“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Yeah, so what, we've known this forever.
Why, if Christopher Columbus was the first to “discover” the New World, are the continents not named after him? Why do we not live in the United States of Columbia? Why are they named after Amerigo Vespucci instead?
This question, a question we undoubtedly ask ourselves every day, must be answered. And as we begin to answer it we will fall into the deepest of all dramas, full of slander and giant rats. Take my hand and come with me, as we purge our mysteries and embrace the truth that evades us all.
By the late 1400's, the European urge to set sail for new lands was overwhelming, we know this. The auburn eyes of Italians were set on the West, where, unknown to them, lay the vast, untapped wilderness of the New World. And yes, Italians had power back then and could accomplish things. And yes, Columbus was the first to make the voyage, and was the first to bring the concept of a New World to European awareness. But we aren't here to talk about that. We're here to talk about the drama.
Christopher Columbus. Oooh so intimidating! Yeah, I do not want this guy to be my namesake. What a bland boy.
Amerigo Vespucci. Should you mess with this man? No. Should you mess with the New World? No.
Vespucci's role in the whole naming controversy is unclear. The landmass named America first appeared on a map drawn by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507. Waldseemüller may have been mislead by the Soderini Letter, which is now thought to be a forgery. This letter reports that the New World was populated by giants, cannibals, and sexually insatiable females, while also implying that it was first discovered by Vespucci. We all know none of those exist in America. Get real!
Waldseemüller's 1507 map that first showed the name America. He used Crayola.
Some have suggested that Vespucci, in the two letters published in his lifetime, was exaggerating his role and constructed deliberate fabrications. The belief of this exaggeration can be seen in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson the famous American transcendentalist, as he called Vespucci: “the pickle dealer at Seville… who managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name."
However, Emerson was out of line! Many scholars now believe that the two letters were not written by Vespucci but were fabrications by others based in part on genuine letters by Vespucci.
Christopher Columbus himself died in 1506, and was unable to dispute the naming. He also believed until his end that he had discovered and colonized a part of Asia. Vespucci, however, knew otherwise. Vespucci was the first man to knowingly show that the Americas were not connected with Asia and were, in fact, a new and separate continent.
But here comes the real rub. The real stickler. I'm not one to blindly take the word of "scholars." I suggest that you don't either. I need more information. Something hard. And furry.
Yessss. Modern science has come to Amerigo's rescue! Some of the dispute surrounding Vespucci's discoveries can finally be wiped away. In one of his several letters, he claims discovery of a new tropical coastline. In this letter he describes an island filled with giant rats. This may seem like an idle detail when compared to the discovery of an entire continent, but in fact this one furry beast of a detail corroborates his namesake and cements a part of his legacy. For the truth is that there is only one place that this could have been: the northeast coast of South America.
Vespucci's Rodent (Noronhomys vespuccii) is an extinct rodent discovered on Ilha Fernando de Noronha, a small volcanic island off the coast of Brazil. It is known that the species was alive in 1503, but it is unknown at what point the species became extinct.
The species is now named after Amerigo Vespucci, who landed on Ilha Fernando de Noronha on the 10th of August 1503, describing "very big rats" believed to be the Noronhomys vespuccii.
Here is a Giant Rat very similar to the ones seen by Vespucci. Would you forget an island covered in these big boys, especially when they are known to be cannibals and sexually insatiable? ;-)
So what can be taken from all this? First, that Giant Rats are incredible and important. Second, that Vespucci was not trying usurp Christopher Columbus' glory. He was overdue for his own glory. Third, that Columbus has enough things named after him(District of Columbia, British Columbia, CBS). Fourth, that Columbus barely dabbled in South America, not getting past Venezuela, whereas Vespucci made it all the way to Patagonia... and since South America is a much more exotic continent, whoever finds that one should get to name the entire World.
And most importantly... if it was the United States of Columbia, it would be USC for short, and the Universities of South Carolina and Southern Cal would get way too cocky. And we know we don't need that.