You may know Columbus, Cortes and Magellan, but those brave men were just a few of the adventurers who crossed the globe by boot and boat when the earth was mostly unmapped.
Through history, thousands of explorers have been paid by kings and tempted by the allure of the unknown who pushed into the dark regions of the map. Many have been forgotten by time. Some don’t get the attention they deserve.
Know your history. These are explorers you’ve never heard of.
Ernest Doudart de Lagree (1823 – 1868)
The mighty Mekong River still holds mystery today, hosting an unknown number of man-sized catfish and stingrays, the largest freshwater fish on earth. In 1866, however, the river was far more mysterious to the western world, having only been superficially explored by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries.
Then, a growing superpower, France aimed to open up the east Asian river, and so the French sent in one of their finest naval officers: Capitaine de Fregate, Ernest Doudard de Lagree. The captain led his expedition as far upriver as boats would go before rapids kept the men from navigating further.
Then, the climate and harsh jungle conditions took their toll. Ulcers, fever, dysentery and infected leech wounds wreaked havoc on the crew, and Lagree died from an abscess on his liver.
Lucky for him, his heart made it back to France, literally. A doctor removed it from his body and had it sent back to the fatherland.
Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir (??? – 980)
You know Christopher Columbus, the Genoan seafarer generally regarded as the answer to, “who discovered America?” You’ve probably heard of Erik the Red and his son Leif Eriksson too, Nordic adventurers immortalized in folklore to have made Canadian landfall in the late 10th century (that Nordic folklore even describes the people who preceded the vikings, the Native Americans, called Skraelings).
You’ve probably never heard of Gudrid, however. The daughter of a slave, Gudrid accompanied Erik the Red to Greenland, married his yougest son Thorstein and then followed Thorstein on a quest to the mysterious western lands called Vinland. Today, we know Vinland as Newfoundland, Canada.
And we know Gudrid as the first European to ever give birth on American soil. Her son was named Snorri.
Willem Janszoon (1571 – 1638)
Speaking of Christopher Columbus, Willem Janszoon is basically the Columbus of Australia. A Dutch navigator, he first set foot on Australian soil in 1606 while looking for riches in the haphazardly charted east indies.
Of course, like America, someone was already there, with aboriginal Australians first arriving by boat some 40,000 to 60,000 years before Janszoon (and some 30,000 years before the first Americans crossed over the Bering Strait).
Janszoon met these original Australians, enlisting the men for hunting meat. The locals eventually grew tired of their guests, and, after a number of his compatriots were killed and some of their boats destroyed by fire, Janszoon escaped Australia and island hopped back home.
He retired after more than a decade in politics.
Francisco de Orellana (1511 – 1546)
Maybe the best-known explorer on this short list, Francisco de Orellana was tasked with finding the “Land of Cinammon.” He first departed Quito, in what is now Ecuador, and ventured into the dark heart of South America.
Instead of spice, Orellana found danger, with hundreds of his men dying of disease and wounds incurred during battle with the local Cambeba people, whose habitations once dotted the riverbank from the Amazon’s source in the Andes to its mouth in Venezuela.
It took him several ships, built under impossible circumstances on the river’s shore, but Orellana survived the whole trip, becoming the first human to ever travel the length of the Amazon.
Orellana’s impact is lasting, inspiring Werner Herzog’s strange 1972 classic Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and leaving a trail of unintentional death in his wake. The legacy of smallpox on a population with no resistance to the disease.
Xuanzang (600 – 664)
Whether they circumnavigated the globe by boat or crossed a continent by foot, few explorers in history experienced as many vibrant cultures as those seen by the Chinese scholar and adventurer Xuanzang. For this Buddhist monk, the adventure began with a dream which told him to go west, and so he did.
Traveling by foot across the Gobi Desert, through thief-infested territories in remote northern China to modern Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and through the fabled Iron Gates of the Pamir Mountains.
At that point, his journey was just beginning, with stops in modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and a winding pilgrimage through India still to come.
In all, his journey lasted more than 15 years, and ended just where it began: Ch’ang An, where Xuanzang spent his remaining years writing about western Asia and translating Buddhist texts.
The existence of Harkhuf is known completely from writings in his tomb. He ended his days as an esteemed courtier. His reputation is founded on his early voyages and the manner in which he was acknowledged by the royal court.
The affairs of Nubia were keenly noted by the Old Kingdom Egypt. Rich in gold, the region controlled trade with Africa and was unexplored and vast. Harkhuf’s family was tasked with exploring it. As a young man, he went with his father to the upper country, at King Merenre’s request. He travelled to a land called Iyam, which was a considerable distance away.
Harkhuf travelled alone on his second expedition and brought back exotic gifts. On his third trip, he was given the task to locate the ruler of Iyam and encourage him to stop what he was doing. The ruler had started a battle against the southern Libyans.
This might have been the high point of his profession; however, pride of place in his vault is assumed by a letter he received from the new king, thanking him for an exotic African pygmy he gifted the young king.
Alexander Gordon Laing
Major Alexander Gordon Laing was born on December 27, 1794 and died of September 26, 1826. He was the first European explorer to arrive at the city of Timbuktu.
Major Laing was promoted to captain in 1822 and reassigned to the Royal African Colonial Corps. He went on the first of a succession of explorations intended to abolish the slave trade and open up commerce.
On January 10, 1826, Laing set off on a southern voyage to cross the distance to Timbuktu. There was a serious turn of events when a band of Tuareg attacked the group.
He reported in a letter that he was able to send to Tripoli that the majority of his fellow explorers had been killed. He also told of the multiple wounds he had received, including losing his right hand.
Notwithstanding, he joined a south-bound caravan and on August 18, 1826, he arrived in Timbuktu, 13 months after he left Tripoli. As such, he became the first European to successfully get across the Sahara from north to south. On September 21, 1826, Laing wrote a letter that reached Tripoli.
His letter outlined the difficulties he was facing in the city and noted his intention to depart in three days. It was established later on that he had left and was murdered on the night of September 26, 1826 in the desert.
The Chinese were not too certain of what was to the west of them in the second century B.C. Therefore, its envoy, Zhang Qian, was commissioned by the Han government to explore Central Asian kingdoms and establish new markets for Chinese trade.
Qian voyaged to Bactria (Afghanistan) and came across the remnants of a captivating culture that nomads had forced south into India. Hellenic colonists, the Greco-Bactrians settled in the region after the conquests of Alexander the Great.
They brought to the area European horses, grapevine cultivation and customarily proficient artists. This was reported to the Han court by Qian but he was not done yet.
In spite of the occasional abductions by Xiognu nomads, he unrelentingly crisscrossed the Central Asian steppe and often saw silk and other Chinese goods selling for outrageous prices. As he travelled, Qian made trade agreements with numerous peoples.
Within a decade or so of Qian’s death, traders from China were frequently traveling between the continents to trade goods along paths similar to those explored by Qian. Those routes formed the Silk Road, one of the utmost networks of commercial exchange in history.
Ibn Battuta was the son of middle-class parents from Morocco. He was set to lead a traditional life, which included him becoming a lawyer. However, a pilgrimage to Mecca changed those plans. Though, once he got to that destination, he just kept going on his horse.
After arriving in Mecca, Battuta went on to explore Persia and then returned to Baghdad. He then determined that he would go as often as possible and as far as possible but never travel the same path twice.
For the next 3o years, Battuta kept to his word almost unceasingly and covered 75,000 miles or 120,000 kilometers, a feat that was unrivaled for centuries.
Actually tracing all of the routes taken by this explorer would involve getting a map of Africa, Europe and Asia, then making marks with enough pen lines to render it incomprehensible.
Battuta, for the majority of his travels, explored within the Muslim world. He had insider status and used his privilege to access and observe the customs and traditions of far-flung peoples. He recounted his experiences in The Travels of Ibn Battuta.
At his death in 1857, Holman was possibly the most well-traveled explorer the world had ever seen. He had logged some 250,000 miles or 400,000 kilometers during his lifetime.
It was not in his original plan to become a professional explorer and author; he wanted to become a British naval captain; however, at age 25, a sudden illness took away him of his ability to see.
Undeterred, Holman spent the rest of his life exploring exotic lands and seeking out new experiences. He became known as “The Blind Traveler” and rejected travel companions, bucked cultural conventions and rejected being treated as an invalid.
He initially crisscrossed Europe then tried a mainly overland circumnavigation of the globe. This attempt was barred when he was suspected by Russian authorities of actually being able to see and working as a spy for Great Britain.
Regrettably, little documentation remains of the actual routes travelled by Holman over the next twenty years, when he did the majority of his traveling across Africa and Eurasia.
Nonetheless, there is plenty of proof of his adventures. These include him hunting a crazy elephant in Ceylon and scaling Mount Vesuvius as it was erupting.
Sadly, the writing and travel of James Holman were victims of the prejudice of the era. The 19th-century public did not believe a blind man could explore and observe the world with such depth and insight.
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