The mystery of America's origin

Where did the word "America", the name of the two continents, come from? According to the common theory, it comes from the name of cartographer Amerigo Vespucci who prepared the first maps of the southern part of the New World. However, most likely, this is not the case. The first time this land was called America by John Cabot who was not acquainted with Vespucci.

Today, everyone knows that America was discovered by Christopher Columbus. Yet, few think about the absurdity of this phrase. How could Columbus discover it in 1492, when the word "America" ​​appeared on maps only in 1498? Incidentally, the great navigator called the open land anything but America.

Where did the word "America" come from? Why was it used to name the recently discovered continent?  

It is believed that a new continent (or rather, two) was named in honor of the great Florentine explorer, astronomer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci. This scholar, who served first the Spanish and then Portuguese monarchs as a navigator, made three trips to the shores of the land that later would be called South America - in 1499, 1501 and 1503. During these journeys he made up several maps of the new territory, but the originals have not survived. Some copies were made where the unknown continent is called not America but "New World" (Terra Nova).

Vespucci did not call the land he explored America. There is no mention of this name and in his letters - the only documents that have survived from the legacy of the great navigator.

For the first time the word "America" ​​appeared on the map in 1507 to illustrate the so-called "third voyage to the New World" (Vespucci was mistakenly considered the author), released by a German amateur cartographer, publisher and bookseller Martin Waldseemuller.

This illustration shows (admittedly very schematic) the Americas - both North and South. The southern continent is named the same way it was called by Vespucci - Terra Nova. Next to the north in brackets there is another name - Ameriqosland, that is, "the land of America." In his comments Herr Waldseemuller said that perhaps this name was given to the continent in honor of the merits of Amerigo Vespucci, who worked hard making the map. However, the venerable publisher did not disclose anything else.

The theory of Martin Waldseemuller has at least two weaknesses. First, it is unclear why an unknown admirer of Vespucci named in his honor the northern continent that the Florentine scholar has never seen (he had never been there). Yet, the southern part of the land that the scientist studied very carefully for some reason retained its original name.  

Second, in the tradition of that time, the new lands were never called by the first name of the discoverers (only the last name or a title). The first names used in the geographic range belonged to saints, mythological characters or rulers. However, Amerigo Vespucci was neither one of these characters. It would therefore be correct to call the Continent "Vespucci" or "Vespucciland," but not "America."

Herr Waldseemuller's theory does not hold water. Another puzzle to consider is why the book published by the German publisher contains a general map of the north continent. It could not be a copy of the Spanish or Portuguese maps because the sailors of these countries did not get so far north in those days. The overland travelers from Spain visited there much later.

Apparently, the original of the map could be have been made by only one man - John Cabot, who in 1497 and 1498 reached the land later called North America. In reality this navigator's name was Giovanni Cabot (he, like Columbus, was a native of Genoa). However, his trip took place under the British flag, and therefore in the history of geographical discoveries this man is known as John Cabot.

In fact, just like Christopher Columbus, John Cabot did not discover America and never intended to. The purpose of his trip was to research new fisheries in the North Atlantic. However, since he discovered something new, he had to create a map to make others believe him.

However, the original of the map was not preserved, but the Cabot report on his travels presented to the British monarch Henry the 7th Tudor has a mention of the fact that the map existed and was presented to the king.

The assumption that the northern continent "New World" was copied by Waldseemuller from that document is quite logical. It is also reasonable to assume that the name "land of America" ​​appeared on the illustration from the same source. But who, then, was this mysterious Americ? Was he a sailor who first saw the unknown shores? Not quite. This was the name of the person who funded John Cabot's expedition.

Although Henry the 7th approved the travel of the Genoese navigator, he did not provide funding. Cabot was helped by his friend, a wealthy merchant and head of the royal customs of the city of Bristol, Richard Americas. The latter allocated not only money but also the materials for building ships. Incidentally, in the same report, Americas appears as the Treasurer of the expedition. It is not surprising that Cabot, in gratitude for the assistance, called the new land in honor of his generous sponsor.

Incidentally, this is also documented. The Bristol archive for that year has a record stating that on the day of John the Baptist the country America was discovered by a merchant from Bristol who travelled on the ship called "Matthew." This is the only official document that has been preserved to these days that confirms the discovery of John Cabot.  

The origin of the unusual name "Americas" suggests that it is not the first name but rather a patronymic that means "the son of Merrick."  

Not all historians believe this theory of the origin of the name "America" ​​to be true. The obstacle, as in the case of the alternative version, is the lack of direct evidence - Cabot's map, where the continent is marked with that name. However, it is highly improbable that scientists will ever be able to find it as it was likely lost along with Cabot's ship during his second voyage to the shores of the new continent in 1498. A copy presented to Henry the 7th was lost during the reign of his son Henry the 8th.

Anton Yevseev


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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov