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Novalis Including Hymns to the Night

Novalis, George MacDonald, Thomas Carlyle

Mortal Coils

Aldous Huxley

Further Adventures of an Irish R. M.

Edith Somerville and Martin Ross

The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian

Nations of the World: Hawthorne, J. Spanish America

by Unknown


His name was Amerigo Vespucci, or Americus Vespucius, according as we adopt the Italian or the Latin way of spelling. He came of an ancient and honorable family, which had been wealthy and remained respectable. Amerigo was fairly well educated, and was fond of making Latin quotations—an accomplishment less readily practiced then, tban in these days of appendices to lexicons. But his favorite study, and one in which he achieved eminence, was practical astronomy; no one could surpass him in fixing a latitude or longitude. Geography was also one of his hobbies; and it seems plain that his natural bent was toward travel and exploration. But in his early youth he was taken into the commercial establishment of the Medicis, and that came near being the end of him. He was not heard of, to any effect, until he had nearly reached his fortieth year: he was born in March, 1452, and was therefore at least six and probably sixteen years Columbus's junior. He was agreeable in manner and conversation, keen witted, humorous, and selfcontained. His face was dark and aquiline, and his body strong, and of middle height.

Had the Medicis happened to retain this gentleman at "office-work," it is certain that the world would never have heard of him. Salaried positions are apt to be fatal to genius. But they were engaged in widespread commercial dealings, and about 1490 they selected Amerigo to act as confidential agent for them in Spain. Amerigo took with him his nephew Juan, who subsequently also attained distinction as a map-maker and navigator. While in Barcelona, Amerigo took occasion to engage in some commercial ventures of his own; in 1495 he contracted to furnish cargo for four or five ships for the Atlantic trade. He probably was acquainted with Columbus before this date, and the friendship between the two men was always cordial. Two letters of his, written between 1496 and 1504, to one of the Medicis, and to his friend Soderini, inform us as to his doings during that interval. The letters were published (as was the custom of the day) and were widely read; but, owing to some mistakes in proof-reading and interpretation, have occasioned much trouble to historical investigators. Amerigo himself never bothered his head about them; and he knew no more of the existence of "America" than did Columbus. The letters were unstudied and informal communications of facts, and nothing more; they were never meant as historical documents, and lacked the completeness and explicitness which they would in the latter event have possessed.

The Soderini letter tells about four voyages of the writer, two for Spain, and two for Portugal. In these voyages, Amerigo was not the commander, but the astronomer, or scientific navigator—a necessary office in those days, though sometimes combined with that of commander. The first voyage took place from May 10, 1497, to October 15, 1498; a certain line of coast was explored which was thought, from its length, to be continental. A mistake in transcribing or translating a name afterward led to this voyage being confounded with the second voyage, with the result of much darkening of counsel. The second voyage, with Ojeda and La Cosa, started May 20, 1499, and returned in June, 1500. It followed the north coast of Brazil as far as the Pearl Coast (visited the year before by Columbus) and then on to the Gulf of Maracaibo. The third voyage set out from Lisbon on May 14, 1501, under Portuguese auspices, and returned on September 15, 1502. On this occasion they ran down the Brazilian coast to latitude thirty-four degrees south, and then turned southeast and came upon the island of South Georgia. This voyage aroused attention, for it was in a part of the world hitherto unknown, and the land it discovered was fitted into existing maps with more difficulty than the Indies of Columbus. A fourth voyage attempted to reach the southern end of the South American coast line, but met with disasters, and returned in 1504. In the autumn of this year Amerigo returned to the Spanish service with the rank of captain and a good salary. Two more voyages he made, exploring the Gulf of Uraba; then he married and settled down; being raised in 1508 to the rank of Pilot Major. He died 1512.

Such are the leading incidents of Amerigo's career, in which, certainly, appears nothing discreditable or treacherous. Nevertheless, he has long suffered from posthumous reproach, which is based upon inferences drawn from his own letters above-mentioned—or, to be more exact, from Latin translations of the Italian originals, which were lost. Lost, also, and probably destroyed, is the manuscript of a work which he had in hand, comprising a detailed and scientific account of the same voyages which he described conversationally and informally in the letters. But the Italian text of one of the most important letters—to Soderini—has lately been recovered; and a perusal of that clears up much which had hitherto been obscure and which led to the charges of bad faith and treachery alluded to.

The Latin version of the letter in question was published from a Lorraine press in 1507. The Italian original was found only in 1872. Comparing the two texts, we find that the name of an Indian place mentioned by the writer has been changed in the Latin to quite a different name. Why was this done? Apparently because the transcriber failed to make out the original name, and therefore substituted for it one which he thought better fitted the context. In the Italian, the name is Lariab; in the Latin, it has been changed to Parias. In making this alteration, the Latin transcriber had not been aware that in the language of the Huastecas names of places often end in ab. On the other hand, Parias was already known as the native name of a region on the western Atlantic coast, about two thousand miles distant from the Lariab referred to by Amerigo; and the consequence of the alteration was, of course, to shift the scene of this first voyage beyond recognition. To confirm the error, Vespucci had described a little village built on piles, like "a little Venice " in the Tabasco region; but there was also a village called Venezuela in the Gulf of Maracaibo; and upon the assumption (wholly contrary to the facts) that there could be but one village built on piles after the fashion of a little Venice, the locality of the voyage was violently removed from the Gulf of Mexico, where he placed it by latitude and longitude, and carried to the northern coast of South America. Moreover, Amerigo did, in his second voyage, sail along the northern coast of South America, in 1499: and Columbus had been in the same place the year previous. Thus did it happen—long after the death of both the parties concerned—that Amerigo was accused of having "faked" the story of his first voyage, and made it a false duplicate of the second, for no other reason than that he might be credited with the discovery of a continent one year before his friend Columbus, who was there in 1498.

The preposterousness of the charge becomes evident upon examination. In 1504, when the letter was written, neither Amerigo nor any one else suspected that a new continent had been discovered. He supposed that it was Asia which he was coasting; and that he did visit this coast before Columbus the dates prove. Again, when an inquiry was instituted, in 1515, to determine just what lands Columbus had discovered, in order to settle what revenues his son Diego was entitled to, it was established at this inquiry, beyond doubt, that Amerigo neither made, nor professed to have made, any exploration of the Maracaibo coast prior to 1498. As a matter of fact and record, Amerigo, on his first voyage, sailed for Cape Honduras, and round Yucatan, and found his "little Venice" on the Tabasco shore. This was in 1497. Thence he went by Tampico (which he understood to be called Lariab) to the Huasteca country; and after some stay there, he continued north and west for eight hundred and seventy leagues, and refitted in a fine harbor, which may have been the Chesapeake. Sailing eastward therefrom, he saw the Bermudas, and so returned home.

The coast of Florida was visited by Spaniards before 1502, but the peninsula was confounded by geographers with the island of Cuba in many of their maps. This visit to Florida could only have been made by Amerigo, and, if before 1502, could only have been in 1497, the date he himself assigns to it.

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