Amerigo Vespucci: Biography, Facts & Voyages

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Today I'll be talking about Amerigo Vespucci, a cartographer who sailed to America and helped improve the navigation of his time. Vespucci also lent his name to the Americas.

A Simple Life

Everyone knows that Christopher Columbus' voyages to the New World were what opened up the Americas to exploration and settlement. Though he didn't find a new way to Asia, like he wanted to do, his trips across the Atlantic opened up a new era.

So why didn't the American continents get named after him? Because of Amerigo Vespucci, a simple Florentine merchant who happened to be at the right place at the right time and made some very intelligent decisions. Vespucci was an employee in the service of the Medici Bank in Florence. He was sent to Cadiz, Spain, in 1492 so that he could check on some bank operations there.

By 1495 he was acting as an executor to a Will. It turned out that the person whose estate he was taking care of was in debt to the Spanish crown. This was happening during Christopher Columbus' voyages to the Americas, so Vespucci arranged to pay the debt by giving the king a dozen ships that could sail to the Americas. By doing that, he connected himself to Spain's exploration of the Americas.

Voyages for the King

Vespucci in the New World
Voyages of Vespucci

In 1499, King Manuel of Portugal invited Amerigo Vespucci to sail to the Americas as an observer. He went on at least two trips (1499-1500 and 1501-1502) and maybe four (1497 and 1503-4). The fifteenth century voyage(s) were mainly to the West Indies. He landed first in Venezuela before heading up the coast, sailing between Cuba and Haiti and landing in Haiti, and heading home. His sixteenth century trips brought him to Brazil, where he followed the coast to the modern boundary before going home.

In Amerigo's travels, he sailed further south than anyone ever had. He took detailed notes about the local cultures and their navigational positions. The one bizarre custom he came across was cannibalism. Navigationally, he rediscovered a constellation the Greeks had noticed hundreds of years ago that had disappeared over the horizon over the centuries. Vespucci's observations would later lead King Ferdinand II of Spain to give him the title of pilot major in 1508 and the position of running a school for navigators.

America

Vespucci's navigational calculations and his observation of the natives he came across led him to one inescapable conclusion. As his ships went further south than any known part of Asia and the natives he met had customs not to be found in the writings of the explorer Marco Polo or the mapmaker Ptolemy, he concluded that the continent he had been to must be a fourth one that had never been mapped before.

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