Everyone knows who discovered America, right? Christopher Columbus in 1492, after he sailed the ocean blue. He did land on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean in the fall of that year, but it was a Caribbean island, not any part what we generally call “America” today. So how did we end up being called America and not Columbia, Colombo, or something like it?
Wednesday afternoon, sitting in the doctor’s office with my husband, I picked up a December 2009 copy of the Smithsonian magazine. The article that caught my eye was titled, “Putting America on the Map.” I remember in my youth learning that our continent got its name America from someone named Amerigo Vespucci. I assumed he was an important explorer, the captain of his ship.
But guess what? He was simply a Florentine merchant in the early 1500s who had taken a couple of voyages across the Atlantic—-one on a Spanish ship and one on a Portuguese one. So what did he do that made his name stand out from the rest of those on the ships? He wrote letters about his trips! He told about endlessly sailing down a coast that went on and on without a break—-even beyond the equator. That eventually led to the conclusion that the earth had four major parts, not just three as people had always believed.
The article went on for pages and pages and talked about seamen, map makers, explorers like Marco Polo, dukes who sponsored the work of scholars—-and a good bit about the ancient Roman scholar Ptolemy, who produced eight volumes on geography and “invented” latitude and longitude. It talked about a huge, mysterious map that scholars wondered about and searched for some 350 years before one man, a Jesuit professor of history and geography, ran across it by accident while searching for something else. The biggest accomplishment of the article was tracing the unnamed author who first applied the Amerigo name to that still little-known world.
Reading an article like “Putting America on the Map” is a real treat for me, though I know many people would have little interest or patience for it. However, I got a surprise. Because we waited so long for the doctor, I started reading snatches of it to my husband, and then a couple more, and then something longer—-and I was surprised how many times he chuckled in appreciation.
So what did Mr. Vespucci think about the honor of his name being applied to a whole new section of the world? The truth is, he most likely never even knew it.