Christopher Columbus is often credited with first “discovering” the Americas for Europe, despite the fact that the poor sap thought he was somewhere in Asia most of the time.
But back in the 16th century, another man who also braved the Atlantic around the same time was believed by many across Europe to have been the first European on New World soil.
Engraving depicting Amerigo Vespucci in the New World, by Theodor de Bry in 1592. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
So it makes sense that North and South America would derive their names from that clever cartographer and adventurer, Amerigo Vespucci.
But it wasn't Vespucci himself who gave this land its current name, nor did some almighty council of elders gather to decide which great individual the unknown New World would be named after.
It was actually by chance that two young German men divined the name “America” that now describes the home of some 970 million people – only to later regret it.
Two German mapmakers, one idea that stuck
Left: Martin Waldseemüller. Right: Matthias Ringmann. Photos: Wikimedia Commons.
Around 1502, a letter by Vespucci entitled Mundus Novus (New World) was published and reprinted across Europe. It described his voyage to South America between 1501 and 1502 and recognized that this was previously unknown land.
The letter became a “little blockbuster” throughout Italy, Germany, France and beyond, and many believed him to be the first European to find this New World, as author Felipe Fernandez-Armesto describes in his book Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America.
By 1507, Martin Waldseemüller, a German cartographer, was tasked by academics in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, France with creating an updated world map, based in part on Vespucci's findings, along with the help of fellow German Matthias Ringmann.
The two wanted to pay tribute to Vespucci and decided to use the feminine version of the navigator's Christian name, Americus.
“Now indeed these regions are fairly well known and Amerigo Vespucci has found another, fourth part, for which I see no reason why anyone could properly disapprove of a name derived from that of Amerigo, the discoverer, a man of sagacious genius,” they wrote in commentary about the map.
“A suitable form would be Amerige, meaning [in Greek] Land of Amerigo, or America, since Europe and Asia have received women's names.”
But rather than going for the Greek ending they made it Latin. So over what we now call Brazil, Waldseemüller wrote for the very first time “America”.
“The naming of America was an act by an individual who had no authority, and it succeeded because it filled a gap and was quickly adopted by other cartographers,” Michael Goodchild, geography professor with the Vespucci Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told The Local.
But not long after the maps became a smash hit, Waldseemüller regretted it and tried to take back the name America.
He ultimately lost confidence in Vespucci as being the first European to set foot in the New World and on a 1513 map, he called the territory “Terra Incognita” or “Unknown Land” instead.
“This land with the adjoining islands was found by Columbus, of Genoa, at the command of the king of Castile,” he wrote in an annotation to the map.
But alas he could not undo the ripple in history that he had set into motion.
As Fernandez-Armesto wrote: “The tradition was secure, the decision irreversible.”