This month I have been reading through the voluminous work The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (AD 500-1600) by Samuel Eliot Morison. It is a stunningly comprehensive account of the northern explorations of New England and the Canadian coast by the Portuguese, French and English in the years prior to 1600. The breadth of the scholarship is astounding; consulting the journals of men like Cartier, Frobisher and others, Morison gives an almost day-by-day account of every extant northern voyage of discovery.
He also consults contemporary accounts of these voyages, like Richard Hakluyt’s Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America (1582), which alone preserves the account of the voyages of John Cabot and others. Morison also did his own field research for the book, following the course of many of these explorers in his own vessels during the 1940s and 50s, even into some very remote locales–such as Frobisher Bay in Baffin Island where he and a colleague personally discovered he remnants of Martin Frobisher’s failed mining operation on Kodlunarn Island in 1578. This is historical work on a level seldom seen today. The scope of this 712 page tome becomes more impressive considering its publication date of 1971 and how challenging it must have been to gather and sort through this data in the pre-digital age. At any rate, if you want to be absolutely schooled in the history of European exploration in Canada prior to 1600, this book is what you want.
It was while studying Morison’s book that I first came across the theory that the American continents were not named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, as most historians believe, but rather that America is derived from the name of an Anglo-Welsh merchant, Richard Amerike, who was supposed to have had some connection with the English voyages of John Cabot in 1497. Here is the theory.
The Voyage of John Cabot and the City of Bristol
The earliest known European exploration of North America after the Viking age was the 1497 voyage of Italian navigator John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) who sailed under a commission granted by King Henry VII. Cabot’s ship the Mathew sailed out of the English port of Bristol, a city near the west coast of southern England upon the River Avon. However, like many navigators of the age, Cabot did not own the ship he sailed in. Who exactly owned the Mathew is a matter of speculation; usually such voyages were funded by subscriptions, where local merchants, nobles, and family of the navigator would contribute (or “subscribe”) an amount of money in exchange for a proportional share in projected returns. It is presumed that Cabot funded his voyage from subscriptions from the merchant class of Bristol–including the use of a ship. This is assumed because the commission King Henry VII gave Cabot stipulates that all proceeds from Cabot’s voyages were required to pass through Bristol. Presumably, this was to ensure the voyage’s financiers could take their cut.
Who was Richard Amerike?
Around the time of Cabot’s voyage there lived in Bristol a wealthy Welsh custom’s official named Richard ap Meryck. The “ap Meryck” name was Anglicized as “Amerike.” Amerike had made a profitable career for himself trading with Portuguese and Spanish merchants. By 1486 (the year he was made royal customs official in Bristol) he was wealthy enough that he privately owned several ships. King Henry VII had some sort of acquaintance with Amerike and had encouraged him to use his vessels on journeys of discovery. As one of the most eminent merchants and ship-owners in Bristol at the time of Cabot’s voyage, it makes sense that Cabot would have approached Amerike as a potential subscriber or patron of his voyage.
No record of any such patronage exists, but the theory is that Cabot’s ship, the Mathew, was actually owned by Richard Amerike and that Amerike was the major sponsor for Cabot’s voyage. This is all speculation; the only records of anyone sponsoring Cabot are from a Florentine family. However, we know Cabot must have had sponsors and that he did not own the Mathew, so Amerike’s involvement is not an illogical assumption.
The theory goes on that Cabot, in honor of the patron of his voyage, named the new lands he discovered “America” after Richard Amerike. The Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci consulted the maps of Cabot’s voyage, which had coined the name “America”, and the term passed from Vespucci’s logs onto the famous Martin Waldseemuller map of 1507, the first map to show the New World as a new continent and call it America.
Problems with the Amerike Theory
In my opinion, the theory that America was named after Richard Amerike has several substantial problems:
1) No Documentary Evidence: There is no extant record that Amerike was involved in the Cabot voyage in any way. There is no documentary evidence that Amerike either owned the Mathew or contributed to the 1497 voyage of Cabot. Amerike’s only connection with Cabot was that he was charged by the king with paying Cabot’s pension he was granted in 1497, part of his duties as a customs officer. All other connections are mere conjecture.
2) Cabot Thought He Was in Asia: Much like Columbus, John Cabot died believing he had reached Asia. There is no evidence he understood he was exploring the coast of a hitherto unknown continent. Given this, it is unlikely he would have named the new land. Even explorers who believed they were reaching Asia would name islands or other locations (as Columbus named Hispaniola), but it’s not likely that Cabot would have named an entire continent America which he believed was actually Asia.
3) Origin of the Theory Dates from 1908: As far as anyone can tell, the first time anybody proposed a connection between the names ap Meryck, Amerike, and America was in 1908. It was in that year that a Bristol antiquarian named Alfred Hudd read a paper proposing the theory at the annual gathering of the Clifton Antiquarian Club. The talk later was published in the club’s journal. It generated some controversy, but most historians dismissed it as speculation. Some 20th and 21st century authors have taken up Hudd’s theory, but their arguments have dipped into pseudo-history (e.g., arguing that the U.S. Stars and Stripes are taken from the ap Meryck coat of arms, etc). The fact that there is no attestation of the theory before 1908 is a huge red flag.
4) The Vespucci Theory is Well Attested: The Amerike theory has no documentary evidence supporting it. By contrast, the theory tracing the naming of America after Amerigo Vespucci is very well attested through the Waldseemuller Map of 1507. Given that there is a much clearer pedigree for the Vespucci attribution of America’s name, there’s really no reason to prefer the much more obscure Amerike theory over the well-attested Amerigo Vespucci story.
So, while I really enjoyed learning about the possible connection to Richard Amerike and the Cabot voyages in general–did you know Cabot was lost at sea in 1498 on his third voyage and to this day nobody knows what became of him?–I think I am going to stick with the traditional Amerigo Vespucci theory.