Timing is Everything

Johann Gutenberg's mid-fifteenth-century printing innovations enabled the publication of previously rare manuscripts, among them the work of the second-century cartographer Claudius Ptolemy. His Cosmographia included a significant underestimation of the earth's circumference, which led Christopher Columbus to believe that Asia lay only thirty-five hundred miles across the Atlantic. The political ambitions of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella provided the backing, and Columbus headed west with ninety men.

Columbus was not the first European to reach the New World, but the printing press made him the most famous. His account of the voyage attracted many readers, including Amerigo Vespucci, who explored the South American coast and recognized this landmass as an unknown continent, not Asia. Vespucci observed the prevalence of conflict among neighboring indigenous groups and demonstrated how these disputes could be exploited for European gain.

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Taino house on Hispaniola in Giovanni Battista Ramusio, Delle navigationi et viaggi raccolte da m. Gio. Battista Ramvsio, volvme terzo.

Venetia: Givnti, 1606. Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History (A 1563 .R35 v. 3)

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Native Americans and Europeans in Amerigo Vespucci, Be[i.e., de] ora antarctica per regem Portugallie pridem inuenta.

[Argentine [i.e., Strassburg]: Mathiam hupfuff, 1505.] Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History (A 1505 .V47)

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King Ferdinand , Columbus with his ships, and Taino in Giuliano Dati, La lettera dellisole che ha trouato nuouamente el re dispagna.

[Florence: s.n., 1495.] Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History (A 1495 .D37)

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Sailing into the Caribbean in Christopher Columbus, De insulis nuper in mari Indico repertis, bound with Verardi, Carlo, Historia Baetica.

[Basel]: J[ohann] B[ergmann, de Olpe], 1494. Gift of the Paul Mellon Estate (E115.2 .L1494)

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Claudius Ptolemy Cosmographia.

Vincenza: [Hermannus Liechtenstein], 1475. Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History (A 1475 .P76)