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Amerigo’s New World

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Amerigo Vespucci, the man after whom America was named, died 500 years ago this week. The Italian explorer, financier, navigator and cartographer made at least three voyages to the New World, and became Spain’s chief of navigation.

Vespucci was born in 1454 and raised in Florence. He was hired as a clerk by the Florentine commercial house of Medici and became a provisions contractor for expeditions to the Indies. At the invitation of King Manuel I of Portugal, Vespucci took part as an observer in voyages that explored the east coast of South America between 1499 and 1502.

These expeditions became well known in Europe after the publication of two accounts attributed to Vespucci. The narratives of Vespucci’s voyages were much more widely disseminated than those of Christopher Columbus, who was the first to discover America, perhaps because Florence was the chief centre for the distribution of news on the New World.

In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller produced a map of the world in which he named the new continent America after the feminised version of Vespucci’s first name. He feminised the name in light of the fact that the three already known continents, Europe, Asia and Africa, had all been named after women.

Vespucci was not responsible for his name being used instead of Columbus’s, despite charges of theft made against him from some quarters. Columbus was not among the accusers, and the two appeared to remain friends.

King Ferdinand created the position of chief of navigation of Spain in 1508 for Vespucci, with responsibility for planning navigation for voyages to the Indies. He was also commissioned to found a school of navigation to standardise and modernise navigational techniques. Vespucci developed a rudimentary but accurate method of determining longitude that was not improved upon until the advent of more accurate chronometers.

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