Amerigo

Clear Eyes provides a realistic image of the discovery of the Americas. Like all of us, Columbus had his faults, but he was a brave man with a deep sense of purpose.

And although he got to the wrong place, and insisted from 1492 until his death on May 20, 1506, that he had discovered the Indies, another man ended up lending his name to the newly-found land masses.

As often happens, this fellow—an Italian merchant by the name of Vespucci—made use of both his marketing skills and political connections to elbow his way into history.

But before we come to that, let’s spend a little time looking at continental history. The original model proposed by the Greek philosophers considered Europe to the north and west, Asia to the east, and Libya to the south. At the center of it all, was—duh—Greece.

Unfortunately Columbus messed up the jigsaw when he reached America, but since the admiral of the ocean sea pitched his find as part of Asia, the European geographers insisted on the three-block model, although Libya became Africa—it’s frequent to find the toponym Libya marked on XVth century charts.

The Portuguese discoveries didn’t generate any controversy in the classification of land masses, since the Lusitanians had clearly rounded Africa and arrived in Asia—first Calicut, on the Indian west coast, and then rapidly Malacca, Timor, and the Middle Kingdom—the Chinese and Portuguese words for tea are identical: and chá.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the two little words is that the upward tone used in Mandarin is reflected in the acute accent of the Portuguese spelling.

In the mid-sixteenth century a well-known French world geography book, La Division du Monde, made no mention of the Americas, and the Spanish Empire insisted on the Orbis Terrarum, a contiguous land mass model centered on the Eastern Mediterranean, well into the seventeenth century.

Eastern seaboard of South America from the Cantino planisphere, drawn by Portuguese cartographers at the start of the XVIth century

Eastern seaboard of South America from the Cantino planisphere, drawn by Portuguese cartographers at the start of the XVIth century

This victory of policy over reality completely ignored the fact that a separate continent appeared in charts made by the Portuguese Duarte Pacheco by the early fifteen hundreds, building on maps from the turn of the century—the Cantino map plainly shows both an Oceanus Occidentalis (the Atlantic), and a (Pacific) Oceanus Orientalis to the east of a rather distorted China.

Somehow, in the middle of the muddle, America was named. Vespucci had settled in Spain, business success was indifferent, and he decided to go walkabout. If the historical record of the fifteenth and sixteenth century naval explorations is challenging, then the role of Amerigo the Italian borders on the incredible.

Vespucci communicated his ‘explorations’ in a series of letters to the famous, notably Lorenzo Piero Francesco di Medici. Clements Markham, of the Hakluyt Society, translated the letters in the 1890s, using as his source the 1505-1506 original from Florence.

I have great regard for Uncle Clemens, having compared his translation of the diaries of Columbus with the Spanish original. My command of Castilian is certainly good enough to read the diaries, although my spoken Spanish improves after two cups of tinto.

The president of the Hakluyt Society had a very British sense of humor, which finds its way into the Introduction. Morigo Vespuche, as he was known in Spain, discovered his penchant for discovery at the ripe age of fifty.

His own reasons for this complete change in his old age were that he had already seen and known various changes of fortune in business; that a man might at one time be at the top of the well and at another be fallen and subject to losses; and that it had become evident to him that a merchant’s life was one of continual labour, with the chance of failure and ruin. It was rather late in life to make these discoveries, and it may fairly be suspected that there was some more concrete reason for his change of life which he concealed under these generalities.

Markham felt the need to present Vespucci’s letters to a wider Anglo-Saxon audience, because he knew the Italian was a fake. His opinion is well supported historically, right from the times of Pilot Juan de la Cosa. I too struggle to believe that Amerigo was anything more than a supplier of beef to the caravels of Columbus.

A cartographic image of South America, as fanciful as some of Vespucci's descriptions.

A cartographic depiction of South America, as fanciful as some of Vespucci’s descriptions.

Apart from accusations related to the timing of his travels, the letters of Vespucci are vacuous in the extreme. Here is an example from the third letter.

Having taken on board what we required, we weighed our anchors and made sail, taking our way across the vast ocean towards the Antarctic Pole, with some westing. From the day when we left the before-mentioned promontory, we sailed for the space of two months and three days. Hitherto no land had appeared to us in that vast sea. In truth, how much we had suffered, what dangers of shipwreck, I leave to the judgment of those to whom the experience of such things is very well known.

The letter provides no information on provisions, details of the voyage are as rare as a virgin in Vegas, and the expression ‘some westing’, from a man who purported to be a most competent pilot, is risible.

Now let’s see what he found, after sixty-seven (?) days at sea—which minus the three days above gives us two months of thirty-two days each.

We knew that land to be a continent, and not an island, from its long beaches extending without trending round, the infinite number of inhabitants, the numerous tribes and peoples, the numerous kinds of wild animals unknown in our country, and many others never seen before by us, touching which it would take long to make reference.

So there we have it. A continent defined by long beaches, with a perplexing variety of things Vespucci is unable to describe. Markham believes, as I do, that the letters are a crock of shit.

In each ear they had three perforations bored, whence they had other stones and rings suspended. This custom is only for the men, as the women do not perforate their faces, but only their ears. Another custom among them is sufficiently shameful, and beyond all human credibility. Their women, being very libidinous, make the penis of their husbands swell to such a size as to appear deformed; and this is accomplished by a certain artifice, being the bite of some poisonous animal, and by reason of this many lose their virile organ and remain eunuchs.

The good Italian’s descriptions of the locals are amusing to say the least—nothing like a spot of sex to spice up a tale, as your devoted servant well knows. But these spices are dropped into an empty pot, and sizzle into nothing like the policy proposals of Mr. Trump.

By contrast to Vespuche’s drivel, The log of Columbus, or the diary of Álvaro Velho, who accompanied Vasco da Gama, provide a wealth of detail, including the distances sailed, capes and rivers explored, shipboard life, fauna and flora, and astronomic observations.

Vespucci’s fanciful tales exonerate him from any connection with the discovery of the Americas. There’s no doubt he sailed with the Spanish, but there the truth ends.

It’s extraordinary that his name was used to christen not one but two continents.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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