Now that he had shown the way, a hundred other mariners rushed to the New World. That name was apparently first used by a Florentine merchant whose own name now describes the Americas. Amerigo Vespucci was sent to Spain by the Medici to straighten out the affairs of a Florentine banker. In 1495 he won a contract to fit out twelve vessels for Ferdinand. He caught the exploration fever, and in letters later (1503–04) written to friends in Florence, he claimed that he had made four voyages to what he termednovo mondo, and that on one of these, on June 16, 1497, he had touched the mainland of South America. As John Cabot reached Cape Breton Island, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on June 24, 1497, and Columbus sighted Venezuela in 1498, Vespucci’s account would give him the credit of being the first European to reach the mainland of the Western Hemisphere since Leif Ericsson (c. 1000). Confusion and inaccuracies in Vespucci’s reports have cast doubt on his claims; but it is noteworthy that in 1505 Columbus, who by that time should have been able to judge Vespucci’s reliability, entrusted him with a letter to the Admiral’s son Diego.15 In 1508 Vespucci was made piloto mayor—chief of all the pilots—of Spain, and held that position till his death.
A Latin version of one of his letters was printed at Saint-Dié (Lorraine) in April 1507. Martin Waldseemüller, professor of cosmography in the University of Saint-Dié, quoted the letter in his Cosmographiae introductio, which he published there in that year; he accepted Vespucci’s account as trustworthy, and suggested that the name Amerige or America should be given to what we now term South America. In 1538 Gerhardus Mercator applied America, on one of his famous maps, to all the Western Hemisphere. It is agreed that in 1499, if not in 1497, Vespucci, sailing with Alonso de Ojeda, explored the coast of Venezuela. In 1500, shortly after Cabral’s accidental discovery of Brazil, Vicente Pinzón, who had commanded the Niña on Columbus’s first voyage, explored the Brazilian coast and discovered the Amazon. In 1513 Vasco Núñez de Balboa sighted the Pacific, and Ponce de Leon, dreaming of a fountain of youth, discovered Florida.
The discoveries begun by Henry the Navigator, advanced by Vasco da Gama, culminating in Columbus, and rounded out by Magellan effected the greatest commercial revolution in history before the coming of the airplane. The opening of the western and southern seas to navigation and trade ended the Mediterranean epoch in the history of civilization, and began the Atlantic era. As more and more of America’s gold came to Spain, economic decline progressed in the Mediterranean states, and even in those South German cities which, like Augsburg and Nuremberg, had been commercially tied with Italy. The Atlantic nations found in the New World an outlet for their surplus population, their reserve energy, and their criminals, and developed there avid markets for European goods. Industry was stimulated in Western Europe, and demanded the mechanical inventions, and better forms of power, that made the Industrial Revolution. New plants came from America to enrich European agriculture—the potato, tomato, artichoke, squash, maize. The influx of gold and silver raised prices, encouraged manufacturers, harassed workers, creditors, and feudal lords, and generated and ruined Spain’s dream of dominating the world.
The moral and mental effects of the explorations rivaled the economic and political results. Christianity was spread over a vast hemisphere, so that the Roman Catholic Church gained more adherents in the New World than the Reformation took from her in the Old. The Spanish and Portuguese languages were given to Latin America, and produced there vigorous independent literatures. European morals were not improved by the discoveries; the lawless brutality of the colonists flowed back to Europe with returning seamen and settlers, and brought an intensification of violence and sexual irregularity. The European intellect was powerfully moved by the revelation of so many peoples, customs, and cults; the dogmas of the great religions suffered by mutual attrition; and even while Protestants and Catholics raised their hostile certainties to ruinous wars, those certitudes were melting away into the doubts and consequent tolerance of the Enlightenment.
Above all, a pride of achievement inspired the human mind just when Copernicus was about to reduce the cosmic importance of the earth and its inhabitants. Men felt that the world of matter had been conquered by the courage of the human mind. The medieval motto for Gibraltar—ne plus ultra—was denied by abbreviation; it became now plus ultra—more beyond. All limits were removed; all the world was open; everything seemed possible. Now, with a bold and optimistic surge, modern history began.