The naming of America

Some weeks ago I stumbled into an exchange amongst historians on Twitter about the origin of the Name of America and was totally stunned to learn that a very successful English popular historian and television personality is convinced that the theory that America is named for the Bristol trader Richard Ap Meric is much more probable than that it is named for Amerigo Vespucci. Don’t worry if one or other or both of these theories are unknown to you, all will be explained in the following. Given that early modern cartography is one of my special areas of study I could not believe that any professional historian could possibly defend this position and stated the factual historical sources for the Vespucci theory and asked for equivalent sources for the Ap Meric theory, knowing full well that they don’t exist. TV pop historian declined stating that one can’t discuss these things on Twitter. A couple of weeks later the whole started again as Mathew Lyons (@MathewJLyons), one of the participants in the original exchange asked me if I could recommend literature on the subject for Lauren Johnson (@History_Lauren) who was researching the topic in the archives of Bristol. This triggered the whole argument a second time with Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner) defending the Ap Meric theory and TV pop historian, “not sure of worth of discussing this on Twitter!“ This being the case I have decided to discuss the issue here for the general amusement and edification of my readers.

From an academic historical point of view this is unfortunately rather a one sided contest, as is made clear by the available literature that I have consulted. On the Amerigo Vespucci side we have John Hessler, “The Naming of America” and “A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox”, John Hessler and Chet van Duzer, “Seeing The World Anew”, Chet van Duzer, “Johann Schöner’s Globe of 1515” and Kenneth Nebenzahl, “Atlas of Columbus and the Great Discoveries”. On the Richard Ap Meric side we have Rodney Broome, “Terra Incognita: The True Story of How America Got Its Name”. Hessler, van Duzer and Nebenzahl are professional historians of cartography internationally acknowledged as leaders in the field. All I can find out about Rodney Broome is that he was born in Bristol and now lives in Seattle. He doesn’t seem to be a historian of any sort as far as I can ascertain. There don’t appear to be any works by professional historians outlining or supporting the Ap Meric claim. There is a second book on the subject by a Peter MacDonald, “Cabot And The Naming Of America: Dawn Of Arrival, Newfoundland, June 1497”, which appears to have been published by the author himself, (PetMac?) and is out of print. I’ve ordered a second-hand copy from England, it doesn’t appear to have been available in Germany, but it hasn’t arrived yet. There is an essay on the subject by MacDonald on the BBC website. Like Broome MacDonald doesn’t appear to be a professional historian.

As it is the accepted academic point of view I will start with the Vespucci theory. At the beginning of the sixteenth-century there was a school of cartographers working in the Vosgean Gymnasium at Saint-Dié-des-Vorges in Lorraine, under the patronage of Duke René II. The two principal members of this group were Martin Waldseemüller (c.1475–1520) and Matthias Ringmann (c.1482–1511). In 1507 they published both a large wall map of the world printed on twelve sheets and a small globe containing the same map.

Waldseemüller World Map 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)

Waldseemüller World Map 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)

Only one single copy of the map still exists and none of the globes although five sets of printed gores are still extant.

Waldseemüller Globe Gores 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)

Waldseemüller Globe Gores 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)


In his diary Johannes Trithemius records buying copies of the map and the globe in the year of publication. As was common practice amongst cartographers of the period the map was accompanied by a so-called cosmographia explaining the basics of cartography and how to use the map, known as the Cosmographiae Introductio. Its full title is “Cosmographiae introductio cum quibusdam geometriae ac astronomiae principiis ad eam rem necessariis. Insuper quatuor Americi Vespucii navigationes. Universalis Cosmographiae descriptio tam in solido quam plano, eis etiam insertis, quae Ptholomaeo ignota a nuperis reperta sunt.”(Translation: Introduction to Cosmography With Certain Necessary Principles of Geometry and Astronomy To which are added The Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci A Representation of the Entire World, both in the Solid and Projected on the Plane, Including also lands which were Unknown to Ptolemy, and have been Recently Discovered).

The map is justifiably regarded as an important historical document because it is the earliest map, which uses the name America for the recently discovered lands on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. North and South America are drawn as two islands that bear little resemblance to the real continents and the southern island bears the name America. In Chapter 8 of the Cosmographiae Introductio, The Climatic Zones that Divide the Earth, Ringmann, the author, writes:

The fourth part of the earth we have decided to call Americe, the land of Amerigo we might even say, or America because it was discovered by Amerigo.

Further on in Chaper 9, Rudiments of Cosmography, he explains why they used this name for the recently discovered territory:

Today these parts of the earth [Europe, Africa and Asia] have been more extensively explored than a fourth part of the world, as will be explained in what follows, and that has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci. Because it is well known that Europe and Asia were named after women, I can see no reason why anyone would have good reason to object to calling this fourth part Amerige, the land of Amerigo, or America, after the man who discovered it. The location of this part and the customs of its people can be clearly understood from the four voyages of Amerigo Vespucci that we have placed after this introduction.

Waldseemüller and Ringmann possessed a French edition of The Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci, a popular bestseller doing the rounds of Europe at the time, sent to Duke René by the King of Portugal, which, translated into Latin by Johannes Basinus Sendarcurius, another of the St Dié scholars, was appended to the Cosmographiae Introductio. It is clear that Waldseemüller and Ringmann, unaware of Columbus, erroneously named the new territory after Vespucci believing him to be its discoverer, giving his name a feminine ending in line with Europe and Asia. Later they would realise their error and on their world map the Carte Marina, a portulan style, sea chart published in 1516, they withdrew the name America but by then the damage had been done.

Waldseemüller Carta Marina 1516 (Library of Congress)

Waldseemüller Carta Marina 1516 (Library of Congress)

Both the 1507 world map and the Cosmographiae Introductio are accepted as genuine historical artefacts with no doubt about their authenticity. This being the case it is very clear that anybody offering an alternative origin for the name, America, has to accuse Waldseemüller and Ringmann of lying. They state very clearly that they have chosen to name this newly discovered land America and why they have done so. The opponents of the Vespucci theory don’t accuse them of lying but try to fudge the issue by suggesting that Waldseemüller heard the name America elsewhere and not knowing its origins attributed it to Vespucci. This explanation contradicts Ringmann’s very clear explanation in the Cosmographiae Introductio and, in my opinion, demonstrates very clearly the shaky ground on which the opponents are manoeuvring.

I will now turn to the Ap Meric theory based on the account presented by Rodney Broome. Whereas the books of Hessler and van Duzer are solid pieces of academic history Broome’s book is a collection of unfounded speculations, conjectures and straightforward false statements, which contains not one single piece of factual evidence that America was named after Richard Ap Meric. So what does it contain? To detail everything that is false in Broome’s book would produce a book length post so I will just sketch the Ap Meric theory and then point out a couple of Broome’s errors or false statements.

Richard Ap Meric, a Welsh name anglicised to Amerike, was a successful Bristol trader who was one of the investors in the voyages to America made by John Cabot from the port of Bristol. The theory is that Cabot named part, or all, of his discovery after Amerike on the map(s) he made and that this map/these maps are the origin of the name America. So far, so good. This theory suffers from a few problems. Firstly, although he may have made maps of his discoveries in North America none of them has survived so we have no idea what they contained. Secondly there exists no other source of any kind suggesting that Cabot named anything at all after Richard Amerike, end of story!

I could end this post here. We have a very clear well established historical fact that Waldseemüller and Ringmann named America in 1507 after Amerigo Vespucci believing erroneously that he was its first discoverer. On the other hand we have an unsubstantiated conjecture that John Cabot named America after Richard Amerike, a Bristol trader, who was one of the backers of his voyages of discovery. I really don’t see how anybody could claim, as did the TV pop historian in my original Twitter encounter, that the Ap Meric theory is much more probable than the Vespucci theory. As stated above I will however look at some of the tactics used by Broome to try and shore up this rather extraordinary claim.

Broome starts his book with the Waldseemüller/Ringmann naming of America on the world map of 1507 and in the Cosmographiae Introductio but invents a totally spurious personal relationship between Vespucci and the two German cartographers with the former sending them his maps of the Americas on which they then base their map. This is all justified with statements such as “some historians believe” without giving any sources for the “some historians”. This is complete rubbish and is made even more bizarre by his then naming the real sources for the American portions of the map the world chart by Nicolo Caveri from 1505 and the written descriptions from Vespucci’s The Four Voyages.

Carta Caveri 1505 (Wikipedia Commons)

Carta Caveri 1505 (Wikipedia Commons)

Throughout the book Broome follows a strategy of misinformation in order to support his central highly speculative theory that I will outline shortly. Before I leave his version of the Vespucci theory Broome delivers a wonderful piece of misinformation on page 6 of his book, he writes: Waldseemüller was unable to account for the origin of the name America! It is very obvious from the passages that I quoted from the Cosmographiae Introductio above that Waldseemüller and Ringmann coined the name themselves so were very able indeed to account for its origins.

Broome’s central argument, which he builds up throughout the book interspersed with general capitals on the port of Bristol, the traders of that city, the voyages of Columbus etc., is based around the three voyages of John Cabot. Having persuaded Henry VII and the traders of Bristol to support him Cabot made three voyages to America in 1497-98. The first voyage, with a single ship, was unsuccessful he being forced to turn back by bad weather. On the second voyage, again with a single ship, he reached and landed somewhere on the North American coast, exactly where is still the subject of heated debate. Finding evidence of habitation and scared of being attacked he re-boarded his ship and spent one month cruising southwards along the coast making a crude map before returning to Europe, first making landfall in France before returning north to Bristol. Flushed with success he now set out in 1498 with a fleet of five ships. One ship, damaged in a storm, returned to Ireland and the other four ships disappeared without trace. One of the accounts of the first two voyages is contained in the so-called Johan Day letter, sent by this Bristolian presumably to Columbus. I say presumably because the letter is addressed to a The Lord Grand Admiral, who is assumed to be Columbus. This letter contained a map of Cabot’s initial discoveries and this information almost certainly flowed into the early charts and maps of America such as the Caveri map and the earlier world chart of Juan de la Cosa, of which more later. None of these earlier maps and charts contains the name America or any variation thereof.

Broome’s theory hinges on the third voyage. There has been much speculation concerning the fate of this voyage but very, very little substantiated fact. Broome wants to have Cabot sailing all the way down the coast of North America, mapping as he goes, right on into middle America were he meets the fleet of Alonso de Ojeda, whose pilot and cartographer was Juan de la Cosa and navigator was Vespucci, in 1499. In Broome’s theory Ojeda fought and defeated the English fleet and Cosa came into possession of Cabot’s map the source of the name America based on the name Amerike. The passage where Broome sets up this meeting is interesting for its nested speculations and I repeat it in full.

A Spanish historian, Martin Fernandez de Navarette, wrote in 1829:

 It is certain that Hojeda in his first voyage encountered certain Englishmen in the vicinity of Coquibacoa. [emphasis in original]

Other than the Cabot expedition, there were no other English expeditions in that area at that time. Navarette’s source is unknown, but he was a widely respected historian in his day.

 If this is what happened Amerigo Vespucci and Juan de la Cosa may have been present at this ghastly deed, and Cabot’s maps could have been taken in the encounter. This would have been the second time that Cabot’s extraordinary efforts to produce a map of the New World would wind up in the hands of the Spanish.

 From Venezuela, Hojeda and de la Cosa sailed north with two of the ships and joined Columbus at the settlement he had established at Hispaniola. The ships had to be laid up to repair damage they had suffered, some say from the battle with Cabot.

What we have here is an unsubstantiated report from a historian writing in the nineteenth-century, more than tree hundred years after the events, of an encounter between Ojeda and some anonymous Englishmen. There is no account of a battle, there is no account of maps taken, there is in fact nothing to back up Broome’s story in anyway what so ever. I like the “some say” at the end. Who says?

Juan de la Cosa produced a map of the Americas in 1500 and this according to Broome is the proof of his theory.

Carta Cosa 1500 (Wikipedia Commons)

Carta Cosa 1500 (Wikipedia Commons)

He writes:

De la Cosa must have used Cabot’s charts to prepare his map. The coastline west of Coquibacoa is drawn with surprising accuracy, in spite of the fact that de la Cosa had not ventured that far west.

Even if Broome were correct about the accuracy and the lack of westward voyaging of de la Cosa there is no evidence that the knowledge used in the construction of this chart comes from a highly hypothetical chart of Cabot’s. However the first two claims are not true. Kenneth Nebenzahl describes the delineation of the chart, as crude not “surprisingly accurate” and de la Cosa had been further west. De la Cosa made a total of five voyages to the Americas before he drew his chart. He took part in the first three Columbus voyages, in fact the Santa Maria was his ship, the voyage with Ojeda described above and a fifth voyage in 1500 during which he mapped Colombia and Panama, i.e. the coastline west of Coquibacoa. It is somewhat superfluous to point out that the de la Cosa Chart does not contain the name America.

One rather desperate attempt made by Broome towards the end of the book, displays either his ignorance of the material or his deliberate selection of the same to create a false impression on pages 111 and 112, referring to now lost 15th and 16th century Kalendars, he writes the following:

A summary of these Kalendars was made in 1565 by Maurice Toby, and in this compilation he uses the name “America”:

“The land of America was found by the merchants of Bristow.”

Under the mayoral year of 1496-1497, Toby recorded [… …]

“This year [1497] on St John the Baptist’s Day [June 24th], the land of America was found by the merchants of Bristow, in a ship of Bristowe called the “Mathew,” the which said ship departed from the port of Bristowe the 2nd May and came home again the 6th August following.”

Broome of course concludes that because Toby uses and is familiar with the term America it must have been contained in the original documents that he is referencing. This is by no means necessarily the case.

The name America was adopted very quickly by all the leading European cosmographers and cartographers. Johannes Schöner used it on his printed terrestrial globe in 1515 and in the accompanying cosmographia, his Luculentissima, where he repeats the Ringmann/Waldseemüller derivation of the term. He would go on to use the name on his manuscript globe from 1520 and his printed globe from 1533. Schöner’s globes were very successful and were sold all over Europe, including London as is shown by their presence in Holbein’s picture The Ambassadors that was painted in London in 1533.

Schöner Globe, Holbein's The Ambassadors 1533 (Wikipedia Commons)

Schöner Globe, Holbein’s The Ambassadors 1533 (Wikipedia Commons)

Peter Apian used the name on his world map of 1520 and in his Cosmographia of 1524. This book, under the editorship of Gemma Frisius from the 2nd edition of 1529, had at least thirty-two editions in many different languages throughout the sixteenth-century and was the most widely disseminated and read textbook on the subject in that century. Frisius used the name on his globes, as did his pupil Mercator on his highly successful terrestrial globe of 1541. Mercator was the first to use the name for both North and South America. Sebastian Munster used the name in his Cosmographia, first published in 1544, a book, which had twenty-four editions throughout the century and was translated into many different languages, including English. Selling over 120 000 copies in total, it was the biggest selling book of the sixteenth century. Many other lesser known cosmographers and cartographers also adopted the name in their published works. By 1550 America had become the accepted name for the new continent throughout Europe, with the exception of Spain, where this name was well known but rejected in favour of the name New India. Writing in 1565 about Cabot’s discovery Toby was almost certainly just using the current widespread name for the new continent.

On the subject of the reliability of nineteenth-century historians I will close with Broome’s comments on the globe of Martin Behaim, which lives just down the road from where I am typing this. The Behaim Globe is the oldest surviving terrestrial globe in the world and was created under the supervision of Martin Behaim in Nürnberg between 1491 and 1493. Broome claims that it is based on the Toscanelli map, the famous map commissioned by the Portuguese that helped convince the Spanish that Columbus’ idea of sailing west to the Spice Islands was viable, and that both Columbus and Cabot consulted it before undertaking their voyages. None of this is true. The Behaim globe is not based on the Toscanelli map and it was not consulted by either Columbus or Cabot. That Columbus consulted the Behaim globe before setting off on his first voyage is a fairy story put in the world by “widely respected” German historians in the nineteenth century to make Behaim seem more important having played a leading role in the discovery of America. This small aspect of his book is all too typical for Broome’s very uncritical use of sources. He repeats myths and wild speculations as historical facts if they fit the story he is desperately trying to construct usually without giving sources or as above with such phrases as “some say”!

We have two theories for the origin of the name America. One is a solidly substantiated theory on which there is nothing to criticise, the other is a piece of pure speculation without the slightest shred of real evidence to support it. I leave it to my readers to decide which one is more probably true.



Filed under History of Cartography, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

35 responses to “The naming of America

  1. I’ve always taken it as obvious that the name is derived from Amerigo Vespucci. I probably got that from my grade school teacher many years ago, and I have not done any historical research on it. So I guess I’m in no position to judge.

    I guess life can be complicated for historians, who have to deal with these attempts at historical revisionism.

    By contrast, in mathematics the old mathematics is still good. And in computer science, everything is revised with each new generation of chips.

  2. Baerista

    I’m supposed to teach a course related to this topic next year, so I read your excellent post with great interest. Rodney Broome is clearly a flippin’ asshat, but who is this TV pop historian whose name you seem unwilling to divulge? I’d be interested, because the BBC’s increasingly dismal history programming has long been a pet peeve of mine.

  3. But, the History Channel says the name America was a secret Masonic code something, something Templar treasure mumble runestone something Atlantis pyramid energy.

  4. Baerista

    Cheers, Thony 😀

  5. THanks for the post, that has firmed up my knowledge of the naming of America. But I can’t find the requisite tweets on twitter, no matter how I search, so still don’t know which popular historian to avoid.

  6. Gee, my grade school teacher told us it was named after Leif Eriksson.

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  8. Phillip Helbig

    What do you think of the book The Fourth Part of the World”, about (among many other things) the Waldseemüller map?

    • Phillip Helbig

      What do you think of the book The Map That Changed the World, about (among many other things) the Waldseemüller map?

    • I have The Fourth Part of the World on order but I haven’t read it yet.
      With The Map That Changed the World do you mean the Simon Winchester book about William Smith? I read it years ago but can’t remember Waldseemüller being in it!

  9. Phillip Helbig

    Sorry! When thinking of the Fourth, the title of the other book popped into my mind, so I wrote that first then corrected it. Because WordPress is behaving badly again (happens from time to time), I had copied the comment before correcting it. I then re-posted it to correct the italic-tag error, but reposted the uncorrected version!

    I enjoyed both books. I’m not a real geology fan (though I always enjoyed Stephen Jay Gould’s geology stuff, such as Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle), but the Winchester book was a real page-turner. Of course, no Forestseamiller in it! The Fourth Part of the World I really enjoyed. Of course, since I’m not a historian, it is possible that I could enjoy something even if it is not correct! It has a lot of background, most of which was new to me, on the history of maps and so on. As I used to live quite near to where the Ebstorf map was found, this was quite interesting, as I recognized some of the nearby places. (These maps were like the famous “New Yorker” maps, where the local corner shop is bigger than a distant continent.) (The German version of the Wikipedia article seems more up-to-date than the English one regarding the author of the map.)

    • My step mother lives in the village where William Smith lived and there are quite a few local experts who say that the Winchester book is very inaccurate.P.S. I know all about the Ebstorfer Weltkarte

  10. Steve

    I don’t mean to be nit picky but there are a couple of errors about Amerigo Vespucci in your article that need to be corrected.

    1. The Four Voyages wasn’t actually written by Vespucci. It was a fake written to cash in after the success of Vespucci’s Mundo Novus.

    2. Vespucci wasn’t a navigator on Alonso de Ojeda’s 1499 expedition, his first trip. Vespucci first learned about navigation while on this trip. His purpose on the expedition was probably as expert on pearls (based on Vespucci’s previous experience as a merchant and jeweler) that Ojeda had hoped to find based on Columbus’s descriptions of numerous pearls.

    For more information I would recommend Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s biography, Amerigo.

  11. I am actually well aware that there is a major dispute amongst historians as to how much, if any, of The Four Voyages is genuine. However this is a very complex subject that requires careful handling and not something that can be dealt with in a side comment in a post. As Waldseemüller and Ringmann very obviously believed the pamphlet to be genuine, its true status is not relevant to the subject that I dealt with in my post and so I deliberately left that problem out of my considerations.

    The same considerations apply to Vespucci’s actually status or role on Alonso de Ojeda’s 1499 expedition.

    • Steve

      A post about the authenticity of The Four Voyages is probably outside the scope of a blog about the history of science.

      However, I would love to see your take on Vespucci’s longitude calculations, especially in regards to his first voyage with Ojeda where he supposedly used celestial observations at sea (before telescopes!) which I feel were, well, made up bunk. But the land based longitude estimate for the Cape Verde Islands made during his second (or third) trip were relatively accurate. Also I’d be interested in hearing how you think Vespucci fits into the larger context of navigation/astronomy at the the time.

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  17. It is scary how –in the US at least– people just say anything without qualification. Whatever idea they “like” is present as truth and one person’s truth is equal to another’s… somehow. In Japanese, when something is hearsay or is very tentative at best, or even probable, all these states of knowing are qualified by verb endings or grammar so the listener understands… Speaking in English, especially in the US right now, has started to feel like a free for all… by the way, did you read this popular history?

    • I own a copy of The Fourth Part of the Worldbut I have never read all of it. Those bits that I have read seem to be reasonably good and I would probably recommended the book to anybody who wanted a single volume popular book on the subject.

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  22. Matt

    It seems to me, my dear friend, that while Broome’s anecdotal evidence is spurious, your conclusions are equally so. You offer nothing as to how de la Cosa/ W/ or Ringmann came up with n. American cartographic knowledge; unfortunately your argument is extremely lacking in this regard. From my rendering of your article, one of two possibilities exist: either Cabot returned to England possessing and then disseminating such knowledge, or as your not-so-esteemed counter-arguer suggest, Cabot’s charts were deprived of him during his travels, along with his life. I am no historian either but hold that you argument is mired by partiality, a human trait carried by us all. My suggestion: take off the partiality specs and then take another look!

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