America’s godfathers

May 7, 2007 at 3:00 am 1 comment

Cheetah on the hunt in NamibiaNot sure if my American friends learn about Martin Waldseemueller or Amerigo Vespucci in school. But seems these two gentlemen might just be the founding fathers of the United States. “America’s Birth Certificate” is a 500 year old map that was the first to refer to America by name and also the first map to show the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as separate bodies of water.

Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian explorer who made a number of voyages along the coast of South America shortly after Columbus and considered he had found the New World. Columbus of course thought he had bumped into Asia. Martin Waldseemueller was the German cleric and cartographer who produced the map, which has just been handed back to the United States by German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Waldseemueller honoured Vespucci by referring to “Amerige, that is to say the land of Americus, or America, after the sagacious discoverer”.

1,000 copies of the map were once extant but this is the only known remaining copy. The most recent owner was a German prince who agreed in 2001 to sell the map to the Library of Congress for $US 10 million. Until now, the map has been listed as a German national treasure but the hand-over finally seals the deal.Vespucci Day doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Columbus Day – but hey why not!

And here’s a test for ThinkingShift’s American readers – was the first permanent settlement of English America in Jamestown, Virginia or Plymouth, Massachusetts? if you answered Plymouth, you might just be wrong. Historical narratives are often rewritten to suit a context and this may have happened with Jamestown. More than 750,000 artefacts have just been uncovered from the 1607 Jamestown fort site, including a rather fabulous silver dolphin-shaped toothpick and the remains of tumbledown Elizabethan style houses complete with thatched roofs. Buttons from quality jackets show that settlers dressed like English gentry despite the heat and exhaustion that snuffed out many settlers.

Sadly, the Jamestown fort settlement turned out to be a fiasco, which may explain the site largely being ignored as America’s first permanent settlement. It had a dubious history: it was a commercial settlement with a charter to find gold, kick the Spanish out of North America and find a new route to the fabled riches of the Orient. As conditions for the settlers worsened, there were rumours of cannibalism. And Virginia was on the wrong side of the Civil War, with archaeologists finding a Confederate gun emplacement smack bang on top of the remains of the settlement.

In contrast, Plymouth was founded by the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620 and was devoted to religious freedom and Pilgrim ideals rather than slaves, tobacco and commercial profit.

So if you’re going to write history, which would you go for – cannibalism or purity? But at least the Jamestown curios are being exhibited in an Archaearium (very quaint name), which Queen Elizabeth II will view as she visits Jamestown to help celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America.


Entry filed under: Cartography, History.

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