May 7, 2012
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendentalist, once wrote of America’s namesake in his book English Traits: “Strange, that the New World should have no better luck,—that broad America must wear the name of a thief. Amerigo Vespucci, the pickle-dealer at Seville, who went out, in 1499, a subaltern with Hojeda, and whose highest naval rank was boatswain’s mate in an expedition that never sailed, managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus, and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name.”
Vespucci was indeed a Florentine pimp (really, he fixed up clients with women, including a certain Mona B.) and jewel trader who moved to Seville, traveled to South America in 1499, and eventually lent his name to a German cartographer’s popular 1507 map of a new found landmass he neither discovered nor charted in any great detail. That alone is an interesting tale of secrecy, self-promotion and salesmanship—a story well told by historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in his book Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America. But the question remains: Was America’s namesake really a pickle dealer?
In Seville, Vespucci apparently worked as a ship chandler—and he outfitted merchants and explorers, including Columbus on his later, less successful voyages, with preserved meat and fish. Pickled vegetables, especially cabbage, would ultimately pave the way for seafaring explorers to voyage out longer without succumbing to the mind-numbing, gum-bleeding malaise of scurvy. Yet Vespucci predates the discovery of a scurvy remedy by about 200 years.
Perhaps there’s no way to know for sure if his pickle dealings enabled the discovery of a New World. As Fernandez-Armesto, the author of Amerigo, told me, the 19th century Romantic writer may have been hinting at a different historical truth: “Emerson’s choice of words was surely an attempt at humor—not necessarily because the connotations of pickles are immoral, but because they seem unheroic.”
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