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Amerigo Vespucci

Vespucci, Amerigo (Latin, Americus Vespucius) (1454-1512), Italian navigator, born in Florence, who claimed that on his first voyage (1497-1498) he reached the North American mainland before any other explorer. In 1495 he took over the business of a merchant in Seville who had furnished supplies to ships voyaging to the West Indies. He later set out for the New World himself. He left accounts and maps of four voyages.

Although most scholars discredit many of his claims and seriously doubt whether there was a first voyage, they tend to agree that Vespucci did, on the expedition led (1499-1500) by the Spanish soldier Alonso de Ojeda, explore a large section of the northern coast of South America and, on a subsequent voyage, may have also explored part of that continent's eastern coast as far south as the Rio de la Plata. The German geographer and cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, who translated Vespucci's narrative in 1507, suggested that it might be proper to name the new continent America, an adaptation of the explorer's given name of Amerigo, because Vespucci had been the first European explorer to state that South America was a "new" continent, and not a part of Asia. Applied first to the southern continent, the name gradually came into use as that of the two western continents after it appeared on a planisphere published by Waldseemüller in 1516.

Vespucci's First Voyage 1497

[We] made towards the land, and before we reached it, had sight of a great number of people who were going along the shore, by which we were much rejoiced: and we observed that they were a naked race. They shewed themselves to stand in fear of us. I believe (it was) because they saw us clothed and of other appearance (than their own). They all withdrew to a hill, and for whatsoever signals we made to them of peace and of friendliness, they would not come to parley with us… [W]e put to land with the boats, and sprang on shore full 40 men in good trim. And still the land's people appeared shy of converse with us, and we were unable to encourage them so much as to make them come to speak with us. And this day we laboured so greatly in giving them of our wares, such as rattles and mirrors, beads, spalline, and other trifles, that some of them took confidence and came to discourse with us. And after having made good friends with them, the night coming on, we took our leave of them and returned to the ships.

… The next day when the dawn appeared we saw that there were infinite numbers of people upon the beach, and they had their women and children with them… And before we reached the land, many of them jumped into the sea and came swimming to receive us… for they are very great swimmers, with as much confidence as if they had for a long time been acquainted with us; and we were pleased with this their confidence. For so much as we learned of their manner of life and customs, it was that they go entirely naked, as well the men as the women…

They are of medium stature, very well proportioned. Their flesh is of a colour that verges into red like a lion's mane; and I believe that if they went clothed, they would be as white as we. They have not any hair upon the body, except the hair of the head which is long and black and especially in the women, whom it renders handsome. In aspect they are not very good-looking, because they have broad faces, so that they would seem Tartar-like. They let no hair grow on their eyebrows, nor on their eyelids, nor elsewhere, except the hair of the head: for they hold hairiness to be a filthy thing. They are very light footed in walking and in running, as well the men as the women; so that a woman recks nothing of running a league or two, as many times we saw them do. And herein they have a very great advantage over us Christians. They swim (with an expertness) beyond all belief, and the women better than the men: for we have many times found and seen them swimming two leagues out at sea without anything to rest upon…

These people have neither King, nor Lord, nor do they yield obedience to any one, for they live in their own liberty… Amongst those people we did not learn that they had any law, nor can they be called Moors nor Jews, and (they are) worse than pagans: because we did not observe that they offered any sacrifice. Nor even had they a house of prayer. Their manner of living I judge to be Epicurean: their dwellings are in common, and their houses (are) made in the style of huts, but strongly made, and constructed with very large trees, and covered over with palm-leaves, secure against storms and winds: and in some places (they are) of so great breadth and length, that in one single house we found there were 600 souls. And we saw a village of only thirteen houses where there were four thousand souls…

Their riches consist of birds' plumes of many colours, or of rosaries which they make from fishbones, or of white or green stones which they put in their cheeks and in their lips and ears, and of many other things which we in no wise value they use to trade, they neither buy nor sell. In fine, they live and are contented with that which nature gives them. The wealth that we enjoy in this our Europe and elsewhere, such as gold, jewels, pearls, and other riches, they hold as nothing. And although they have them in their own lands, they do not labour to obtain them, nor do they value them. They are liberal in giving, for it is rarely they deny you anything: and on the other hand, liberal in asking, when they shew themselves your friends…

And (now) desiring to depart upon our voyage, they made complaint to us how at certain times of the year there came from over the sea to this their land, a race of people very cruel, and enemies of theirs; and (who) by means of treachery or of violence slew many of them, and ate them; and some they made captives, and carried them away to their houses, or country: and how they could scarcely contrive to defend themselves from them, making signs to us that (those) were an island-people and lived out in the sea about a hundred leagues away. And so piteously did they tell us this that we believed them. And we promised to avenge them of so much wrong. And they remained overjoyed herewith…

At the end of the seven days we came upon the islands, which were many, some (of them) inhabited, and others deserted. And we anchored at one of them: where we saw a numerous people who called it Iti…We made for land: where we found (assembled) about 400 men, and many women, and all naked… They… seemed right warlike men; for they were armed with their weapons, which are bows, arrows, and lances and most of them had square wooden targets; and bore them in such wise that they did not impede the drawing of the bow. And when we had come with our boats to about a bowshot of the land, they all sprang into the water to shoot their arrows at us and to prevent us from leaping upon shore… And so much did they persist in preventing us from landing, that we were compelled to play with our artillery. And when they heard the explosion, and saw one of them fall dead, they all drew back to the land…

And having armed ourselves as best we could, we advanced towards the shore, and they sought not to hinder us from landing, I believe from fear of the cannons. And we jumped on land, 57 men in four squadrons, each one (consisting of) a captain and his company and we came to blows with them. And after a long battle (in which) many of them (were) slain, we put them to flight, and pursued them to a village having made about 250 of them captives, and we burnt the village, and returned to our ships with victory and 250 prisoners, leaving many of them dead and wounded, and of ours there were no more than one killed, and 222 captive slaves. And reached the port of Calis (Cadiz) on the 15th day of October, 1498, where we were well received and sold our slaves. Such is what befell me, most noteworthy, in this my first voyage.

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