Most Famous Explorers of All Time
Since the dawn of time, human beings have always been very curious of the world around them. Often times, those explorations and adventures into the unknown accrued immense benefits to not just the brave explorers but the entire society. On the flip side, some of their discoveries opened the door wide open for unspeakable miseries to be inflicted on the people by the explorers, or at worse the complete decimation of the indigenous people.
From Captain James Cook to the Tangier-born explorer Ibn Battuta, Worldhistoryedu.com presents 10 most renowned explorers and travelers of all time.
Ever wonder where the name “America” came from? Well, wonder no more. The name was derived from the Florentine-born navigator and explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Widely claimed as the first European to discover the Amazon River and Cape St. Augustine, Amerigo Vespucci was without question one of the greatest explorers from Europe. His first voyage came on May 10, 1497, when he sailed from Candiz with a well-stocked fleet of Spanish ships.
Under the command of Alonzo de Ojeda, Amerigo served as a navigator on a voyage that saw them cross the equator and make their way to the coast of Guyana. He then left his commander and sailed to the Brazilian coast. Amerigo would go on to discover present-day Rio de Janeiro and Rio de la Plata. Thinking his discoveries were on a new continent, he called South America the New World.
Captain James Cook
Born on October 27, 1728 in Marton, England, Captain James Cook is considered by many as the most eminent explorer to come from England. The naval captain, navigator and explorer attained very important feats in his lifetime, making him an influential figure in Europe’s exploration age.
Best known for exploring the South Pacific Ocean, James Cook had a knack for cartography (map making and usage) and began his career as an apprentice for merchant seamen. Gradually, he learnt the ropes and made it into the British merchant navy in 1755. By the age of 29, he had been promoted to ship master in the navy. When the Seven Years War (1756-1763) broke out, Cook enlisted and distinguished himself very brilliantly; he famously lead his crew to capture an enemy ship for the British Royal Navy.
His superiors and admirals noticed Cook’s abilities in navigation and creating and reading of maps. In 1768, Cook was appointed commander of the HM Bark Endeavour intended for the first scientific expedition to the Pacific Ocean. The mission, which was bankrolled by England’s Royal Society, saw Captain Cook sail into the uncharted parts of the Pacific, covering several thousands of miles. Cook also became the first European in recorded history to make contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. In 1770, he became the first person in recorded history to circumnavigate New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. That voyage of his was no simple task, as the place was known to be a very dangerous place to navigate.
Captain Cook’s extensive mapping of the Pacific went a long way in inspiring future generations of explorers to keep exploring the region. He was praised across the West as a very brave and astute seaman and surveyor.
Captain James Cook died in his third voyage in the Pacific. He was killed during a skirmish involving an indigenous chief on the island of Hawaii.
Did you know: Captain James Cook’s voyages in the Pacific helped disprove the existence of Terra Australis – a continent that was rumored to be in the Pacific region?
When discussing Christopher Columbus from every conceivable angle, one quickly realizes that the Italian explorer could either be vilified as a villain or praised as a hero. It is common knowledge that his numerous voyages to the Caribbean and South America paved the way for many Spanish Conquistadors to callously upend the lives, culture and social structure of the indigenous population. In that regard, the “invader” could be described as anything but greedy and reckless.
On the other hand, Columbus’ brave voyages across the Atlantic made the world look smaller in a lot of ways, introducing Europe to not just the histories of centuries’ old civilizations, but also new plant and animal species, ideas, and cultures.
Born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy, Christopher Columbus first voyages came as a teenager. The renowned explorer and navigator learnt the ropes by sailing with seamen and traders to the Mediterranean Sea coasts and the Aegean Sea. In his youthful years, he once sailed as far as the island of Khios (located in modern-day Greece).
Desiring to see more and be more in the world of exploration, Columbus in 1492 set out to discover a western sea route to India. His famous Santa Maria vessel was accompanied by two other wooden vessels – the Niña and the Pinta. In the dozen years to come, between 1492 and 1504, Columbus and his crew famously embarked on four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. He thus accrued fame and wealth, as he was proclaimed the first European to set foot on the Caribbean and South America.
His reputation took a beating in the later part of his life because of the numerous horrific ordeals he and his men put the indigenous population through. Also, Christopher Columbus went to his grave [on May 20, 1506] strongly holding on to the view that his route across the Atlantic was a shortcut to Asia.
Did you know: October 12, 1492 was the day Christopher Columbus set foot on the shores of the Americas?
Vasco da Gama
In honor of Vasco da Gama’s momentous expeditions in the 1500s, a crater on the Moon was befittingly named after him. Born in 1460 in the coastal town of Sines, Portugal, Vasco da Gama grew up always wanting to be an explorer just like his father, Estevao. The Portuguese explorer learnt the trade and quickly went on to serve as a command for a number of ships owned by the Portuguese monarch.
With the over land journey from Europe to India being long and challenging, explorers of the time sought to find an alternate sea route to the Indian subcontinent. India was by then a very important trading partner famous for its spices that many European merchants found simply irresistible. With enough backing from the King of Portugal, explorer Vasco da Gama took it upon himself to solve the task of finding a way to India by sea.
da Gama relied on the findings of fellow explorer Bartolomeu Dias – i.e. the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost part of south Africa. Da Gama, like many other explorers and navigators, reasoned that he could sail around Cape of Good Hope and then head northeast to India. Between the Cape and India, lay the vast uncharted Indian Ocean. Vasco da Gama was the explorer brave enough to put his life and the lives of his crew on the line to sail across the Indian Ocean to India.
On his first voyage [in July, 1497] to India, he commanded a crew of about 170 men aboard the fleet of four ships given to him by the king of Portugal. Along the journey, Vasco da Gama made some stops at some famous trading ports on the eastern coast of Africa, most notably Malindi and Mombasa. With some help from a Malindi-based navigator, Vasco da Gama and his crew made it to the shores of Calicut, India, around December, 1497.
Vasco da Gama, the first European in recorded history to travel from Europe to India via the tip of the African continent, made it back home to a hero’s welcome. On his return home, he reported losing more than half of his crew to scurvy and other forms of sicknesses.
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés’ exploits are some of the reasons why Spanish conquistadors were so reviled by the indigenous people of the Americas. And who could blame them? Explorer Cortés’ exploration of Central America ended up butchering over 100,000 indigenous people for the price of the entirety of Mexico.
Hernán Cortes, the man who brought down the Aztec empire, began sailing to the New World at the age of 19. His expedition to Cuba proved to be extremely valuable to his future exploration and conquest of Mexico, which he sailed to in 1518. Cortes realized that he had to quickly form make friends with some tribes in the region if he was to accomplish his goal of bringing down the famous Aztec empire. Once that was done, Cortés mercilessly brought the Tlaxacan and Cholula tribes to yield before conquering the Aztec empire.
Not so much perturbed by the manner in which Hernán Cortés callously won Mexico for Spain, King Charles I of Spain (or Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) appointed Cortés New Spain’s governor in 1522.
Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan is most known for leading the first European voyage to circumnavigate the globe.
Born in 1480 to a wealthy family in the northern part of Portugal, Magellan spent much of youth honing his skill set in cartography. He also served the Spanish crown as a page. In his mid-20s he joined the Portuguese fleet that sailed to East Africa. He also fought in the 1509 Battle of Diu that saw Portuguese fleet vanquish Egyptian ships in the Arabian Sea.
His circumnavigation expedition was made possible due to the support received from Charles V of Spain. In September 1519, he set sail towards the west, hoping to find an alternative route to eastern Asia via the Americas. Accompanying Magellan were about 270 men and the five ships donated by Charles V.
After riding the storm as well as a mutiny, Magellan discovered a strait that he called the All Saints’ Channel. Upon reaching the ocean on the other side, Magellan famously called the ocean Pacifico, a name that translates to “peace”. In March 1521, he arrived at Homonhom Island – near the Philippines – with only about half of the 270 men that sailed with him at the start of the voyage.
Magellan quickly developed trade relations with Rajah Humabon, the ruler of the island. After some time the two men fell out and a battle ensued. On April 27, 1521, Ferdinand Magellan and a significant number of his men died in the battle. Command of the voyage was taken up by Juan Sebastian del Cano, who led what was left of the crew back to Europe in September 1522.
Coming at number 7 on our list of famous explorers is another Venetian explorer in the person of John Cabot. When John Cabot first set foot on the shores of North America, he, as it was common for many explorers to mistake the Americas for Asia, thought he was in Asia. Cabot quickly placed the British flag in the soil and claimed it for Britain. The land that Cabot had set sail to was modern-day Canada. It is unclear as to where exactly in Canada Cabot first set foot; some historians state that it was mainland Nova Scotia, while other accounts of the story place it at Cape Breton Island.
Buzzing with joy of his newfound territory, John Cabot raised his sail and headed back to Europe in May 1498. Unfortunately, the renowned explorer never made it back home. His ship disappeared with no trace of his whereabouts. It is most likely Cabot’s ships ran into some difficulties in the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. And even though what happened to Cabot, his ship and crew men remain a mystery, his adventures and spectacular discovery have lived on, making him one of the greatest explorers the world has ever seen.
After discovering North America, explorer John Cabot met his untimely death sometime in 1499 or 1500 after he and his crew of about 300 men disappeared on their way back to Europe.
Sir Francis Drake
Growing up and listening to famed stories of Ferdinand Magellan’s historic circumnavigation of the world, Francis Drake must have desired nothing else than to be on the seas and traveling to new places. The English admiral patient honed his navigation skills and successfully circumnavigated the world. By so doing, he became the second seaman in history to accomplish such an arduous task. Upon his return to England, he was received as hero, with Queen Elizabeth I making him a knight.
Sir Francis Drake was also part of the Queen’s forces that famously repelled the Spanish Armada in 1588. In 1596, he died of dysentery.
Departing China in the last decade of the 13th century, Marco Polo accompanied a Mongol princess to Persia. The Venetian explorer, who did not get much recognition in his lifetime, had spent the previous two decades or so in China. In his book The Travels of Marco Polo, the explorer details how he first travelled from Europe to Asia and then settling in China. He would go on to quickly familiarize himself with the customs and traditions of the Chinese people. In time, the people grew fond of him, appointing him as their governor. He also maintained a very good relationship with the the Mongol ruler – Kublai Khan – who was then ruler of China. Polo even went on to serve in the Privy Council of the Kublai Khan.
Born on February 25, 1304 in Tangier, Morocco, Ibn Battuta is most renowned for his ground breaking exploits as a traveler and explorer. He was perhaps the greatest explorer of his era because he devoted about three decades of his life extensively traveling the world, visiting numerous places and experiencing different cultures.
All in all, it has been estimated that explorer Battuta chalked close to 80,000 miles on his travels, seeing about 44 modern-day countries. For example, Ibn Battuta travelled the length and breadth of the east coast of Africa, visiting countries like Tanzania and Somalia. He also had very fond memories from his visit to the famous Mali city of Timbuktu, where he shared his experiences with the local rulers. Prior to that he had explored places in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), Iraq, and Persia among others.
Many of Ibn Battuta’s journeys took him along the famous Silk Road that connected the East to the West. In India, for example, he had very good interactions with the Sultan of Delhi, who allowed him to preside over some court proceedings. Around 1354, he was awe struck during his visit to Quanzhou, China. His journey didn’t end there; Battuta also visited Hangzhou, Beijing, Guangzhou, Grand Canal, and the Great Wall of China, spending a number of days as a guest of the Mongol Khan.