Frederick A. (Frederick Albion) Ober.

Amerigo Vespucci online

. (page 11 of 14)
Online LibraryFrederick A. (Frederick Albion) OberAmerigo Vespucci → online text (page 11 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

shall be sent again by the king to visit these regions, and
that many years will not elapse before they will bring
immense profits and revenue to the kingdom of Portugal.

"We found great quantities of dye-wood, enough to load all
the ships that float, and costing nothing. The same may be
said of cassia, crystals, spices, and drugs; but the
qualities of the last are unknown. The inhabitants of the
country tell of gold and other metals; but I am one of those
who, like St. Thomas, are slow to believe. Time will show
all, however. Most of the time of our stay the heavens were
serene and adorned with numerous bright and beautiful stars,
many of which I observed, with their revolutions.

"This may be considered a schedule, or, as it were, a
_capita rerum_, of the things which I have seen in these
parts. Many things are omitted which are worthy of being
mentioned, in order to avoid prolixity, and because they are
found in my account of the voyage. As yet I tarry at Lisbon,
waiting the pleasure of the king to determine what I shall
do. May it please God that I do whatever is most to His
glory and the salvation of my soul."

A third and fuller account of the third voyage, written to Lorenzo di
Pier Francesco de Medici:

"In days past I gave your excellency a full account of my
return, and, if I remember aright, wrote you a description
of all those parts of the New World which I had visited in
the ships of his Highness the King of Portugal. Carefully
considered, they appear truly to form another world, and
therefore we have, not without reason, called it the _New

"Not one of all the ancients had any knowledge of it, and
the things which have been lately ascertained by us
transcend all their ideas. They thought there was nothing
south of the equinoctial line but an immense sea and some
poor and barren islands. The sea they called the Atlantic,
and if sometimes they confessed that there might be land in
that region, they contended that it must be sterile, and
could not be otherwise than uninhabitable. The present
navigation has controverted their opinions, and openly
demonstrated to all that they were very far from the truth.
For, beyond the equinoctial line I found countries more
fertile and more densely inhabited than I have ever found
anywhere else, even in Asia, Africa, and Europe - as will be
more fully manifested by duly attending to the following
narration. Setting aside all minor matters, I shall relate
only those of the greatest importance, which are well worthy
of commemoration, and those which I have _personally seen_,
or heard of from men of credibility. I shall now speak with
much care concerning those parts most recently discovered,
and without any romantic addition to the truth.

"With happy omens of success, we sailed from Lisbon with
three armed caravels, on the 13th of May, 1501, to explore,
by command of the king, the regions of the New World.
Steering a southwest course, we sailed twenty months in a
manner which I shall now relate. In the first place, we went
to the Fortunate Islands, which are now called the Grand
Canaries. After navigating the ocean we ran along the coast
of Africa and the country of the blacks as far as the
promontory which is called by Ptolemy Etiopia, by our people
Cape Verde, and by the negroes Biseneghe, while the
inhabitants themselves call it Madanghan. The country is
situated within the torrid zone, in about fourteen degrees
south latitude, and is inhabited by the blacks. Here we
reposed awhile to refresh ourselves, took in every kind of
provision, and set sail, directing our course towards the
antarctic pole....

"To shorten my relation as much as possible, your excellency
must know that we sailed ninety-seven days, experiencing
harsh and cruel fortune. During forty-four days the heavens
were in great commotion, and we had nothing but thunder and
lightning and drenching rains. Dark clouds covered the sky,
so that by day we could see but little better than we could
in ordinary nights without moonshine. The fear of death came
over us, and the hope of life almost deserted us. After all
these heavy afflictions at last it pleased God in His mercy
to have compassion on us and save our lives. On a sudden,
the land appeared in view, and at the sight of it our
courage, which had fallen very low, and our strength, which
had become weakness, immediately revived. Thus it usually
happens to those who have passed through great afflictions,
and especially to those who have been preserved from the
rage of evil fortune.

"On the 17th of August, in the year 1501, we anchored by the
shore of that country, and rendered to the Supreme Being our
most sincere thanks, according to the Christian custom. The
land we discovered did not appear to be an island, but a
continent, as it extended far away in the distance, without
any appearance of termination. It was beautifully fertile
and very thickly inhabited, while all sorts of wild animals,
which are unknown in our parts, were there found in
abundance.... We were unanimously of the opinion that our
navigation should be continued along this coast and that we
should not lose sight of it. We sailed, therefore, till we
arrived at a certain cape, which makes a turn to the south,
and which is perhaps three hundred leagues distant from the
place where we first saw land. In sailing this distance we
often landed and held intercourse with the natives, and I
have omitted to state that this newly discovered land is
about seven hundred leagues distant from Cape Verde, though
I was persuaded that we had sailed at least eight hundred.
This was partly owing to a severe storm, our frequent
accidents, and partly to the ignorance of the pilot.

"We had arrived at a place which, if I had not possessed
some knowledge of cosmography, by the negligence of the
pilot would have finished the course of our lives. There was
no pilot who knew our situation within fifty leagues, and we
went rambling about, and should not have known whither we
were going if I had not provided, in season for my own
safety and that of my companions, the astrolabe and
quadrant, my astrological instruments. On this occasion I
acquired no little glory for myself, so that from that time
forward I was held in such estimation by my companions as
the learned are held in by people of quality....

"This continent commences at eight degrees south of the
equinoctial line, and we sailed so far along the coast that
we passed seventeen degrees beyond the winter tropic,
towards the antarctic pole, which was here elevated fifty
degrees above the horizon. The things which I saw here are
unknown to the men of our times. That is, the people, their
customs, their humanity, the fertility of the soil, the
mildness of the atmosphere, the celestial bodies, and, above
all, the fixed stars of the eighth sphere, of which no
mention has ever been made. In fact, until now they have
never been known, even by the most learned of the ancients,
and I shall speak of them, therefore, more particularly....
The climate is very temperate and the country supremely
delightful. Although it has many hills, yet it is watered by
a great number of springs and rivers, and the forests are so
closely studded that one cannot pass through them, on
account of the thickly standing trees. Among these ramble
ferocious animals of various kinds.... The country produces
no metal except gold; and though we in this first voyage
have brought home none, yet all the people certified to the
fact, affirming that the region abounded in gold, and saying
that among them it was little esteemed and nearly valueless.
They have many pearls and precious stones, as we have
recorded before. Now, though I should be willing to describe
all these things particularly, yet, from the great number
of them and their diverse nature, this history would become
too extensive a work. Pliny, a most learned man, who
compiled histories of many things, did not imagine the
thousandth part of these. If he had treated of each one of
them, he would have made a much larger but in truth a very
perfect work....

"If there is a terrestrial paradise in the world, it cannot
be far from this region. The country, as I have said before,
facing the south, has such a temperate climate that in
winter they have no cold and in summer are not troubled with
heat. The sky and atmosphere are seldom overshadowed with
clouds, and the days are almost always serene. Dew sometimes
falls, but very lightly, and only for the space of three or
four hours, and then vanishes like mist. They have scarcely
any vapors, and the sky is splendidly adorned with stars
unknown to us, of which I have retained a particular
remembrance, and have enumerated as many as twenty whose
brightness is equal to that of Venus or Jupiter. I
considered also their circuit and their various motions,
and, having a knowledge of geometry, I easily measured their
circumference and diameter, and am certain, therefore, that
they are of much greater magnitude than men imagine. Among
the others, I saw three _Canopi_, two being very bright,
while the third was dim and unlike the others.

"The antarctic pole has not the Ursa Major and Minor, which
can be seen at our arctic pole; neither are there any bright
stars touching the pole, but of those which revolve around
it there are four, in the form of a quadrangle. While these
are rising, there is seen at the left a brilliant Canopus,
of admirable magnitude, which, having reached mid-sky, forms
the figure of a triangle. To these succeed three other
brilliant stars, of which the one placed in the centre has
twelve degrees of circumference. In the midst of them is
another brilliant Canopus. After these follow six other
bright stars, whose splendor surpasses that of all others in
the eighth sphere.... These are all to be seen in the Milky
Way, and when they arrive at the meridian show the figure of
a triangle, but have two sides longer than the other. I saw
there many other stars, and carefully observed their various
motions, composing a book which treats of them particularly.
In this book I have related almost all the remarkable things
which I have encountered in the course of my navigation, and
with which I have become acquainted. The book is at present
in the possession of the king, and I hope he will return it
soon into my hands.

"I examined some things in that hemisphere very diligently,
which enables me to contradict the opinions of philosophers.
Among other things, I saw the rainbow - that is, the
celestial arch - which is white near midnight. Now, in the
opinion of some, it takes the color of the four elements:
the red from fire, the green from the earth, the white from
the air, and blue from the water. Aristotle, in his book
entitled _Meteors_, is of a very different opinion. He says:
'The celestial arch is a repercussion of the sun's rays in
the vapors of the clouds where they meet, as brightness
reflected from the water upon the wall returns to itself.
By its interposition it tempers the heat of the sun; by
resolving itself into rain it fertilizes the earth, and by
its splendor beautifies the heavens. It demonstrates that
the atmosphere is filled with humidity, which will disappear
forty years before the end of the world, which will be an
indication of the dryness of the elements. It announces
peace between God and man, is always opposite the sun, is
never seen at noon, because the sun is never in the north.'

"But Pliny says that after the autumnal equinox it appears
every hour. This I have extracted from the _Comments of
Landino_ on the fourth book of the _√Жneid_, and I mention it
that no man may be deprived of the fruits of his labors, and
that due honors may be rendered to every one. I saw this bow
two or three times; neither am I alone in my reflections
upon this subject, for many mariners are also of my opinion.
We saw also the new moon at mid-day, as it came into
conjunction with the sun. There were seen also, every night,
vapors and burning flames flashing across the sky. A little
above, I called this region by the name of hemisphere,
which, if we would not speak improperly, cannot be so called
when comparing it with our own. It appeared to present that
form only partially, and it seemed to us speaking improperly
to call it a 'hemisphere.'

"As I have before stated, we sailed from Lisbon - which is
nearly forty degrees distant from the equinoctial line
towards the north - to this country, which is fifty degrees
on the other side of the line. The sum of these degrees is
_ninety_, and is the fourth part of the circumference of the
globe, according to the true reckoning of the ancients. It
is therefore manifest to all _that we measured the fourth
part of the earth_.[13]

"We who reside in Lisbon, nearly forty degrees north of the
equinoctial line, are distant from those who reside on the
other side of the line, in angular meridional length, ninety
degrees - that is, obliquely. In order that the case may be
more plainly understood, I would observe that a
perpendicular line starting from that part in the heavens
which is our zenith strikes those obliquely who are fifty
degrees beyond the equinoctial line: whence it appears that
we are in the direct line, and they, in comparison with us,
are in the oblique one, and this situation forms the figure
of a right-angled triangle, of which we have the direct
lines, as the figure more clearly demonstrates.

"Such are the things which in this, my last navigation, I
have considered worthy of being made known; nor have I,
without reason, called this work my _Third Journey_. I have
before composed two other books on navigation which, by
command of Ferdinand, King of Castile, I performed in the
West, in which many things not unworthy of being made known
are particularly described: especially those which appertain
to the glory of our Saviour, who, with marvellous skill,
built this machine, the world. And, in truth, who can ever
sufficiently praise God? I have related marvellous things
concerning him in the aforesaid work. I have stated briefly
that which relates to the position and ornaments of the
globe, so that when I shall be more at leisure I may be
able to write out, with greater care, a work upon
cosmography, in order that future ages may bear me in
remembrance. Such works teach me more fully, from day to
day, to honor the Supreme God, and finally to arrive at the
knowledge of those things with which our ancestors and the
ancient fathers had no acquaintance. With most humble
prayers I supplicate our Saviour, whose province it is to
have compassion upon mortals, that he prolong my life
sufficiently for me to perform what I have purposed to do."


[13] See Chapter XVI.




Doubtless our readers share our wish that the personality of Vespucci
could appear more strongly depicted than it has been presented in this
volume; but that is a fault, not of the biographer so much as the hero
of this biography. It must have been noticed, indeed, that Vespucci
says little or nothing of his companions on these voyages, not even
mentioning the commanders; but at the same time he makes rare mention
of himself; so we cannot ascribe it to a desire for making himself
prominent at their expense. It is simply a fault of style, or a result
of his endeavor to be concise, and bring forward the most interesting
events of the voyages and discoveries, with the least waste of time
and effort.

He was engaged in exploring new regions; his time was occupied in
noting the salient features of the scenery, the traits of the barbaric
peoples, and especially closely observing and enumerating the stars.
Astronomy was a passion with him, and he passed many nights without
sleep, during both voyages to the southern hemisphere, in rapt
contemplation of the glorious constellations. As he rightly observed
in one of his letters, his observations would surely bring him fame,
and no worthier object could claim his attention, even to the
exclusion of all other work. So it is as the self-absorbed astronomer,
the open-minded man of science, seeking to penetrate the secrets of
nature and achieve immortal fame, that we must regard our hero at this

On his return from the third voyage, Vespucci was royally received by
King Emanuel, even though he had come back almost empty-handed,
without gold or gems, silver, spices, or pearls. He had sailed farther
south than any of his predecessors, having gone beyond the latitude of
the Cape of Good Hope, discovered the beautiful bay which he called
Rio de Janeiro, and perhaps looked into the mouth of the River de la
Plata. He had not discovered the "secret of the strait" - that passage
through the land-mass which confronted all the voyagers from Columbus
to Magellan; nor was it revealed until the last-named, in 1520,
penetrated the great strait that now bears his name, and sailed
through into the Pacific.

It may be argued that not Vespucci, but another (name unknown), was
the commander of this expedition; but while this other was nominally
in command, the Florentine was the chief pilot, the navigator, and
directed the ships along their courses without mishap. In fact, one of
his biographers has pointed out that the navigating of this fleet,
especially the sailing in almost a straight line from the northern
coast of Brazil to Sierra Leone, on the northwest coast of Africa, was
a triumph of scientific navigation. There is no question that Amerigo
Vespucci was the greatest navigator of his time, and a recognition of
this fact is found in his appointment by King Ferdinand, a few years
later, as the chief pilot of his kingdom.

Not alone King Emanuel and his court recognized the genius of
Vespucci, but the people of Portugal and of Florence. He was received
in Lisbon with transports of enthusiasm, and one of his ships, which
had worn itself out in the voyage, was dismantled, "and portions of it
were carried in solemn procession to a church, where they were
suspended as precious relics." His fame extended far and wide, and in
Florence, the city of his birth, public ceremonies were held, and
honors bestowed upon his family.

He returned to Lisbon in September, 1502, and eight months later, at
the urgent request of the king, started on another voyage in
continuation of the last, in the hope of finally finding a strait
through the continent by which India might be reached. About this time
two events took place which are worthy of note. His patron, Lorenzo,
died in June, 1503, and a year later a Latin version of his letter to
him was published under the title _Mundus Novus_, or New World.

We must not lose sight of this title and this publication, for (as
will be more fully explained in a succeeding chapter) they had much to
do with the future defamation of Vespucci. He, it will be observed,
was pursuing his voyage to, or from, that "New World," while that
little quarto of only four leaves, with its significant title, was
being printed and circulated in Europe. Both Vespucci and Columbus
were then absent from Europe, and both engaged in a desperate struggle
with adverse elements, at the time this pamphlet was published: the
one on the coast of Brazil, the other on his last voyage to the West
Indies, in which he suffered shipwreck and nearly perished of

Both Columbus and Vespucci were innocent of promulgating this title,
or this pamphlet, except that the latter had used the term "new world"
as possibly applying to his discoveries in the south Atlantic. But,
while they were perilling their lives in the service of their
sovereigns, each striving for a common goal, though neither envious of
the other, capricious Fame was weaving a web in which both were to be
enmeshed, and from which Vespucci was not to escape until after the
lapse of centuries.

The inscription in this pamphlet states: "The interpreter Giocondo
translated this letter from the Italian into the Latin language, that
all who are versed in the latter may learn how many wonderful things
are being discovered every day, and that the temerity of those who
want to probe the Heavens and their majesty, and to know more than is
allowed to know, be confounded: as, notwithstanding the long time
since the world began to exist, the vastness of the earth and what it
contains is still unknown."

This inscription meant that Vespucci's letter had opened the eyes of
even the clerics to the fact that there was much in the world then
undiscovered, and existing contrary to their preconceived notions. The
interpreter was a Dominican friar of erudition for his times, one
Giovanni Giocondo, an eminent mathematician of Verona, and an
architect, who was then living in Paris, where, it is said, he was
engaged in building the bridge of Notre Dame. It was a Giocondo, and
perhaps this same man, who was sent by King Emanuel to persuade
Vespucci to enlist in his service (as told by him on page 170); but
whether the same, or one of his family, he was intimately acquainted
with the famous Florentines, including Vespucci, the Medici, and Piero
Soderini. He, doubtless, saw the letters written by Vespucci when in
manuscript, and condensed them into his narration, giving full credit
to the author in his publication. He was the unconscious cause of an
injustice to Columbus, perhaps, and also of undue prominence being
given to the name of Amerigo Vespucci, for it was through the issue of
his book that, in a roundabout way, the appellation _America_ came to
be bestowed upon the western continents.

We will elaborate this argument in another chapter; but (requesting
the reader meanwhile to retain these premises in his mind) we will
first follow Vespucci on his fourth, and last, important voyage to the
southern hemisphere. In a passage appended to the letter quoted in the
previous chapter, and which we herewith reproduce, Vespucci says:

"My three journeys I think I shall defer writing about in
full until another time. Probably when I have returned safe
and sound to my native country, with the aid and counsel of
learned men, and the encouragement of friends, I shall write
with care a larger work than this. Your excellency [Lorenzo
de Medici] will pardon me for not having sent you the
journals which I kept from day to day in this my last
navigation, as I had promised to do. The king has been the
cause of it, and he still retains my manuscripts. But,
since, I have delayed performing this work until the present
day, perhaps I shall add a _fourth journey_; for I
contemplate going again to explore that southern part of the
New World, and for the purpose of carrying out such
intention two vessels are already armed, equipped, and
supplied with provisions. I shall first go eastward, before
making the voyage south; I shall then sail to the southwest,
and when arrived there shall do many things for the praise
and glory of God, the benefit of my country, the perpetual
memory of my name, and particularly for the honor and solace
of my old age, which has nearly come upon me.

"There is nothing wanting in this affair but the leave of
the king, and when this is obtained, as it soon will be, we
shall sail on a long voyage; and may it please God to give

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14

Online LibraryFrederick A. (Frederick Albion) OberAmerigo Vespucci → online text (page 11 of 14)