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Why is America called America?

Please note the following relates more to the continent of America than The United States.

Just about everybody knows that Christopher Columbus is credited with discovering America (even though the Vikings had settled and Romans and Egyptians may also have visited). So why is the continent named America and not Colombia? Several theories exist, the most likely centering around the Florentine Merchant Amerigo Vespucci.

Columbus made four journeys to America. His first landing was on an island in the Bahamas, which he called San Salvador. Which island this was is uncertain. He then went onto discover Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). In the course of his four voyages, he discovered various islands and the coast of Venezuela, this being on his third voyage in 1498. He only ever discovered continental South America as he always tended to head south - he never explored much toward the North so did not discover North America.

Columbus was obsessed with finding a westerly route to China, he devoted his whole life to this. He had appealed to several royal courts for backing in his aims, before finally

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getting sponsorship from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain in 1492. He was therefore voyaging with the stated aim of finding a route to the Far East, not of finding new lands.

Whether he knew he had discovered a new continent (or more accurately rediscovered) is again a matter of opinion. My opinion is that he had gone out on a limb with promises to find the westerly route to China, but knew full well there was a continent in the way. Many factors provide evidence of this. He was a brilliant navigator. His brother owned a map shop where Christopher Columbus had formerly worked. He kept two logs on his first voyage, his publicly stated travelling distance to China corresponding well with the actual distance to landfall in America. When he arrived on each voyage, he had a preference for heading south, as if trying to find his way around the bottom of the "newly discovered" continent. Could Columbus have had a Viking map of Vinland (America)? As the Vikings had settled to the North of the American Continent, it is likely their mapping of the southernmost extent of America would have been guesswork. So could Columbus have been looking for the way past where he assumed the southern coast to be? An inaccurate assumption as the map he was using would have been wrong in this respect?

Whatever Columbus' reasons were, he went to his death bed claiming he had landed in Asia, and never attempted to take credit for finding a new continent. To allow any hint he had deceived the Spanish royalty, by understating the westerly direction to China to them, would have further weakened his case for the spoils of his adventures belonging to him and his sons.

When Vespucci went along as part of an expedition in 1505, unlike Columbus, he had no reason to stay quiet about "discovering" a new continent. On his return, he made sure everyone knew of his journey to the "New World," as he called it, in a series of letters.

Germans Martin Waldseemuller, a noted geographer, and Mathias Ringmann, a schoolmaster, read these letters. They were working on a reproduction of Ptolemy's treatise on geography, and incorporated their claim that Vespucci had discovered the New World. This was published in 1507, just one year after the death of Columbus. Here is found the first publication of the name, "America."

They chose the feminine version of the name Amerigo, as the other continents already had feminine names - Asia, Africa and Europa (though I would argue there's no such continent as Europe, its part of Asia. But therein lies another can of worms!).

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© Peter Smith 2008