Countries are sometimes named for tribes (France, England, Poland), sometimes for rivers (India, Niger, Congo, Zambia), sometimes for a crop (Malta, honey), sometimes for a city in Italy (Venezuela, Venice), sometimes for the name Marco Polo brought back from China (Japan), sometimes for a geographic feature (Montenegro), sometimes with a portmanteau word (Tanzania = Tanganyika + Zanzibar).
On the other hand, there are countries named for an actual historical personage, some twenty-six at last count, and many of these trace back to the European voyages of discovery.
Several island nations are thus named for Christian saints: Sao Tome e Principe, St Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Granadines, the Dominican Republic.
Voyages out in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean led to other countries being named for Europeans. The island nations of Mauritius and the Seychelles are named for a Dutch political figure (Prince Maurice van Nassau) and a French Minister of Finance (Jean Moreau de Sėchelles), respectively. The archipelago of the Philippines is named for King Philipp II of Spain.
In the Americas, there are four mainland countries named as a result of those voyages and named for actual people: Bolivia (Simon Bolivar), Columbia (Christopher Columbus), El Salvador (Jesus the Messiah) and, of course, the United States of America (Amerigo Vespucci).
Amerigo Vespucci – who dat? How did it come to pass that the two continents of the New World are named for a Florentine intellectual and not for Christoforo Colombo, the hard-working, dead-reckoning, God-fearing mariner from Genoa? Mystère.
To start, Columbus believed that he had reached the Indies, islands off the east coast of Asia. In elementary school, we all learn that Columbus believed the world was round and that gave him the courage to strike out west in search of a route to the Indies. But Columbus wasn’t alone in this belief; it was widespread among mariners at the time and even went back to the ancient Greeks. The mathematician Eratosthenes of Alexandria, known as “the Father of Geography,” came up with an ingenious way of measuring the earth’s circumference and gave a remarkably good estimate. Later, in the middle ages, scholars in Baghdad improved on Eratosthenes’ result; that work was included in a treatise by the geographer Alfraganus that dates from 833 A.D. and this estimate is referenced in Imago Mundi a Latin text Columbus had access to. However, a kind of Murphy’s Law intervened; at some point in the chain of texts and translations, due presumably to a clash between the longer Arabic mile (7091 ft.) and the shorter Roman mile (4846 ft.), confusion arose. The self-taught Columbus was thus led to believe that the world was much smaller than it really was; in 1492 he was truly convinced that he had reached the outskirts of Asia. In fact, scholars argue that Columbus would never have undertaken his voyage west had he not thought the route to Asia was much shorter than it is. It is likely that, to the end, Columbus held firm that he had reached the Indies; in any case, he certainly didn’t say otherwise until it was too late.
Enter a young, well-connected Florentine. Amerigo Vespucci was working in the 1490’s in Spain for the Medici banking empire. After news of Columbus’ first voyage reached Europe, many navigators sailed west from Europe to report back to crowns and banks on the possibility of new riches. Among them, John Cabot (aka Giovanni Caboto), himself an agent of the Medici bank in England, who captained a voyage in 1497 that reached the Canadian mainland. Vespucci, for his part, participated in several of these voyages of discovery out of Portugal and Spain. During this time, he sent a letter to his onetime class mate Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici in Florence detailing some of his adventures. This letter was translated into Latin, the lingua franca of Europe, and given the title Novus Mundus. It was published in Florence in 1502 (or early 1503); the letter went viral and was translated and reprinted throughout Europe. It states plainly that Vespucci had seen a New World:
 “… in those southern parts I have found a continent more densely peopled and           abounding in animals than our Europe or Asia or Africa …”
He describes encounters with indigenous peoples along the east coast of today’s South America and recounts his travels all the way down to Argentina. Vespucci’s proclamation is to be contrasted with Columbus’ assurance that he had reached the Indies themselves. A second text, known as Lettera al Soderini was published shortly after in Italian and it too was translated and read all over Europe. Scholars continue to debate, however, whether the published texts, especially this second one, were the actual letters of Vespucci or exaggerated accounts written up by others based on his letters.
Enter a young, brilliant German mapmaker, Martin Waldseeműller, who held a position at the cartography school founded by the Duke of Nancy at Saint- Diė-des-Vosges in the Lorraine area of Eastern France. Waldseeműller headed up a team to produce a map of the world that would take the latest discoveries into account. Inspired by Vespucci’s letters, he and his Alsatian colleague Martin Ringmann boldly named most of what is now South America in honor of Vespucci labeling it America. To that end, they took the Latin form of Amerigo which is Americus and made it feminine to accord with the Latin feminine nouns Europa, Africa and Asia.
Click HERE for the map, published in 1507, that introduced America to the world. Just think though, the name Amerigo is not Latin in origin but is derived from the Gothic name Heinrich. Waldseeműller and Ringmann were both German speakers. So had Waldseeműller and Ringmann resorted to their native German rather than Latin, we would be living in the United States of Heinrich-Land. That was close, wasn’t it?
Waldseeműller was less bold in the maps he made a bit later in 1513, labeling the area he had called “America” simply as “Terra Incognita” as he was likely criticized for the bold stroke of 1507. He also added the information that the new discoveries were due to Columbus of Genoa on behalf of the monarchs of Spain. The myth of Queen Isabella pawning her jewels to finance Columbus has the role of establishing the primacy of the monarchs in underwriting the early voyages of discovery while in fact it was more the Medici and other banks who funded the explorations; in Columbus’ case it was the financier Luis de Santángel – a converso, by which is meant a Jew who converted to Christianity (this was the time of the Inquisition). Later voyages were financed by companies themselves such as the Dutch East India Company and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Vespucci, for his part, went on to an important career in Spain where he was appointed to the position of Pilot Major of the Indies, in charge of voyages of discovery (piloto mayor de Indias).
Enter a young, brilliant Flemish mapmaker with a mathematical orientation. Gerardus Mercator’s world map of 1538 depicted the two new world continents as distinct from Asia and labeled them North America and South America. This stuck. Later in 1569, he introduced the Mercator Projection which was a major boon to navigation. The disadvantage of this projection is that land masses towards the poles look too big, e.g. Greenland. The great advantage is that it gets compass directions and angles right. In sailor-speak, a straight line on the projection is a “rhumb line” at sea. So if the flat map says sail directly North West, use your compass to find which direction is North West and you’ll be pointed the right way. This is an example of craft anticipating science. Mathematicians had to work hard to get a proper understanding of the geometric insights underlying the Mercator Projection; in math-speak, this kind of projection is called a “conformal mapping.” Conformal mappings have important applications still today in fields such as the General Theory of Relativity – something about “flattening out space-time.” The upshot is that Mercator’s authority helped establish North America and South America as the names of the newly discovered continents.