Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492 was an accident. His exploit was based on a simple misunderstanding. He seriously miscalculated the nautical distance between Europe and Asia and hoped to reach Cathay (China) and Xipango (Japan) in a few weeks of sailing. At the time, Columbus had no idea, that the distance was so great and that a vast continent was in his way.
Columbus who was born in Genoa in 1451, was determined to discover the new Atlantic route to the Indies. However, because of his nautical error he did not find the Indies but a “New World.”
Because Columbus had read Marco Polo’s account of his travels in Asia, he thought he knew what to look for. Columbus never knew what he had discovered. He died before it became known that the lands he had reached were a New World.
The land discovered on his first stop (to the Bahamas, Santo Domingo, and Cuba) was beautiful and exotic. The people were docile and men, women and children were naked. Some of them were carrying a few pieces of gold, but not a single recognizable spice. The natives spoke a language unknown to Columbus and his crew. The translator he had brought with him was useless—he knew Latin, Hebrew and Greek—to the point that Columbus felt cheated.
In his letters about the discovery of the New World, Columbus tried to disguise his failure by describing the new land to the Spanish Crown officials, using a high degree of literary imagination. He heard nightingales in Cuba, breathed May air in the tropical November of the Caribbean, and vouched for the existence of Amazons and mermaids, and of men with tails. Consequently, Columbus’s wild imagination created a whole stereotype of the fabulous new world.
It was ironic that while Columbus created a whole new world in the minds of those who read his journals or heard about his travels, he never realized that he had in fact discovered a real New World. He clung to the belief that he had found India. He took back to Spain some of the mildmannered, innocent and handsome Tainos, whom he, as a sincere Christian, intended to convert. When he came to know these “Indians” better, Columbus realized that he had not found India, that he had only made a geographical error.
In his first letter to the king and queen (Ferdinand and Isabel), Columbus had planned the future of the New World: discovery, conversion, and conquest were all one for him.
It was with this letter that many historical changes began to take place, almost immediately, which were recognized by the Spanish crown. It was Columbus’s first letter that gave way to the age of exploration of the New World.
In his first letter Columbus gave the name “The Green and Beautiful Land” to the New World. However, the name “Americas,” was not given for Columbus, but after Amerigo Vespucci. Columbus discovered the New Indies for Europe, but it was the privilege of one of his countrymen (Amerigo Vespucci), to call it the New World, and, eventually, his name (America for Amerigo) was given to the New World.
Amerigo Vespucci was born in 1454 in Florence (three years after Columbus was born in Genoa). It is my belief that he was a crew member, not a navigator. A welleducated man, he was able to read the new Latin Cosmographies published by humanists and mapmakers. By his four voyages to the Indies, Vespucci was able to measure the route more accurately and dared to pursue his explorations farther south.
It was on his third trip (15011502) that he discovered the River Plate estuary and almost reached what is now the Strait of Magallan. Upon completion of this mission, Vespucci became convinced that the Spanish Indies were not part of the Asian Continent but a vast unknown mass of land large enough to be called a New Continent.
Amerigo Vespucci wrote several letters about his explorations and discoveries which became widely published and translated into Latin and most of the important European languages of the day. Some letters were read by Thomas More, who borrowed for his
a few narrative touches (his Raphael is supposed to be one of Vespucci’s companions) and some anthropological information (like the Indians, More’s Utopians have no private property and pay little attention to gold).
In preparing his Cosmographic Introduction (1507), Martinz Waldseenmuller, who had read some of Vespucci’s letters, wrote over the map of the New World the name “America,” in honor of the learned explorer whose information he had used to complete his later map of the New World. Other cosmographers followed Waldseenmuller’s lead. Thereafter, Vespucci’s name has taken precedence over Columbus’. As a result, he was challenged and heavily accused of trying to steal Columbus’ glory by Las Casas, his contemporary. Later on, in the nineteenth century, critics went so far as to claim that almost all his letters were the product of his own fabrication and that he probably did not visit the New World four times.
Although Las Casas challenged Veepucci’s letters, and although these letters were vague and even evasive, they were widely published and accepted throughout the 16th Century.
Of Vespucci’s four consecutive explorations to the New World, the first two (1497 and 1500) were made for the Spanish crown and involved mainly the part of the New World that Pope Alexander VI had reserved to Spain in his 1493 bulletin. The two last voyages (1501 and 1504) were financed by the King of Portugal, after Vespucci had left Spain secretly. He was commissioned, perhaps by the Portuguese Crown, to find a western route to India. To do that, he had to navigate into Spanish waters. It is easy to understand his position if one considers the partial secrecy that even today exists between American and Soviet exploration of the solar system.
Because of Vespucci’s letters, the true dimensions of the New World became known. The 1503 letter was called in its version “Mundus Novus” or “New World,” and presented his own observations of the New Land and the people of the New Indies.
(Vespucci’s letters started a more realistic view of the New World.)
With both Columbus and Vespucci, explorations to the New World became the land of opportunity and the source of new adventures for the Europeans, and after years of explorations, conquests and much pain and suffering, early settlements began to emerge in the New World. As a result of these new settlements, and because none of the early explorers were allowed to bring their wives and children with them, a new mixed race also began to emerge.
The next topic will explore the emerging of a new race known as “Criollo” or “Criollismo” which rapidly, after the early settlements, started to spread throughout the New World.