23 May 2008

America's Name - Italian or Bristolian?

I'm not actually finished with Chapter 9 yet, however, this chapter has already sparked my thoughts and led me down some tangential paths and has given me several days worth of information to research and learn about.

So it all started with the world map, Universalis Cosmographia, published in May of 1507, drawn by cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. This map, Mr. Menzies says, is "the first to chart latitude and longitude with precision" (p. 238).

While reading in this book I've always been fascinated by the descriptions of the evolution of the maps. Not so much the actual fundamental details and inner-cog workings of how they did it, but it's fascinating to watch as they get more and more accurate and similar to our world view of today. I have had to reshape my thinking by a new found admiration I have for these early explorers. Their understanding of math and astronomy, and whatever other sciences necessary for them to figure out longitude and latitude and draw amazingly accurate maps while sailing around on wooden boats without any fancy tools, demands greater respect than what I had previously been giving to these people.

ANYWAY, that's not where I was going with this entry.

Mr. Menzies comments only briefly on page 238 that this world map of 1507, that it was the first to have called these two continents "America" in writing. And he leaves it at that. No more details, just moves goes on from there.

However, the statement that this map was "the first ever to call the continent 'America' " made me realize I had no idea where America got its name. Of course it had to come from somewhere, but where?

In doing some searches I found many websites. However, I quickly discovered that the name America is surrounded by as much controversy and conflicting stories as is the history of who discovered her first! Ah, history and its many keepers.

So, here is what I've found:

"America" - Possible Origin #1
Americo Vespucci: Italian explorer who first realized that the Americas were two continents, independent of Asia (c.1499). Along with the world map drawn by Waldseemüller, there was an accompanying book, Cosmographiae Introductio, published by the same author. This book explains that the name was derived from the Latinized version of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci's name, Americus Vespucius, in its feminine form, "America", as the other continents all have Latin feminine names. However, news traveled slowly back in the day and eventually that name was withdrawn by Waldseemüller after he realized that Columbus arrived on that continent before Vespucci. Still, the name stuck.

"America" - Possible Origin #2
Richard Amerike: a wealthy Bristol merchant Richard Amerike, who was an overseas trader living just outside the city in Long Ashton (c. 1480). I found an article that said that previous to this time, Bristol merchants bought salt cod in Iceland until the King of Denmark stopped the trade in 1475. In l479, four Bristol merchants received a royal charter to find another source of fish and trade. This article purports that the new source was the Americas. And, the continent was named as such because Richard Amerike was largely the funder of the expedition. It is indicated that on the fishing map, the name America was used and that Vespucci was given a copy of these maps. Also, there is reported to be a letter in the Spanish National Archives confirming that Bristol merchants had traveled to the Americas first and the maps was also sent to Columbus for his journey. So, that area had been called America before 1507, there just weren't any extant maps to prove it.

Both of these stories have compelling points. However, nowhere do they factor in the Chinese maps that Mr. Menzies indicated were the possible reference maps for that 1507 world map, so who really knows?? I'm inclined to think that due to the largely European slant on all of our current, mainstream history, the name probably caught on from Mr. Waldseemüller's world map. Plus, I think it fitting that Mr. Vespuccio get the naming rights since he's [the European] accredited with the discovery of it being its own continent.

But what if it was a mixture of both? I can see that too. Everybody is sharing maps, right? So, maybe the Bristolians did come first. And it was called America on those maps, and it was just easier to refer to it as that when Americo Vespuccio used the maps for his journey. And what if Mr. Waldseemüller, the poor stay at home cartographer, had no idea why Vespuccio referred to it as America. So, he just guessed in his book, and his book was published and then people believed it forever.

So much speculation! Isn't this fun? :)

Anyway, my conclusion: I just don't know.

However, some purport that it's a shame that America wasn't named for Columbus. However, I think that since the man lived and died thinking he'd found the Indies and never really knew it was its own continent, regardless the origin, it's ok that the Americas weren't named for him.


Ritsumei said...

That's pretty interesting stuff! I may have to put some of those other folks into my Book of Centuries. I hadn't heard of the Bristol guy before, just Amerigo Vespucci. Or whatever his name is. Seems that historical figures weren't as picky about the "right" way to say or spell their names as modern folks are. Also, it sounds like there's yet another way for Columbus to have had maps of the Americas prior to sailing. Sometimes I wonder how he managed not to think that the place was indeed the continents of the Americas. I mean, possible access to Chinese maps, to these maps from Bristol, it just seems clear that he wasn't the bold explorer of the unknown that they painted him as in Jr. High!

It's interesting how when you learn this stuff in school it's Mr. A did this, Mr. B did that, Mr. C followed and terrorized the natives, Mr. D was lost at sea after doing this other thing. But it's all concrete, cut and dried. Then you start doing some research past a textbook and it all seems a lot less certain who did what, in what order, and with what advantages. I mean, I don't think that they so much as mentioned that the Chinese may have had boats when we were studying the exploration of the world. Nor did we really cover what sort of place did those poor kidnapped Africans come from. My education was very Euro-centric.

Lil Banshee said...

It's named after Vespucci.