Why Is America so Called?
America get its name from the traditional family name Amerigo belonging to Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), who was an Italian navigator and merchant. The period during which he made his voyages falls between 1497 and 1504. The first took place in 1499-1500 when, it is believed, he discovered the mouth of the Amazon and sailed as far as the Cape of La Consolación or Cabo de Santo Agostinho (about 6° latitude South).
One the way back he reached Trinidad and then made for Haiti, believing all the time that he was sailing among the coast of the extreme easterly peninsula of Asia. At the end of 1500, under the auspices of the Portuguese government, he reached the coast of Brazil and discovered the Plate river.
This voyage was of tremendous importance in that Vespucci became convinced, and convinced others, that the newly discovered lands were not part of Asia, but a New World. In 1507, a humanist scholar named Martin Waldseemüller suggested that the newly discovered world should be named America, after Amerigo. The extension of the name to North America came later.
He and Matthias Ringmann are credited with the first recorded usage of the word America, on the 1507 map Universalis Cosmographia in honour of the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci. It is generally accepted that the name derives from Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer, who explored the new continents in the following years. However, some have suggested other explanations, such that it was named after Richard Amerike of Bristol.
A Bristol antiquarian Alfred Hudd suggested in 1908 that the name was derived from the surname “Amerike” or “ap Meryk” and was used on early British maps that have since been lost. Richard ap Meryk, anglicised to Richard Amerike (or Ameryk) (c. 1445–1503) was a wealthy English merchant, royal customs officer and sheriff of Bristol. According to some historians, he was the principal owner of the Matthew, the ship sailed by John Cabot during his voyage of exploration to North America in 1497.
The idea that Richard Amerike was a ‘principal supporter’ of Cabot has gained popular currency in the 21st century. There is no known evidence to support this. Similarly, and contrary to a recent tradition that names Amerike as principal owner and main funder of the Matthew, Cabot’s ship of 1497, academic enquiry does not connect Amerike with the ship. Her ownership at that date remains uncertain. It is not even clear whether the ship was a new-build or purchased second-hand.
Hudd proposed his theory in a paper which was read at 21 May 1908 meeting of the Clifton Antiquarian Club, and which appeared in Volume 7 of the club’s Proceedings. In “Richard Ameryk and the name America,” Hudd discussed the 1497 discovery of North America by John Cabot, an Italian who had sailed on behalf of England. Upon his return to England after his first (1497) and second (1498–1499) voyages, Cabot received two pension payments from King Henry VII. Of the two customs officials at the Port of Bristol who were responsible for handing over the money to Cabot, the more senior was Richard Ameryk (High Sheriff of Bristol in 1503).
Hudd postulated that Cabot named the land that he had discovered after Ameryk, from whom he received the pension conferred by the king. He stated that Cabot had a reputation for being free with gifts to his friends, such that his expression of gratitude to the official would not be unexpected. Further, Hudd used a quote from a late 15th-century manuscript (a calendar of Bristol events), the original of which had been lost in an 1860 Bristol fire, which indicated the name America was already known in Bristol in 1497.
This year (1497), on St. John the Baptist’s day (June 24th), the land of America was found by the merchants of Bristow, in a ship of Bristowe called the ‘Mathew,’ the which said ship departed from the port of Bristowe the 2nd of May and came home again the 6th August following.
Hudd reasoned that the scholars of the 1507 Cosmographiae Introductio, unfamiliar with Richard Ameryk, assumed that the name America, which he claimed had been in use for ten years, was based on Amerigo Vespucci and, therefore, mistakenly transferred the honour from Ameryk to Vespucci. While Hudd’s speculation has found support from some authors, there is no strong evidence to substantiate his theory that Cabot named America after Richard Ameryk.
Moreover, because Amerike’s coat of arms was similar to the flag later adopted by the independent United States, a legend grew that the North American continent had been named for him rather than for Amerigo Vespucci. It is not widely accepted.