Discoverers and Explorers


Amerigo Vespucci was a native of Florence, Italy, and a friend of Columbus. He was an educated man and very fond of study.

At the time in which he lived it was difficult to find the latitude and longitude of places, and few people were able to calculate either correctly. Vespucci was skillful in the work of computing longitude, and he was also well versed in the history of all the voyages that had been made. He was familiar with the facts of astronomy and geography then known, and was well able to conduct the sailing of a ship into strange waters.

It is believed that Vespucci made six voyages. He did not command his own vessels, as Columbus did, but he went with the expedition as assistant or adviser to the captain, keeping records of the voyage and making maps and charts.

In his first voyage, made in 1497, Vespucci reached the coast of Honduras, and sailed into the Gulf of Mexico. Here he found, probably on the coast of Yucatan, a queer little sea village which reminded him of the great city of Venice near his home.

The houses in this village were made of wood, and were built on piles running out into the water. These houses were connected with the shore by bridges, which were constructed in such a manner that they could be drawn up, thus cutting off all connection with the land. In one house Vespucci found six hundred people. A very large family, was it not?

Continuing the voyage around the Gulf of Mexico, Vespucci saw many strange and wonderful things. The natives roasted and ate frightful animals, which from the description given us we now know to have been alligators. They also made cakes, or patties, out of fish, and baked them on red-hot coals. The Spaniards were invited to taste these dainties, and those of the sailors who did so found the strange food very palatable.

After sailing round the coast of Florida, the ships headed northeast, landing every now and then for the purpose of trading with the Indians. The Spaniards, finding but little gold and none of the rich spices for which they were looking, at last decided to return home.

Just before sailing, some friendly Indians helped the Spaniards to make an attack upon a cannibal island. The attack was successful, and about two hundred cannibals were taken prisoners and carried to Spain, where they were sold as slaves.

Vespucci made a second voyage in 1499, in which he sailed down the African coast to the Cape Verde Islands, and then headed his ship almost directly west. He sighted land at Cape St. Roque, and then sailed northwest, exploring the north coast of South America, then called the Pearl Coast. After this he returned to Spain.

Shortly after the return of Vespucci to Spain, he accepted an offer to take service under the Portuguese flag.

In 1501 he set sail from Lisbon with three caravels, under this flag. He reached the coast of South America near Cape St. Roque, and sailed south as far as the South Georgia Islands.

As he proceeded southward, he found the country was inhabited by fierce Indians, who ate their fellow-creatures. He did not like the natives, as you may suppose; but he thought the country was beautiful, with the wonderful verdure and foliage of the tropics, and the queer animals and bright-colored birds.

Great was the joy of Vespucci when he discovered in the forests large quantities of a sort of red dyewood which was prized very highly by Europeans. This wood, which had hitherto been found only in Eastern countries, was called brazil wood; and because of its abundance there, he gave the name Brazil to that part of the country.

The expedition sailed slowly on and at length lost sight of land. It is thought that Vespucci headed the ships southeast because he wished to find out whether there was land or not in the Antarctic Ocean.

As they sailed farther and farther south, the climate became very disagreeable. The winds grew cold and forbidding, fields of floating ice hindered the progress of the vessel, and the nights became very long.

The sailors grew frightened, fearing that they were entering a land of constant darkness. Their fear became greater when a terrific storm arose. The sea grew rough, and the fog and sleet prevented the sailors from seeing whether land was near or not. The land which they had hoped to find now became an added danger.

One day, through the sleet and snow, the sailors saw with terror a rocky, jagged coast in front of them.

This land proved to be the South Georgia Islands, and was a wretched and forlorn country composed of rocks and glaciers, and entirely deserted. For a day and a half they sailed in sight of this frightful shore, fearing each moment that their ship would be cast on the rocks and that they would all perish. As soon as the weather permitted, therefore, Vespucci signaled his fleet, and the ships were headed for home, reaching Portugal in 1502.

This voyage secured Brazil for Portugal, and added greatly to the geographical knowledge of the day.

The ancients had said that no continent existed south of the equator. But the great length of coast along which Vespucci had sailed proved that the land was not an island. It was plainly a continent, and south of the equator.

Vespucci called the land he found the New World. For a time it was also called the Fourth Part of the Earth, the other three parts being Europe, Asia, and Africa. In 1507 a German writer published an account of the discovery, in which he called the new country America, in honor of Americus Vespucius,1 the discoverer.

1 Americus Vespucius is the Latin form of Amerigo Vespucci.

This land was not connected in any way with the discovery of Columbus, for he was supposed to have found Asia.

The name America was at first applied only to that part of the country which we now call Brazil, but little by little the name was extended until it included the whole of the Western Continent.

You will be glad to know that Vespucci, in the time of his success, did not forget his old friend Columbus, who was then poor and in disgrace. Vespucci visited him and did all he could to assist him.

After Vespucci had made three other voyages to the New World, he was given an important government position in Spain, which he held during the remainder of his life.

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