When Christopher Columbus died in 1506, he adamantly believed that the scene of his adventures and exploration was eastern Asia.
This conviction prevented his assigning a new name to the vast continents that by rights should bear his name. His error was the first in a chain of quirky occurrences through which a counterfeit letter eventually provided grounds for the naming of America.
Five years after Columbus anchored his three ships off the Bahamas, a quiet, respectable Florentine merchant and astronomer named Amerigo Vespucci made the first of his four voyages to the Western Hemisphere.
He landed farther south, on what is now South America, and soon perceived the land to be a continent, and a new one. He spent some time among the natives, who astonished him with their nakedness, penchant for taking numerous wives, lack of personal property, and ferocious wars, the reasons for which the navigator could not fathom. His modest and patently unoriginal suggestion for a name for the new territory was Mundus Novus, or New World.
Vespucci liked to describe his experiences and observations in letters to friends back home. Many of these letters apparently went astray and someone, discerning their bestseller potential, sensationalized them and published them as Four Voyages, with Vespucci as author.
A certain letter published by the Academy of the Vosges in Lorraine in April 1507 was read with particular interest by Professor Martin Waldseemuller, a German cartographer then working at the academy.
He promptly published the letter in his new book, Cosmographiae Introductio, commenting “Since these parts have been more extensively explored, and another 4th part has been discovered by Americus Vespucius, I see no reason why it should not be called Amerigo, after Americus, the discoverer, or indeed America, since both Europe and Asia have a feminine form of name from the names of women.”
This book was circulated widely, and Waldseemiiller also published a map of his “America,” showing what is now Brazil. By the time he discovered his error and the injustice done to Columbus, others had accepted the name and, in fact, made it the official one for all the Western Hemisphere.
In the end, both worthy explorers died in ignorance, Columbus of the true nature and extent of his find, Vespucci of the fact that two enormous continents would immortalize his name.