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Date posted:  March 21, 2016

Every schoolchild is taught: Columbus discovered America in 1492, but it was named for Amerigo Vespucci, and people have been asking ever since: Why not for Columbus? The answer and reasoning was brought out in a small publication, Cosmographie Introductio, by a German professor of geography, Martin Waldseemüller, Strassburg, Lorraine, in 1507. The printer was Johann Griniger, a successor of the famous printer, Johann Guttenburg, who had a shop in the same city fifty years earlier.

One of the eleven remaining known books is now in the Gilcrease Rare Books and Documents Collection. The British Museum has three; New York City Library, three; Harvard Univesity, one; and three private collectors own one each.

The Cosmographie Introductio is printed in Latin, has only thirty-two leaves, each 8 by 5-1/2 inches, and is bound in a stiff leather cover. Affixed in the back is an empty pocket which originally held a folded map. Since the longevity is short for folded maps in book pockets of modern geographies, it is hardly surprising the map is not intact. Information concerning the other rare copies denotes their pockets are empty too. And this map was part of the explanation in naming the New World!

As for the missing book-pocket maps there have been numerous claims on the true one. In 1893, Henry N. Stevens, an English cartographer, purchased at a London auction a very imperfect book by Martin Waldseemüller, Strassburg, 1513, in which he found a map with the New World discoveries marked “America.” And in 1901, the Reverend Joseph Fischer, S.J., professor of geography at the Jesuit College of Feldkirk, Austria, claimed to have happened upon a copy of the missing maps “whilst making researches in the library of Prince Waldburg-Wolfegg-Waldsee at Wolfegg Castle in Wurttemberg, Germany.” Both of these maps have been accepted as originals of the earlier Cosmographie Introductio, and prints are available.

Martin Waldseemüller taught at the University of St. Die in Strassburg. He belonged to a kind of literary club devoted to the study of philosophy, cosmography, and cartography, where he teamed with a fellow member and they proposed an updated edition of the Roman scientist Ptolemy’s Geographia. Differences arose over some of the unsettled questions about recent explorations of Portuguese around the coast of Africa and uncertainties beyond the Atlantic. When Waldseemüller became so captivated with the dramatic figure of Amerigo Vespucci, the partnership ended and the result was the Cosmographie Introductio.

The professor included some principles of geometry and astronomy, a description of the cosmos, an essay on winds and climate, then, four letters of Vespucci recounting his voyages to the New World. One of the more described landings has been determined as being at the present Cape Kennedy, Florida. These reputedly embellished letters had been written to a friend in Florence, Italy, who had them published and widely circulated, bringing much publicity to Vespucci. In commenting on the letter writer’s self-styled descriptions of his explorations, mostly in South America, Waldseemüller suggested that the new land be named for Vespucci “... since Europe and Asia got their names from women, this should be Amerigo’s land.” And the accompanying maps had “America” printed on them.

The book became an instant bestseller.  Two editions were put out the first year, 1507, and again in 1508, and in 1509. In 1513, with his former friend, they co-authored the new edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia which carried the latest maps showing the “Americas.” Each copy drove home the idea what the New World should bear the name.

Dispute over the naming was inevitable. For almost 500 years such labels as imposter, prevaricator, and palterer on the one hand, with scientific explorer and successful merchant on the other, have made Vespucci the most controversial character of the Age of Discovery.

Before Professor Waldseemüller died in 1522, he became convinced that Amerigo Vespucci did not deserve the honor after all, and in his last publications deleted the name from his maps. But it was too late. The name persisted and in 1538 Gerard Mercator’s first map of the world clinched the matter when he indicated the northern continent as “North America” and the southern one “South America.”

Admirers of Columbus have long regretted that the two continents in the New World were not named for him. To a large degree Christopher Columbus himself was at fault. After four voyages across the Atlantic he stubbornly insisted until his death that he had found Asia, and his various landings were on islands or minor parts of the Indies, which was his sole mission. The name by which he called the natives—Indians—is a perpetual reminder of his error. On one of his trips Columbus compelled the map-maker and other members of the crew to sign an affidavit stating that Cuba was not an island, but part of the Asian continent.

Columbus was too much of a visionary to be accepted as a leader or administrator. The most solid part of his undertakings was his faith in God and his mission. His colonization projects failed, his men mutinied, and he was shipped back to Spain in chains. Contrary to reports of his old-age poverty, the Spanish Crown did not adhere to the original contract, even to his descendants until 1898.

During the last eight years of Columbus’ life a number of maps were distributed which summarized the latest discoveries in the Western Sea, but for want of more positive proof few specific names were applied. Then the year after the Admiral of the Ocean Seas died — 1506 — came Waldseemüller’s persuasive book.

The late Samuel Eliot Morison, renowned biographer of Columbus, says, “America was named after a man who discovered no part of the New World. History is like that, very chancy.”