From, Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine, edited by Thomas Edward Watson, Volume XIII, No. 5, September, 1911, Thomson, Georgia: Jeffersonian Pub. Co.; pp. 406 to 407.
The Name of America
Alexander Del Mar
THAT the American Continent derived its name from the Florentine merchant and geographer, Emerigou Vespucci, and that thereby an injustice was done to Columbus, is an impression which still retains a firm hold on the popular mind; yet many proofs have been offered that before Columbus landed the name America was found scattered over the Southern Continent from the Carribean Sea to the Pacific Ocean and from the Maricaibo Gulf and Amaracapana coast, near the Orinoco’s outlet, to the mountainous regions of Cax-Amaraca around Bagota and over the heights of the Andes as far to the south as Peru.
Ex-President Harrison added his influence to the popular impression with the remark that the continent should have been named for Columbus; thereby implying that it was in fact named for Vespucci. The only evidence to sustain this assumption is the letter of a Florentine bishop, in which he writes rather boastfully ”and well may our new world be named America since its discoverye was due to our eminent countryman, Emerigou Vespucci,” etc.
On the other hand the proofs that the country bore a title much nearer to “America” than “Emerigou,” may be summarized in the following citations:
Girolemo Benzoni, a Milanese, in his “Historia delle Mondo Nuovo,” published at Venice in 1565, says: (p. 7 of trans.): “The Governor shortly after left Cumana, with all his company, and coasting westward, went to Amaracapanna; this was a town of about forty houses, and four hundred Spaniards resided there constantly, who annually elected a captain.”
Humboldt, in his “Relations Historiques,” a narrative of personal observations, chiefly in South America, from 1799 to 1804, writes, Vol. 1, p. 324, that ”the first settlement of the Spaniards on the mainland was at Amaracapana.” The coast between the Capes Paria and de la Vela, appear under the names of Amaraca-pana and Maracapana in Codazzio’s map of Venezuela, showing the voyages of Columbus and others.
Herrara in his history of the West Indies, narrates the voyage of Ojeda (1499), whom Amerigo Vespucci accompanied as a merchant, and says: “Finally he arrived at a port, where they saw a village on the shore, called Maracaibo by the natives, which had twenty-six large houses of bell shape, built on pillars or supports, with swinging bridges leading from one to another; and as this looked like Venice in appearance, he gave it that name, which was subsequently adopted by the Republic of Venezuela.” This simple sentence is conclusive proof that at the time Vespucci made his first landing in the Western Continent, the port he stopped at was called Amaracai-bo or America-land.
Sir Walter Raleigh reached the same region (1595) and wrote of it as “the Bewtiful valley of Amerioca-pana.” Sir Walter also, writing in 1596, describes one of the younger brothers of Atahualpa, the Inca of Peru, (whom the Spaniards under Pizarro had slain), as taking thousands of the soldiers and nobles of Peru, and with these “vanguishing all that tract and valley of America situated between the Rivers Orinoco and Amazon.”
Besides this, the name given to the whole country between the “Coast of Amaraca,” which stretched from the Orinoco River to Maracai-bo bay, and thence to the whole country between 407 Maracai-bo bay and the Pacific, was called Amarca, while the whole country now known as Bogota and stretching down to Peru was called Cax-Amarca. Along the heights of the Andes in this region the name again appears in the Capital City, which was also called Cax-Amaraca, in one of its near-by towns, called Pult-Amarca, and in the three other local names strewn to the southward along the Andes, of And-Amarca and Catamarca. Down near the mouth of the River Cumana was Amaraca-pana, previously mentioned, while out in the Carribean Sea, off the Coast of Amaraca-pana, was the large island of Tamaraque, a Spanish mode of spelling the same word, also a name given to one of the gods, or one of the names given to the Great Spirit of the natives.
To these citations may be added the probability that had there been any intention to name the continent after Vespucci, his surname would have been used, so that the result would have been something like Vespugia, instead of Emeriga. In short there seems to be very little room to doubt that the world has been misled through the complimentary notice of the Florentine bishop.
There seems to be a law for the evolution of continental names from names of a divinity or of small localities, which through use by the persons first coming into contact with the continent at that point, spread gradually over the whole. Thus Europa originally designated a small village in Thessaly, but as it lay to the west of the Bosphorus and the Hellespont, it must have been spoken of by Asiatic neighbors in a manner to facilitate its more extended application. “Asia” indicated originally a very small part of what is now Asia Minor, but near the dividing line. Africa meant originally only that small part of the continent lying around Carthage, and with which the Romans came in contact. It was much less extended than Lybia. Egypt was the name by which the Greeks knew a small seaport town near the mouth of the Nile and bears no resemblance to the name “The Black Country” by which the ancient Egyptians designated their own land. The name China spread from a pretty mountain region on the borders of India, because it was there that Europeans first came into any considerable contact with the empire, and it was by European nations that the name came to be obtruded on a nation which knew itself only as The Middle Kingdom. This shows that it is by the spread of local names, indigenous to a small region, that large regions are named.