The Naming of America – Where Did the Word Come From?

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Evidence seems to suggest that the New World was known as America before Amerigo Vespucci made his two voyages across the Atlantic.

The fact that Christopher Columbus was not the first European to set foot on the shores of the American mainland is now widely accepted. There are stories of St. Brendan and his monks making it across the Atlantic in their leather boat in the 7th century, but there is no scientific evidence to support them. There is evidence that Leif Ericson landed at some time in the 11th century and for a brief time lived on the mainland. These early explorers had no idea of just what this landmass was.

Columbus and Cabot

To be brutally honest, Columbus was hopelessly lost when he stepped ashore on the small island of Guanahani (now called Watling Island) and named it San Salvador – he thought he had sailed past China and was in the Indian Ocean close to India.

The importance of his voyage was that he had realised that the earth was round and had had the courage to risk his life trying to prove it. He also opened the way for many to follow in his wake to a new world of discovery and opportunity. But he did not set foot on mainland America until 1498, when he explored a short length of the coast of what is now called Venezuela.

John Cabot reached Newfoundland in 1497. He landed there and returned to England with some artifacts to prove his claim. He managed to get funding for another voyage in 1498, but four of the five ships involved, including Cabot’s, were lost with all hands. Cabot was also convinced that he had landed somewhere in Asia.

Amerigo Vespucci and Martin Waldseemuller

Amerigo Vespucci sailed westwards in 1499. In contrast to Columbus and Cabot, he knew where he was going. He was convinced that this new landmass was not Asia but a heretofore unknown continent. He traced the South American coastline as far as Tierra del Fuego and made copious notes of the customs of the people he met. On his return these notes were published.

A German cleric/printer named Martin Waldseemuller read these accounts and printed a map based on Vespucci’s drawings, with the word America emblazoned across the Southern American continent.

(America is the feminine form of Americus, which is the Latinised form of Vespucci’s first name.)

Waldseemuller later changed America to Terra Incognita, but – by then – the name had become etched in the public’s collective mind.

Vespucci never claimed to have named anything after himself, but seems to have used a word in fairly common usage at the time, to describe the new land on the other side of the Atlantic.

Richard Amerike

Richard Amerike was a Welsh businessman of noble descent. His name had been anglicised from the Welsh ap Meryg – son of Meryg ( Merrick is a possible modern form of the name.) In 1497 he held the posts of Sheriff of Bristol and King’s Custom Officer for the same port. He personally funded a very large proportion of the costs of Cabot’s first voyage – and supplied oak trees from his estate for the building of Cabot’s ship, Matthew.

Amerike’s funding of Cabot was not his first venture of this sort. Traditionally Bristol merchants had bought salt cod from suppliers in Iceland. In 1475 King Christian II of Denmark stopped this trade.

Four Bristol merchants were empowered by a 1479 royal charter to find another source of fish. Records indicate that Amerike was one of these merchants. They also suggest that there were cod processing plants in Newfoundland in 1480 – twelve years before Columbus blundered into the Bahamas.

A letter dating from 1481 suggests that Amerike was a major shipper of salt to these facilities – one of which was called Brassyle. Other headlands and bays had also been named.

It is possible that one of them was called America after Richard ap Meryg – a name which Vespucci adopted for the new continent.