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World Explorers: Amerigo Vespucci

5 minutes

(female narrator) An Italian geographer and explorer named Amerigo Vespucci was the first person to realize that the land across the Atlantic was not, in fact, Asia. It was a new world, which, years later, would be named in his honor as "America."

(Describer) Titles: PBS Education. World Explorers: Amerigo Vespucci.

(Describer) The pointer on a timeline moves to 1496 as a map zooms in western Europe. Seville is highlighted in southern Spain.

In 1496, Vespucci, a businessman who dabbled in the shipping industry, met Christopher Columbus in Seville, Spain. Struck by Columbus's tales of adventure and wealth in the West Indies, Vespucci, although over 40 years old, became an explorer to see the lands for himself. Securing a position as a mapmaker and astronomer for a Spanish expedition, he departed from Cadiz in 1499.

(Describer) A dotted line stretches from Spain to South America.

Vespucci reached the Americas and sailed south, becoming the first European to sail across the equator in New World waters. As he explored the South American coast, which he thought was India, Vespucci saw a shoreline of dense forest. Unable to land, he continued sailing, until making another stunning discovery-- fresh water. Although he thought he had reached the Ganges River of India, Vespucci actually reached the enormous mouth of the Amazon River. He navigated up the Amazon and later recounted in a letter, he observed... He also spotted a snake eight times longer than a man's arm and as wide as his waist. Frightened, Vespucci and his crew returned to the sea and sailed home. In 1501, he returned to South America on a Portuguese expedition to explore even more of the mysterious coast. On this journey, he discovered the site now called Rio de Janeiro as well as the La Plata River in Argentina and Uruguay. After deeper investigation of the native people, flora, and fauna, he concluded that this land was not, in fact, India or any part of Asia. Vespucci was convinced that it was an entirely different land-- a fourth continent-- which he called the New World. While he was far below the equator, Vespucci realized he couldn't sail by the North Star, which wasn't high enough for traditional navigation. Instead, he depended on stars and constellations that only shone in the Southern Hemisphere. Vespucci mapped Alpha and Beta Centauri and the Southern Cross-- stars that would guide future explorers of the Southern Hemisphere for centuries. Each night, Vespucci also observed the conjunction of the planets with the moon and compared the time of conjunction to the anticipated time listed in astronomical charts. From these celestial calculations, Vespucci determined how far west he had sailed, the width of the Atlantic Ocean, and thus, that the earth was 25,000 miles around-- greater than Columbus's previous estimate of 20,000 miles. Those extra 5,000 miles validated Vespucci's theory that another continent could fit between Europe and Asia. In 1507, a European mapmaker labeled the southern portion of the New World as America, in honor of Vespucci's realization that the Americas were a continent distinct from Asia. Back in Spain in 1508, Vespucci was awarded the office of master navigator. From then on, he recruited and trained other navigators for further exploration of America. In 1538, 26 years after Vespucci died, another mapmaker marked the name "America" on both the northern and southern halves of the continent, cementing Vespucci's legacy as the namesake of the New World.

(Describer) Titles: PBS Education. World Explorers: Amerigo Vespucci. Accessibility provided by the US Department of Education.

Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

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Amerigo Vespucci was the first person to realize that the land across the Atlantic was not Asia but a new continent. Vespucci explored the South American coast, while journeying down to the Amazon river. Part of the "World Explorers" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 5 minutes

World Explorers
Episode 1
5 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8
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