Sometimes the Map is the Territory

I recently read Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America, a rather dry, scholarly debunking of the myth of Amerigo Vespucci, for whom an entire hemisphere’s worth of land was named. The author goes to great lengths to show that Vespucci likely didn’t make all the discoveries he was credited with, and what he did do (celestial navigation) he did badly. Columbus certainly beat him to the Caribbean, and may have beaten him to South America as well. Unlike Columbus’ voyages, Vespucci’s two (or three? or four?) trans-Atlantic trips are poorly documented, and most of the evidence for his South American discoveries comes from letters that are throught to be partial or total fabrications.

Historians today don’t blame Vespucci for stealing Columbus’ thunder. It seems those letters claiming he found the continent of South America first, and knew it was a new continent and not part of Asia, were written by someone else. Who that was is lost to history, but it doesn’t matter any more. When published the letters naturally caused a sensation, and the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller graciously named the new continent after its purported discoverer. His world map of 1507 (below) goes so far as to feature Vespucci and his compass opposite Ptolemy and his sextant, as the two greatest mappers of the world.

Waldseemüller World Map 1507 (part)

The mistake was soon discovered and Waldseemüller retracted his naming of America, but the cat was out of the bag. When Gerardus Mercator’s 1538 world map called the new continents Americae (Americas), there was no going back.

As far as we know, Vespucci, who died in 1512, never saw Waldseemüller’s map and never knew that the continents had been named for him. Imagine! I feel sorry for Columbus. Although he did get a country, a magnificent province (ahem), a national capital, and many other places named after him, I really should be living on North Columbia not North America. However, as few people have heard of Vespucci, and every child knows who sailed the ocean blue in 1492, I think Columbus’ fame is secure no matter what the maps say.