Throughout human history, people and societies have been evolving, building on the deeds and achievements of those that came before. From the travels of Marco Polo to the discoveries of Columbus to the exploration of Jacques Cousteau, the world today would be a vastly different place without the accomplishments of these individuals. Read on to learn how the most influential explorers in history changed the world forever!
Born in 1304 into a family of Islamic legal scholars in Tangier, Morocco, Ibn Battuta was 21 years old when he set off from home. While his motivation for leaving was to complete a hajj (pilgrimage) – a journey that ordinarily took 16 months – Ibn Battuta would not return home for another 24 years. In that time, he travelled over 117,000 kilometres, exploring most of the Islamic world and beyond: covering North, East and West Africa, Southern Europe, Anatolia, the Middle East, Persia, India and China. Given the technology of the day, the sheer mileage he covered is an incredible achievement in itself.
Ibn Battuta’s adventures were recounted by memory and recorded into a book, known as the Rihla. While scholars have called into question some of his claims, Ibn Battuta is regardless perhaps the greatest of all the medieval Islamic scholar-explorers. Despite the criticism, his work provides us with an important description of a wide swathe of the 14th-century world.
A rough contemporary of Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo is the father of the European exploratory tradition. As such, he hardly requires any introduction. Born in the Republic of Venice in 1254, Polo began his travelling career with his father and uncle – setting out in 1271 for the Silk Road to China.
In China, Polo met with Kublai Khan, and travelled extensively throughout the East – more than any European before him. On his return, Marco recorded his adventures in a book entitled Livre des Merveilles du Monde, known to many as The Travels of Marco Polo. The writings of Marco Polo had an incredible influence on the development of European cartography and on future explorers; including Christopher Columbus.
As influential as both Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo were, neither man’s discoveries have come close to the same influence of Columbus. Columbus’ discovery, after all, really did change the world. With due deference to Leif Eriksson, we might instead classify Columbus’ achievement as “the Rediscovery of America”. Semantics aside, few other events in history have had quite the same impact as the voyage of three Spanish ships west across the Atlantic in 1492.
It’s true that Columbus’ record in the New World is spotty at best, tyrannical at worst. But whatever sort of man he may have been, he changed the course of history – and the world has never been the same.
Vasco da Gama
One of many famous Portuguese explorers, da Gama was born in the 1460s. The son of the Civil Governor of the city of Sines, Vasco followed his father into the military Order of Santiago in 1480. The connections he made in that order set Vasco on his career in the Portuguese navy. Commissioned by the crown, da Gama made his first voyage in 1497.
Embarking on the longest sea voyage ever undertaken up until that point, Vasco sailed with his fleet of four ships down and around the coast of Africa. Navigating the treacherous Cape of Good Hope, they sailed north to the port of Malindi in modern-day Kenya before crossing to Calicut and Goa in India. As the first Europeans ever to reach India by sea, Vasco da Gama and his men established the Portuguese Empire in the East Indies and opened the way for the age of global imperialism.
The man responsible for the first circumnavigation of the world, Ferdinand Magellan was born into the Portuguese nobility in 1480. Commissioned by Charles I of Spain to find a westward route to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, he set out in 1519 with a fleet of five ships. The voyage was long, taking Magellan and his men down along the coast of West Africa before they crossed the Atlantic to Brazil. They then proceeded to sail down the South American coastline looking for a passage that would take them to the Pacific Ocean. Between the South American mainland and the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, they found it; what is now called the Strait of Magellan.
Magellan himself would not survive the completion of the journey; he met his end in the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines. Indeed, only one ship would survive the voyage and return to Spain (three years after setting out) with just 18 of the fleet’s original 270-strong crew. While Magellan had failed to complete the journey himself, his expedition proved that the world could be circumnavigated by sea, although it was much larger than had originally been thought.
An English explorer, privateer, naval officer and slave trader, Sir Francis Drake was born in Devonshire around the year 1540. Beginning his naval career early, the young Drake was apprenticed by his father to the master of a coastal trader. He was twenty when he made his first trip to Africa, and twenty-three when he sailed to America. During this time, he was already engaged in slave trading and privateering against the Spanish and Portuguese; and he would carry on these hostile acts for the rest of his life, attacking Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World.
Indeed, some of Drake’s most famous actions took place in the 1570s when, now with a crew and ships of his own, he attacked gold and silver trains in the Isthmus of Panama. But Drake’s achievements extend far beyond state-sanctioned piracy. Between the years 1577 and 1580 he completed the second single-journey circumnavigation of the globe (Drake was the first person to complete the journey as a captain). As to his influence? Well, who hasn’t heard of the great Sir Francis Drake?
James Cook; where didn’t this man go? A British cartographer, navigator and explorer, as well as a captain in the Royal Navy, Cook enjoyed an incredible career at sea. Born in 1728, he first went to sea as a teenager, when he joined the British merchant navy. In 1755, he enlisted in the Royal Navy, and was only a year into his naval service when the Seven Years’ War erupted. Cook’s work surveying and mapping the mouth of the St. Lawrence River during the siege of Quebec got him noticed by the Royal Society and the Admiralty, and in 1766 he was given his first command.
Cook and the HMS Endeavour would embark on three Pacific voyages over the rest of his life. The first European to explore the eastern shoreline of Australia, Cook charted thousands of miles of previously unmapped coastline; from New Zealand to Hawaii. Cook was killed in 1779, attempting to kidnap the King of Hawaii; however, his legacy of scientific and geographic discovery held influence over fellow explorers well into the twentieth century.
When it comes to explorers, there are relatively few whose stories capture the public imagination and are engraved there in perpetuity. Ernest Shackleton is perhaps one of them. Born in 1874 into an Anglo-Irish family in County Kildare, Ireland, Shackleton was 16 when he first went to sea. Shackleton learned the art of seamanship well, and at the age of 24 received his certification as a Master Mariner, qualifying him to command a British ship anywhere in the world.
Some luck in networking got Shackleton a place on the National Antarctic Expedition (1901-03) under Robert Falcon Scott. Shackleton and Scott were rumoured to have fallen out on this voyage, but it was just the beginning for Shackleton. He quickly grew in popularity at home, and would lead three further expeditions to Antarctica. The second, aboard the HMS Endurance proved the most famous. Shackleton would not survive his final expedition. He suffered a fatal heart attack the day after arriving into South Georgia. Ernest Shackleton died the last of the great Polar Heroes.
Few names out of the twentieth century capture the public imagination, even to this day, as that of Amelia Earhart. The renowned female aviator was born into modest circumstances. During the First World War she volunteered as a nurse in Toronto, and while there she succumbed to pneumonia and fell victim to the chronic sinusitis that would plague her the rest of her life. It was in Toronto though, at an air fair at the Canadian National Exhibition, that she decided she wanted to become a pilot.
Four years later, in 1923, she became the 16th woman in the United States to receive her pilot’s license. In 1932, Earhart completed her famous solo flight across the Atlantic, becoming the first woman in the world to do so. In 1937, Earhart set off hoping to break another record: a circumnavigation of the globe. Unfortunately, this second journey would prove to be ill-fated. After completing most of the legs, from east to west, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan went missing over the Pacific and were never found. Achieving a wide-degree of celebrity within her lifetime, Earhart’s legacy is one of breaking down barriers. Allowing for new interpretations of woman’s role in society.
Jacques Cousteau was many things: naval officer, inventor, explorer, conservationist, photographer, filmmaker and more. However, it is his role in opening up the ocean depths to science and human understanding that made Cousteau a household name and earned him the title: the Father of Ocean Exploration.
Cousteau dedicated his life to ocean exploration, and produced a vast number of works. From marine conservation to documentaries to the co-invention of the Aqua-lung (the first real SCUBA: self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), Jacques Cousteau’s legacy is both diverse and incredibly important. In the context of the ongoing environmental and climate crises, Cousteau’s words ring more true today than ever: “The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat.”
Born in the small village of Klushino in Smolensk-Oblast USSR in 1934, Yuri Gagarin joined the Soviet Air Force in the early 1950s and by 1959 had reached the rank of senior lieutenant. In 1960, Gagarin was selected along with 19 other pilots to participate in the Soviet Space Program. Yuri was incredibly popular among his peers, and when asked who they thought deserved the first flight most – all but three named Gagarin.
The Vostok 1 flight was a huge success for the Soviet Space Program: simultaneously ushering in the Space Age, and making Gagarin an international celebrity as the first man in space. Just as Cousteau opened up the oceans to human exploration, Yuri Gagarin opened up a whole new theatre of exploration to humankind: one more vast than any hitherto experienced.
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