If you live in North America, when you awaken in the morning do you lie in bed gazing at the sky and thinking to yourself, “Why is this continent named America when it might have been called any number of things?” Well, if so, I can show you this page from our current homeschooling lesson book: it is named for Amerigo Vespucci (1452-1512). Perhaps now a little light bulb goes on in your head, a memory from an old geography class.
Today is Vespucci’s birthday, although how this is known is amazing to me—old baptismal records I suppose. Vespucci was born in Florence, Italy, and in adulthood he went to work for a Medici banking/investment house in Seville, Spain that helped finance Columbus’ second voyage to the New World (the one that was to prove beyond a doubt Columbus had indeed reached India).
Vespucci gives the impression of having been a bright, lively fellow with either great charisma or influential contacts, because he was invited by two different kings (of Castile and of Portugal) to participate as an observer on four voyages to the unfamiliar yet promising lands across the Atlantic. Since he was tiring, as he wrote, of his profession’s “frail and transitory benefits” (which observation remains true in the 21st century), he packed his trunk and off he went.
These expeditions actually ventured much further south than had Columbus’ ships, exploring the coast of what would become Brazil, stopping for days or weeks at a time to look around and trade/dine/lodge/fight with the people they met along the way. It became clear that south of the Caribbean islands was an entirely unexpected continent.
When Vespucci returned to Europe, he published accounts of his travels, describing the new landscape with its strange birds, plants, animals, the people and their customs, and the various adventures he had among them. He wrote in such engaging and entertaining detail (also poignant and dismaying to a modern eye) that it caught the attention of mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller, who decided to name the surprise continent in Vespucci’s honor on his brand-new map of the world. And America it remained, eventually coming to mean not only the southern but the central and northern sections as well. The entire Western Hemisphere! The most you can hope for today is to get an avenue named after you, or perhaps a candy bar.