— From Bristol Times, June 19, 2001 —
It’s all in a name
The debate rumbles on about how America actually got its name. TOM HENRY reports:
WHAT’S in a name? Plenty, if you’ve lent your moniker to the
richest and most powerful nation in the world – the United States of America.
History tells us, and has done for years, that the name of America came from
one Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine transatlantic explorer who was a navigator
with Christopher Columbus in 1499, and the first geographer to realise that the
Americas were separate continents.
But for some years now, this claim to the name has been in dispute.
And nowhere has the debate been hotter than in Bristol, from where it is
believed that the true origins of America came.
Now, a new book by Bristol author Rodney Broome makes a compelling case for a
West Country connection to the name of America.
He looks at all the myths, legends, half-truths and theories surrounding the
story to create a convincing alternative explanation.
Broome’s book Terra Incognita – The True Story of How America Got Its Name
presents the argument that America was named after wealthy Bristol merchant
Richard Amerike, who was an overseas trader living just outside the city in
In the book, the author acknowledges that while Vespucci played an integral
role in the naming of America, he never actually took credit for the name for
However, in 1507 map-maker Martin Waldseemuller prepared a world map almost
entirely from Vespucci’s maps.
In this map, the word ‘America’ is written across South America. In later
editions of the map, Waldseemuller tried to change the name to ‘Terra
Incognita’, or ‘Unknown Land.’
So if the author is correct and Vespucci never claimed that he named America,
where did he get the word ‘America’ from?
According to Broome the answer is simple – English fishermen visited
Newfoundland long before Christopher Columbus or John Cabot crossed the
“Bristol merchants bought salt cod in Iceland until the King of Denmark stopped
the trade in 1475,” he said.
“In 1479, four Bristol merchants received a royal charter to find another
source of fish and trade.
“Not until 1960 did someone find bills of trading records indicating that
Richard Amerike was involved in this business. Records show that in 1481,
Amerike shipped a load of salt (for salting fish) to these men in Newfoundland
and I believe the Bristol sailors named the area after the Bristol merchant
they worked for – Richard Amerike.”
In addition, it is believed that Cabot’s famous voyage to the New World on the
Matthew was directly financed by Amerike.
He calculated that Bristol merchants may be persuaded to take him across the
Atlantic on an officially-sanctioned expedition.
The voyage would be useful for the merchants who were constantly seeking new
trading opportunities and it is thought that Amerike, a senior member of the
Fellowship of Merchants and a customs office, made an application for a licence
for the trip.
Although the first voyage turned back at Iceland, the second, which started out
from Bristol in May 1497, eventually landed on the east cost of America a month
Many believe that Cabot, grateful for the attention he received in England on
completion of the voyage, named an island or territory after his sponsor.
Broome contends that Cabot used the name America for his map, a copy of which
This was purely speculative, he says, until 1955 when a misplaced letter was
found in the Spanish National Archives. The letter confirms that Bristol
merchants had reached Newfoundland earlier, and also notes that John Cabot’s
map was sent to Columbus.
Amerike, whose surname possibly comes from a corruption of the Welsh name ‘ap
Meric’, also had a coat of arms which, if it is to be believed, is a third
piece of evidence in the linkage with the USA.
Six vertical stripes form the background to a row of three horizontal stars,
and the crest’s colours include red, white and blue. Is the obvious resemblance
to the modern-day stars and stripes an amazing coincidence, or something more
Broome comments: “The question then becomes ‘why haven’t we heard of Amerike
before?’ Columbus and Vespucci wrote extensively about their voyages. The
Bristol merchants did not.
“They were businessmen and more concerned about preserving their trade secret:
discovery of the fishing grounds off Newfoundland.
“I’ve always been disappointed that nobody in the US seemed even remotely aware
of Amerike. Vespucci seems to have total market saturation. This is an
important piece of history that people should be aware of.”