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Influential people who pushed forward exploration: Amerigo Vespucci

Supposed amerigo vespucci portrait


Image: Uffizi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite Christopher Columbus being the first to rediscover the new world, he always thought that the continent of the Americas was somewhere in the East Indies and not an entirely new continent. Thus, the discovery of the Americas though technically his, its namesake often goes to another explorer who actually figured out that the Americas was an entirely separate continent from that of the East Indies.


Amerigo Vespucci was that person, becoming confident after his travels that the southern hemisphere that he explored was neither Asia nor India but an entirely separate continent. Over time, different book and map makers named the continent America in attribution to Amerigo’s name. And while Vespucci never directly called the new continent as America, instead always referring to it as Mundus Novus or New world, the name stuck and entered into common use by the Europeans.


early 16th century map based on vespucci's travels 


Image: Ptolemy & al., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Overriding Columbus’ Discovery

As mentioned in our summary of Christopher Columbus, he never truly thought that the new land he found was a new continent, instead believing it to be further east from the East Indies or the East Indies itself. Coupled with the atrocities he performed on both the colonists and indigenous people during his rule, it was no surprise that the discovery of the Americas were never fully attributed to him.


Amerigo Vespucci was the forerunner of the Columbus voyages, first dispatched by the Spanish to replace Columbus after he was recalled for improper ruling over the new colonists. He was later on employed by the Portuguese to explore areas in the southern hemisphere that we know today as Brazil. In his expeditions, Vespucci was sent mainly as a pilot in charge of cartography and astronomy to help with navigation while exploring the southern hemisphere.


Even during his first voyage, he charted the stars and constellations and noticed that they were different from those usually visible in Europe. Much of his documentation of his trip was also purely objective, merely recording the environments and people they encountered as they were without judgement. This could be one of the possible reasons why he is remembered more fondly today as compared to Columbus with even the namesake of America being attributed to him.


woodcut of vespucci arriving in the americas


Image: Amerigo Vespucci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Documentation, Letters and Discovery

In subsequent voyages, Vespucci continued to document the different constellations not visible from Europe and with his knowledge of maps as well as the lack of riches said to be found in India, he started realising that they were exploring an entirely new continent. This is reflected in a variety of letters that were thought to be written by Vespucci. In them he accounts the multiple voyages to South America and even Central America, depicting parts of the Amazon River and the Gulf of the Ganges when he still believed he was in Asia. Though plenty of letters have been attributed to him, the details and veracity of them have often been the topic of discussion, with many believing them to be simply forgeries or fabrications based on genuine Vespucci letters. 


However, many of these letters are the little that remains of documentation of his voyages and are the records of the first explorer who realised that the new continents were an entirely new landmass, never before known by Europeans.


vespucci charting new constellations in the night sky 


Image: Jan Collaert II, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


The Legacy of Amerigo Vespucci

Amerigo Vespucci is remembered for many important reasons, his skill as a cartographer and navigator added great contributions to the mapping of South America, exploring and documenting things such as the mouth of the Amazon River. His expertise in celestial navigation also created new methods for determining longitude while also allowing him to correctly predict the Earth’s circumference accurately within 50 miles.


But perhaps the most important contribution was his realisation that the continent he was exploring was not Asia. It was only through his dedication to exploration and documentation as well as expertise in maps and navigation that the new continent of the Americas were recognised as such. And eventually through a variety of book and map makers attributing the discovery to him, the continents of the western hemisphere became known as North and South America.



Lessons to be learned

Much of what is known about Vespucci today are from letters he wrote or were attributed to him. Despite this, we know that he had a great interest in exploration and had the distinct ability to view the world objectively. Instead of stubbornly following the notion that the new continent he was exploring was that of Asia like Columbus, he used his knowledge and expertise to challenge that notion and propose that the new landmass was an entirely new continent. 


In this there is plenty to be learned from Vespucci. Be it in your personal or professional lives, don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo and explore new opportunities, you never know if you just might make a huge new discovery!