The continent of America was named after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who was born on March 9, 1451, in Florence, Italy. He was the third of four sons of Nastagio and Elisabetta Vespucci, whose family was influential in the city-state that was governed by the Medici family, for whom Amerigo Vespucci later worked. He was well educated and developed interests in astronomy, geometry, physics, mathematics, and maps. These interests also fostered a desire for travel. From 1478 to 1480 Vespucci was attached to the Florentine embassy in Paris, France. In 1492 he left Florence for Seville to look after Medici interests in Spain. This was the same year in which the New World was "discovered" by Christopher Columbus, whose explorations were much admired by Vespucci. At the age of forty-one, Vespucci became director of a mercantile company that supplied ships for long journeys, including the many voyages of discovery that were taking place at this time.
How many voyages Vespucci undertook is disputed; it could have been as many as six. In any case, the earliest voyages were under the Spanish flag, and those of 1501 and 1503 were under the Portuguese flag. Vespucci began his first voyage to the New World on May 10, 1497, and returned in 1498. His company comprised three ships, provided by King Ferdinand of Castille, and explored the north coast of South America with a landing in either Brazil or Guiana. During this first voyage he also sailed into the Caribbean and then west toward Costa Rica; after following the Mexican Gulf coast and going past Florida, the company sailed north and eventually reached the Gulf of St Lawrence. On his second voyage, which departed Cadiz on May 16, 1499, Vespucci served as navigator, and was accompanied by Alonso de Ojeda and Juan de la Cosa. The expedition touched the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, explored the northeast coast of South America, including the mouth of the Amazon River, and visited the Caribbean islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, as well as the Bahamas. During this voyage Vespucci also used his mathematical and cartographical skills to calculate the circumference of the earth to within fifty miles.
Soon after the return to Spain in 1500, another voyage was planned and on May 14, 1501, Vespucci departed from Lisbon. This expedition explored the southeastern coast of South America, including the Rio de la Plata, and the southern coast to within 400 miles of Tierra del Fuego, the last southerly land before Antarctica. His fourth voyage was made with Gonzalo Coelho and departed Lisbon on June 19, 1503. These latter voyages led Vespucci to realize that the New World was not Asia/India, the goal of Columbus and other contemporary explorers. His revelation led European mapmakers to redraw maps of the world, among them the German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller, whose proposal to call the newly discovered continent "America" immortalized Vespucci. In 1505 and in 1507 Vespucci undertook two further voyages with Juan de la Cosa in search of gold, pearls, and wood.
Vespucci's contribution to European knowledge of the New World also took the form of letters to contacts in Europe and written descriptions of indigenous peoples of South America and their cultural and agricultural practices. His expeditions facilitated commerce between the New and Old Worlds and the annexation of colonies. Vespucci became a naturalized citizen of Spain in 1505, the same year in which he married Maria Cerezo. In 1508 he was declared Pilot Major of Spain, a distinguished position that he occupied until his death from malaria in Seville on February 22, 1512.
see also Columbus, Christopher; European Explorations in South America.
Pohl, Frederick J. Amerigo Vespucci, Pilot Major. New York: Octagon, 1966.
Ray, Kurt. Amerigo Vespucci: Italian Explorer. New York: Rosen, 2003.