Was America Really Named After Vespucci?
There is another claim - a stronger one?
The traditional view is that America takes its name from the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed to South America in 1499. However, a Welshman based in Bristol has at least an equal claim to the honour.
Amerigo Vespucci and America
Amerigo Vespucci was born in Florence (Italy) in 1454. He became a merchant and businessman who worked on behalf of the ruling Medici family. Having been sent by his employer to Spain, he became involved in the provisioning of ships sailing to the recently discovered West Indies.
Vespucci was invited by the King of Portugal to sail as an observer on several voyages to the New World and it was on the first of these (in 1499) that his ship sailed south to visit the coast of what is now Brazil.
On returning from his final voyage (in 1502) he wrote about his explorations; his accounts inspired a German cartographer named Martin Waldseemüller to produce a world map in 1507 on which the name America was used for the area that Vespucci had explored. He later wrote that he used the name in honour of “Americus Vesputius” – using a Latinized version of his name.
In later versions of his map Waldseemüller removed the name and marked the area “Terra Incognita” (unknown land). However, there were enough copies of the original edition of the map in circulation for the name to be generally adopted by other map-makers and publishers.
The claims of Richard ap Meryk
Richard ap Meryk was a late 15th century Welshman; “ap” is a Welsh name element that is similar to “Mac” in Scotland and “O” in Ireland, meaning "son of". He set up business in the English port of Bristol and anglicized his name to Amerike. His trade was mainly in fish, with ships being sent to the cod-rich waters off Newfoundland.
Amerike supported the voyage of John Cabot in 1497 with a large financial contribution. Cabot, like Vespucci, was Italian, but he was commissioned to sail to the coast of North America by the English King Henry VII (who was notably tight-fisted) and therefore set sail from Bristol. He would doubtless have been extremely grateful to a local wealthy merchant who made up the shortfall in funding that he had been left with by King Henry.
When Cabot returned he drew a map, and it is known that both Columbus and Vespucci possessed copies of this map. It is entirely possible that Cabot used the name Amerike on his map, in honour of his Bristol sponsor, but no copy of it has survived.
Which claim is to be believed?
One thing that has always puzzled me is why, if Vespucci is the person after whom the name America was taken by Waldseemüller, the name was not given as “Vesputia”. I cannot think of any other place that is named after a first as opposed to a family name, except in cases of royalty.
It is an interesting coincidence that two people who had a direct interest in exploring the Americas at roughly the same time should have had such similar names. One possibility is that Cabot’s map had the name Amerike (or possibly Amerika) on it, which struck Amerigo Vespucci as a neat way of getting his own name, literally, “on the map”. Seeing Amerike on the land far to the north of his own area of exploration, could Vespucci have scribbled “Americus” on the southern part of Cabot’s map as a way of indicating that the two areas belonged to the same landmass, and that he was responsible for establishing this fact?
Could it be that Waldseemüller was not being entirely truthful when he claimed to be naming the continent after Vespucci, given that Vespucci had already used the name?
Of course this is mere speculation, but it sounds like a distinct possibility to me!
About the author
I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.
I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".