The Fourth Great Voyage
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 time.
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 starvation.
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:
This voyage was undertaken in the spring, or early summer, of 1503, and extended over twelve months, only terminating with the return to Lisbon on June 18, 1504. It was, perhaps, the least satisfactory of any Vespucci had undertaken, and his disgust is plainly apparent in the following account of it, contained in a letter to Piero Soderini, written in Lisbon a few months after his return:
This was the last letter, so far as we can ascertain, written by Vespucci concerning his voyages—or, at least, the last that has been brought to light; though it is hoped that his manuscript journals, to which he repeatedly refers, may yet be found. They are, doubtless, buried in the secret archives of either the crown of Portugal or of Spain, as at different times he alludes to them as being in the hands of the kings, from whom he hopes to receive them at their pleasure. Both King Emanuel and King Ferdinand held Vespucci in great esteem; but, as consideration for their subjects, whether high or low, never entered their minds, they probably retained the manuscripts for years, and eventually these precious documents may have been buried beneath the vast accumulation of papers relating to the voyages and discoveries in both hemispheres.
Vespucci was in error respecting the remaining ships of the fleet engaged in his fourth voyage, for a few months later they came back to Lisbon in a shattered condition, but, so far as known, with their crews intact. They had sailed farther to the south than Vespucci went on this voyage, probably as far as the mouth of the great river La Plata, which Solis has the credit of discovering a few years later. It had been learned by that time that the coasts brought to view by the constantly lengthening voyages into the south were situated to the west of the great line of demarcation separating the discoveries of Spain and Portugal, and hence belonged to the former. This fact has a bearing upon the departure of Vespucci and other noted captains from Portugal about this time, as, if they would pursue these explorations to their logical conclusion, they must enlist beneath the banner of King Ferdinand. Hence we find our hero, towards the end of 1504, once again in Spain, and in high favor with the king.