March 9, 1454 – February 22, 1512

Expeditions

At the invitation of king Manuel I of Portugal, Vespucci participated as observer in several voyages that explored the east coast of South America between 1499 and 1502. On the first of these voyages he was aboard the ship that discovered that South America extended much further south than previously thought.

The expeditions became widely known in Europe after two accounts attributed to Vespucci were published between 1502 and 1504. In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller produced a world map on which he named the new continent America after Vespucci’s first name, Amerigo. In an accompanying book, Waldseemüller published one of the Vespucci accounts, which led to criticism that Vespucci was trying to upset Christopher Columbus’ glory. However, the rediscovery in the 18th century of other letters by Vespucci, primarily the Soderini Letter, has led to the view that the early published accounts could be fabrications, not by Vespucci, but by others.

He died on February 22, 1512 in Seville, Spain, of an unknown cause.

Voyages

First voyage

A letter published in 1504 purports to be an account by Vespucci, written to Soderini, of a lengthy visit to the New World, leaving Spain in May 1497 and returning in October 1498. However, modern scholars have doubted that this voyage took place, and consider this letter a forgery. Whoever did write the letter makes several observations of native customs, including use of hammocks and sweat lodges.

Second voyage

About 1499–1500, Vespucci joined an expedition in the service of Spain, with Alonso de Ojeda (or Hojeda) as the fleet commander. The intention was to sail around the southern end of the African mainland into the Indian Ocean. After hitting land at the coast of what is now Guyana, the two seem to have separated. Vespucci sailed southward, discovering the mouth of the Amazon River and reaching 6°S, before turning around and seeing Trinidad and the Orinoco River and returning to Spain by way of Hispaniola. The letter, to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, claims that Vespucci determined his longitude celestially

 on a rainy and stormy day with calm seas, stars could be identified near the horizon to judge latitude/longitude celestially. Although South America's continental shelf drops quickly into the deep ocean beyond the Orinoco River, the mouth is on the shelf, avoiding the ocean swells and waves which hinder visibility of stars near the horizon. Seamen who could navigate from Europe to America and back could chart stars on the horizon, especially for a cartographer like Vespucci. 

on August 23, 1499, while on this voyage. However, that claim may be fraudulent, which could cast doubt on the letter’s credibility.

Third voyage

The last certain voyage of Vespucci was led by Gonçalo Coelho in 1501–1502 in the service of Portugal. Departing from Lisbon, the fleet sailed first to Cape Verde where they met two of Pedro Álvares Cabral’s ships returning from India. In a letter from Cape Verde, Vespucci says that he hopes to visit the same lands that Álvares Cabral had explored, suggesting that the intention is to sail west to Asia, as on the 1499–1500 voyage. On reaching the coast of Brazil, they sailed south along the coast of South America to Rio de Janeiro’s bay. If his own account is to be believed, he reached the latitude of Patagonia before turning back, although this also seems doubtful, since his account does not mention the broad estuary of the Río de la Plata, which he must have seen if he had gotten that far south. Portuguese maps of South America, created after the voyage of Coelho and Vespucci, do not show any land south of present-day Cananéia at 25° S, so this may represent the southernmost extent of their voyages.

After the first half of the expedition, Vespucci mapped Alpha and Beta Centauri, as well as the constellation Crux, the Southern Cross. Although these stars had been known to the ancient Greeks, gradual precession had lowered them below the European horizon so that they had been forgotten. On his return to Lisbon, Vespucci wrote in a letter to d’Medici that the land masses they explored were much larger than anticipated and different from the Asia described by Ptolemy or Marco Polo and therefore, must be a New World, that is, a previously unknown fourth continent, after Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Fourth voyage

Vespucci’s fourth voyage was another expedition for the Portuguese crown down the eastern coast of Brazil, that set out in May, 1503 and returned to Portugal in June 1504. Like his alleged first voyage, Vespucci’s last voyage in 1503–1504 is also disputed to have taken place.Ray, p.91 The only source of information for the last voyage is the Letter to Soderini,Markham, pp.52–56 but as several modern scholars dispute Vespucci’s authorship of the letter to Soderini, it is also sometimes doubted whether Vespucci undertook this trip. However, Portuguese documents do confirm a voyage to Brazil was undertaken in 1503–04 by the captain Gonçalo Coelho, very likely the same captain of the 1501 mapping expedition (Vespucci’s third voyage), and so it is quite possible that Vespucci went on board this one as well.Fernández-Armesto (2007: p.168-69). However, it is not independently confirmed Vespucci was aboard and there are some difficulties in the reported dates and details.

The letters caused controversy after Vespucci’s death, especially among the supporters of Columbus who believed Columbus’s priority for the discovery of America was being undermined, and seriously damaged Vespucci’s reputation.Ray, pp.96–97; Arciniegas (1955:p.16)