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By Dan Kashagama

One of the most intriguing tales is how America, which Senator McCain once called a European power (shortly before the 2000 election), is inadvertently named for African people (not to mention the fact that Europa was also an African woman). I say “inadvertently” because in fact America is named for two men, neither of whom is African as far as I can tell. One is the Italian Vespucci Amerigo, and the other is a wealthy Welshman named Richard Amerik. America was simultaneously named after two men who did not know each other. The name they gave it means 'Land of Africans'. Isn’t life stranger than fiction?

The first man, Richard Amerik, was the King’s Customs Officer for Bristol in 1486, 1490 and 1497. Bristol is the British port that was once the main port from which English voyages of discovery sailed in the late 15th century. Amerik was a wealthy merchant and was the chief sponsor for John Cabot’s (an Italian) expedition to New Foundland in 1497. John Cabot landed in the “New World” in May 1497. He reached Labrador and mapped the coastline from what is now Nova Scotia to Newfoundland. As the chief customs official in Bristol, Richard Amerik most certainly had his name, and documents proving authority on behalf of the king, attached to the maps and the letters pertaining to Cabot's voyage.

The other man Vespucci Amerigo, took voyages in 1499-1500 and 1501-1502 along the coast of what is now South America, where he "discovered" the Rio Plata. In 1507 Vespucci's findings were published, and the lands were called America, but the name appears to have applied only to South America. There are concerns by supporters of the Richard Amerik theory, that in general lands were named for the latinized last names of explorers (and first names for kings), so that South America - had it been named for Amerigo - should correctly be Vespuccica (or some such name). Perhaps Vespuccica was a mouthful. In anycase the Richard Amerik supporters have an issue with the use of Vespucci's first name, and say that their man is the one for whom the lands are named.

The Vespuccicans, on the other hand point to the fact that their man published widely, was more famous, and popularized the name America. Martin Waldseemuller, a German mapmaker, gave the New World the name America based on reports of Vespucci, but did they know about John Cabot and Richard Amerik? Regardless of who became the more famous, it appears that South America is named for Vespucci Amerigo, and North America for Richard Amerik. It is an amazing accident that they both happened to give the lands the same name. Then again Vespucci seems to have lied at least about some crucial details of his voyages. There is no way to know what his motivation was when he agreed to have the land named America, instead of Vespuccica or Vespuca. Perhaps Amerigo was a family name of one of his ancestors.

Regardless of Vespucci's mysterious activities, the name Amerigo does have a meaning that may be independent of his intentions. Like in other places around the world, there is a long tradition in Europe that attached meaning to names. People were generally named by reason of their ancestry, location, for gods or saints or heroes, physical appearance, character, order of birth, or profession. It is this aspect of the name America that interests me. What is the origin and meaning of America?

The word America is a Welsh name with a Latin suffix. The Welsh name Amerik is derived from “ap Meuric”, Welsh for Son of Maurice. Another Welsh version of the name Meuric is Meurig. The italized version of "ap Meurig" is Amerigo. In otherwords, Amerik and Amerigo are the same name. The names Meuric and Meurig are variants of Maurice, which is derived from the word Maure, commonly used by ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, Celts and Romans to refer to Black Africans. For example St. Isidore de Seville, who was born in 560 AD and died in April 636 AD, wrote that Maurus means "Black" in Greek.

However, both Richard Amerik and Amerigo Vespucci may have had substantive African relations. Amerigo worked in the Court of the De Medici's of Florence, and was in Seville and other parts of Moorish Spain. Many people at that time had family names that indicated that perhaps some of their near ancestors were in fact Moorish.

The original Welsh Meurics for whom Richard Amerik and perhaps Vespucci Amerigo were named, were Moorish knights in the Brithonic lands in Wales and Europe. There is sufficient proof in the sagas of Cymru (Wales) of Black knights and lords. In fact the tales of King Arthur (circa 550 CE) and other leaders mention Maurs (also known as Moors). The two most famous ones in the Celtic sagas are Pallamedes and Moren both of whom were Arthurian knights. Even more venerated than these two were the Tuatha de Danaan, the ancestral Irelanders who reputedly came from ancient Kemet, and among whom was one Ogham, who qualifies as an archetypal Meurig.

Then again the Meurigs of Cymru need not have been black in order to have acquired that name. Welsh crusaders had alliance with Nubian crusaders. Sir Madog, a lord of Cymru, born 1300 in Coity, Glamorgan, Wales, was Knight of the Holy Sepulchre and eminent leader of the Crusades. Incidentally this Madog’s father was named Meuric (Another Welshman also named Madog is said to have arrived in America in 1170). There is no way to know to know why exactly Amerigo and Richard Amerik were named for Maroons (people of Moorish origin). But things have a way of acquiring significance with the passage of time. Isn’t it just fascinating that America actually translates “Land of the Blacks”? Or more precisely, "Land of the Maure's Son".

There are other meanings of the name America that are even more interesting from a contemporary political point of view, and especially from the point of view of Deconstructionism. The word Moor (a varient of Maur or Meurig) is loaded all by itself without locating it in the hallowed precincts of the land between the shinning seas. The word Moor has had its own safari, say from Shakespearean times when Moor meant Black, to more recent times when the word seems to have gone out of fashion, but not before it became the popular name for African descendants of Yemenis in Mauretania (The Bani Hassan Yemenis first settled in Mauretania in 1630). Today descendants of the Beni Hassan are found in The Gambia where some also claim descent from the Wolofs, in Senegal, and in all of Western Sahara.

In the late 1400s, the Italian Roberto di San Severino in his writings clearly distinguishes between Moors (blacks) and Arabs. In describing his journey to Mount Sinai, san Severino writes on the observance of the Muslim month of Ramadan, stating "Their 'Ramatana' lasts a month, and every day they fast. They neither eat nor drink until the evening, that is until the hour of the stars; and this custom is followed by the Moors as well as the Arabs." Beginning in the 1800s Moor generally meant an African-Arab or an African-Moslem. In the l9th century there was an effort to conflate the terms for Arabs, Muslims, Berbers, Jews and Moors in order to obscure the role of blacks in world history. Nonetheless, many terms related to Moor acquired other religious attachments. For example, the Morisco were Moors in Christian Spain.

However, the Maroon community in Jamaica, and the states of Morocco, Mauretania and America, were named in the context in which the base term Moor (Maur) is unattached to the religious connotations, but rather to its original context in which it refers to Africans in general or to blacks specifically. It seems to me that the same applies to the naming of the state of Mauritius in the AU, although it was given the name in 1810. In any case it might be worthwhile to ponder at the revelation that America may also mean “Land of the African Muslims”. Or perhaps even more arresting, “Land of the Black Moslems”. Semioticians and deconstructionists should have a field-day analysing the terms African-American, European-American, Latin American, etc., in this context. I doubt very much that Richard Amerik and Vespucci Amerigo ever dreamed their names would end up attached in this way to the inscrutable and sometimes ironic processes of history.

25 January 2003