Have you ever wondered why the two continents in the Western Hemisphere came to be called “the Americas” and not something like “the Colombias”? We all know that Christopher Columbus, a Genoese seafarer, received the patronage of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and in 1492 navigated his three boats into what are now known the West Indies, and supposedly “discovered” the Americas, though there are numerous asterisks to that famous story. To begin with, the hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples of North and South America didn’t need to be discovered by white Europeans to exist, of course. Then there is the fact that it is almost certain that Leif Erikson had landed in Newfoundland centuries earlier, and may have explored down the coast of North America as far as what is now New England; he just didn’t bother to notify the rulers of Spain or any other continental European power. And of course, Columbus, on his first voyage, believed that he had landed in the Indies, so he didn’t even immediately realize that he had “discovered” (again, contemporary scholars tend to resist using language such as “discovered America” to begin with, out of appropriate respect for indigenous peoples) the New World. So—lots of asterisks.
But, back to the question of nomenclature. Why do we call North and South America “the Americas”? And why do we call the United States, the United States of America? Who was this Amerigo Vespucci person, anyway?
As the Wikipedia article on Vespucci helpfully explains, “In April 1495, by the intrigues of Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, the Crown of Castile broke their monopoly deal with Christopher Columbus and began handing out licenses to other navigators for the West Indies. Just around this time (1495–96), Vespucci,” who had been born and raised in Florence, “was engaged as the executor of Giannotto Berardi, an Italian merchant who had recently died in Seville. Vespucci organized the fulfillment of Berardi's outstanding contract with the Castilian crown to provide twelve vessels for the Indies. After these were delivered, Vespucci continued as a provision contractor for Indies expeditions, and is known to have secured beef supplies for at least one (if not two) of Columbus' voyages.”
Later, “At the invitation of king Manuel I of Portugal, Vespucci participated as observer in several voyages that explored the east coast of South America between 1499 and 1502. On the first of these voyages he was aboard the ship that discovered that South America extended much further south than previously thought. The expeditions became widely known in Europe after two accounts attributed to Vespucci were published between 1502 and 1504.” And, critically for Vespucci’s place in world history and geography, “In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller produced a world map on which he named the new continent America after the feminine Latin version of Vespucci's first name, which is Americus. In an accompanying book, Waldseemüller published one of the Vespucci accounts, which led to criticism that Vespucci was trying to upset Christopher Columbus' glory. However, the rediscovery in the 18th century of other letters by Vespucci has led to the view that the early published accounts, notably the Soderini Letter, could be fabrications, not by Vespucci, but by others.”
So, in a nutshell, that’s what happened. Though Christopher Columbus, the wily Genoese, was the first European to “plant a flag” in the western hemisphere, he got upstaged, in terms of nomenclature, when a German mapmaker chose to honor a Florentine explorer who had broadened Europeans’ understanding of the continents of the western hemisphere, with the distinction of having two continents named, in the European languages, for him instead (and let’s not forget that this was a period that predated Italian unification by three-and-a-half centuries; at that time, Genoa and Florence were intense rivals, as were all the city-states on the Italian peninsula). In other words, Vespucci was one of the first to demonstrate definitively that the lands explored by Columbus were the New World at not the East Indies, as Columbus had initially thought.
So this is how things happen in world history… One individual or team of individuals make achieve a certain breakthrough or blaze a new trail—but inevitably, others come along and modify that same breakthrough or that same path, in some way. Come to think of it, the current strategic landscape in U.S. healthcare reminds me a lot of the Europeans’ “Age of Exploration” (again, keeping in mind that all these Europeans “discovering” the Americas were “discovering” civilizations that had existed happily for centuries and millennia without having had to be “discovered” by the Europeans), in that we are very early in a journey towards a new healthcare system, and just emerging into and through the very earliest phases of healthcare system transformation.
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