42 Extraordinary Facts About European Explorers

Christine Tran

The so-called “Age of Exploration” took place from the 15th to 17th century. European kingdoms invested their entire fortunes to discover new trade routes and feed the beast of early capitalism. Even centuries later, Europe still couldn’t get enough of “exploration,” as ships continued to set forth in search of land, money, food, or scientific discovery well into the early 20th century. Over the centuries, European seafarers have done some undoubtedly wild (and disgraceful) things to survive and profit. Below are 42 startling facts about the explorers of Europe.

European Explorers Facts

42. Can’t Be Frozen Out

At the start of WWI, the British explorer Ernest Shackleton set out to conquer Antarctica with a crew of 28 men. Before they could even arrive, their boat was frozen solid in the middle of the ocean and would not melt out for ten months. Once the ice started to thaw, they had to make their way in a lifeboat across an ocean of sharks, icebergs, and German raiders. Finally, they arrived on the inhabited South Georgia Island… on the wrong side. Walking across to human populated shores, they finally made it… a full three years after they set sail but, miraculously, short only three men!

41. When Dinner Is the Show

David Livingstone was a 19th century British explorer who—in a twist for the British—found himself the subject of a foreign, objectifying gaze! In March 1869, Livingstone was stranded with extreme illness after traveling along the rivers of Africa. Arriving in Ujiji to find his supplies stolen, he was forced to rely on slave traders for support. Livingstone earned his keep by eating his meals in a roped-off enclosure for the entertainment of the locals.

40. Ungrateful Guests

Next time you’re celebrating February 14th as Valentine’s Day, you can also think of the day in 1779 when Captain James Cook was killed in battle against Native Hawaiians. Cook had been attempting to kidnap their chief, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, after months of Cook and his crew exploiting the hospitality of their hosts. 

39. 25 to Life

Nicolo de Conti was one of the first Europeans to reach Indonesia and suggest it was possible to reach Asia by sailing around Africa. It only cost him 25 years of travel from 1414 to 1439.

38. It’s Dead Simple

Before Google Maps, there was “dead reckoning,” a technique used to measure a ship’s speed that involved estimating the speed floating of bubbles and ocean debris, then dividing that sum by time measures. Columbus kept a sand hourglass on his ship that was specifically used for dead reckoning. Gotta say, the name sounds a lot cooler than what it really is.

37. Home Tongue Hospitality

To their surprise, the first pilgrims at Plymouth Colony were greeted by a Native Wampanoag in English! The man, Samoset, had already begun to learn the colonizer tongue from fishermen along the coast. (No spoilers, but early pilgrims did not equally reciprocate Samoset’s sensitivity towards the languages of others…).

36. Yo-Ho, Yo-Ho, A Non-Perishable Life for Me

A sailor’s meal would be prepared months in advance and made from food which would not spoil abroad. If you find yourself aboard a European vessel from this time (it could happen…), prepare for a regimen of condensed soup, beer, biscuits, salted beef and pork, peas and dried cod.

35. Second Time’s the Charm

The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman is often credited for the European “discovery” of New Zealand and Tasmania. And yet, he somehow completely missed Australia, only finding the huge island continent on his second time around.

34. Laying Waste to Landlubber Life

The Age of Exploration left a huge eco-footprint. In the 17th century, the oak forests of Poland were cleared to make ships for Dutch voyages to the East Indies. Each ship required about 4,000 planks and each plank would only last about one or two voyages before rotting and needing replacement.

33. The Hole Truth About Death

The last moments of David Douglas were literally bull. The 19th century Scottish botanist and explorer was scaling Mauna Kea in Hawaii when he fell into a pit trap. He survived the fall, but was instantly killed when a bull fell into the trap soon after, crushing him.

32. A Crusade Without Cue Cards

In 1962, the French explorer Michel Siffre secluded himself inside of glacier in the abyss of Scarasson for two months. Why? He wanted to prove that humans had an internal biological clock. Siffre and several others went on to prove that humans could adjust to a 48-hour cycle, rather than a 24-hour cycle, without external time cues.

31. Under the Hill & Underwhelmed

Australia’s Mount Disappointment is named after an underwhelming voyage which ended in groin injury. Two European explorers named Hume and Hovell hoped to view the distant Port Phillip Bay from atop the mountain. Unfortunately, its enormous trees obstructed their gaze. Hume also suffered a painful groin injury nearby, necessitating a five-day rest for their traveling party (that’s a serious groin injury!). Consequently, the British explorers named the mountain after their letdown adventure.

30. Losers Keepers, Finders Weepers!

It was actually Christopher Columbus’s ship captain, Rodrigo de Triana, who was the first to spot land in the New World. However, that charmer Columbus would later claim that, no, Columbus himself had beat Triana, having seen the shores several hours earlier that day, for swearsie realises! And for this reason, it was Columbus who scored that sweet lifetime pension promised by King Ferdinand to the first man who made that sighting.

29. Nepotism Strikes Again

In 1925, the British Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett entered the Brazilian jungles in search of the City of “Z,” his modern day El Dorado. He turned down help from the famed adventurer T.E. Lawrence—otherwise known as “Lawrence of Arabia” (!!!)—in favor of his less experienced 21-year-old son, Jack, who shared his dad’s zeal for the myth of “Z.” The traveling party disappeared into the Amazon and were never to be seen again.

28. An Ugly Inheritance

Ferdinand Magellan died before he could complete his quest to circumnavigate the globe. The last 16 months of this voyage were completed by his successor, Juan Sebastian Elcano. Elcano inherited a crew at half its original size, and because Magellan had renounced his Portuguese citizenship to sail for the Spanish, Elcano and the rest of he ship were, technically, pirates on Portuguese waters (aka the entire Indian Ocean). Miraculously, they survived, braving starvation as Elcano led the ship through the Indian Ocean without going into any port. Only 18 of Magellan’s original 240 men made it back to Spain alive.

27. Exploration Is More Than Sight-Seeing

James Holman was known as “The Blind Traveller” after a sudden illness at the age of 25 robbed him of his sight. Nevertheless, Holman spent decades travelling across Eurasia and Africa, logging over 400,000 km (250,000 miles) in his lifetime.

26. Early Adapter

Contrary to popular belief, Elizabeth I of England wasn’t the first British monarch to sponsor continental exploration. Her grandfather, Henry VII, sponsored the expeditions of the Italian father-son team, John and Sebastian Cabot, to explore the northwest hemisphere throughout the 1490s.

25. Unwelcome Parting Gifts

European explorers left behind horrible diseases in the New World which Europe, Asia, and Africa had some exposure to, but the Americans had never experienced. Many argue that syphilis was a European import that had a costly, horrifying effect on the Indigenous population.   

24. The Economy Plays Trading Places

The Age of Exploration completely undermined the foundations of the European economy. Whereas land ownership was once the primary determinant of status, the influx of gold and silver looted from the Americas led to what economic historians call “The Price Revolution”: landlords saw their incomes suffer as the debts owed to them (“rents”) shrank. Trade—as opposed to rent-collection—soon became the dominant path to wealth.

23. Hot Potato

Believe it or not, Ireland didn’t always have potatos. Sir Walter Raleigh (aka Queen Elizabeth I’s “Sea Dog”) brought the vegetable to the Emerald Isle in 1589 after 16th century Spanish conquistadors had discovered it in Peru.

22. Poop & Profit

In 1802, Prussian geographer Alexander von Humboldt turned bird poop into big business. He noticed people in Peru unloading shipments of dried droppings, imported from the Chincha Islands. Indigenous people had been using the stuff, known as guano, as a resource for years. Like a classic European explorer, von Humboldt took it back home, and it developed it into key resource in the production of fertilizer and even gunpowder.

21. Submit Without Edits

With the European Age of Exploration, old-school cartographers faced a serious challenge: there was suddenly a lot more water than they had imagined to put on maps of the world! But not all maps were meant to be representative—some focused on the way the Christian God ordered the land, oceans, animals, and humans in his Earth. Others simply minimized the ocean, keeping the land as the focus. Just sounds lazy to me.

20. Saved by the Skirt

Mary Kingsley was a Victorian traveler whose critique of British Imperial presence in African governments offered a counternarrative to the popular discourse on European exploration. She also fell into a game pit lined with spikes (!) and was narrowly saved from death by her study Victorian skirts, which partly broke her fall.

19. Plan Alternative Transit

The Ottoman Empire inadvertently pushed Europe towards the Age of Exploration. When Mehmed II took Constantinople in 1453, the Empire blocked European access to the sea. It especially blocked access to North Africa and the Red Sea, two very important trade routes to Asia. Thus, European powers looked to the west for alternative trade paths and scantly looked back.

18. Halfies Keepsies

The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas “officially” split the world in half between Spain and Portugal. It aimed at resolving conflicts over land settlements made by Christopher Columbus and other late 15th century explorers. The Pope (Spanish-born Alexander VI) set up a line of demarcation from pole to pole, 100 leagues (about 320 miles) west the of Cape Verde Islands. Spain had a “right” to all new discovered lands west of the line and Portuguese expeditions were to stay east.

17. Big Little Lies

Ferdinand Magellan liked to spew tall tales about his encounters with a lumbering race of giants on the southern tip of South America. The tribe he encountered was actually an Indigenous people called the Tehuelche, who stood at an average of 5 ft. 11 inches. Nevertheless, the name he made up for them—the “Patagons”—stuck to the point where the area is still called Patagonia to this day.

16. Sci-Fi Fibs

Sir Francis Raleigh made up a race of headless Indigenous American people with “eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts” that had “a long train of hair growth backward between their shoulders.” They also lived in a city of gold… which is why England should totally fund his voyage to the Americas, so we can find them (to paraphrase Raleigh).

15. You’ll Just Have to Believe Him

By now, many history fans will know that John Smith invented much of his tales about Pocahontas and the founding of Jamestown. We just hope you appreciate by how much he completely made the whole thing up. In his version, Pocahontas was a supermodel hot woman who threw her life on the line to save him from savages. Of course, he didn’t write these stories in any detail until 20 years after Pocahontas was dead and no longer there to corroborate his hogwash.

14. You Really Should Have Been There!

Marco Polo boasted that he played a key role in Chinese battles. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for us), China kept records of its own history. From these records, we know that Polo claimed to be in a battle that ended one or two years before he said he arrived. Upon broader examination, people have had difficulty placing Polo in China at all!

13. The Original Hunger Games

In the early 1500s, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca set out with 600 men to help him conquer Florida for Spain. 100 men deserted the expedition by the time they reached the Gulf Coast—which was not a bad idea, because a hurricane destroyed most of the expedition’s supplies almost immediately and they were forced to completely live off the land (and with the charity of local tribes). The men wandered around the Southern United States and Mexico for ten years until they finally reconnected with the Spanish, not a doubloon richer, and with only four men left alive.

12. Binge Fest

Ernest Giles was one of the first people to help colonize Australia, and it nearly killed him! He went on four expeditions in four years, each one almost resulting in his death. At one point, he was forced to walk—starving—through the desert for eight days, before coming across a baby wallaby… which he promptly pounced upon and devoured, fur, skin, bones and all. Yummy!

11. The Crash Diet

You think you under-packed for a long trip? Ferdinand Magellan vastly underestimated the size of the Pacific Ocean and, therefore, the number of rations to take. He was so low on food and water that his crew resorted to eating maggot-infested crumbs, yellow water (yes, that’s what it sounds like), and ripping leather from their own ship to cook. After that, it was a course of sawdust and any diseased rats they could catch. You know what they say the best part of traveling is: the food!

10. A Stab at Success

In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan’s globetrotting career came to an end. Or rather, the end of a native warrior’s spear brought Magellan’s life to a close at the Battle of Mactan. Magellan’s crew had crashed on the Philippines when about 1,000 natives set upon his pack of deeply malnourished sailors. At such a point, the term “battle” becomes an optimistic description of their odds.

9. Bros Who Ride Together, (Probably) Die Together

The Vivaldi brothers—Vandino and Ugolino—of Genoa were connected to one of the first known expeditions in search of an alternate way from Europe to India. In 1291, the brothers set sail and were never seen or heard from again.

8. Prototypical Doohickeys

Although the Ancient Chinese and Greeks had been using compasses since at least 500 BC, the first recorded use of a compass in Europe was much later. An English monk named Alexander Neckham (1157-1217) had the honor of being Europe’s first compass user. These early compasses consisted of a magnetic needle floating in water on a piece of cork or straw, and pointed south, not north!

7. Will Navigate for $$$

The monarchs of Europe offered vast sums to whoever could solve the “longitude problem,” AKA how to calculate longitude at sea. King Phillip II of Spain offered 10,000 ducats for a solution, whereas later King Louis XIV of France offered 100,000 florins. In today’s money, that’s millions of dollars.

6. Countdown to Pay Day

The problem was finally solved by 18th century British clockmaker John Harrison. He developed a waterproof, motion-proof clock that could accurately keep Greenwich time over several months. At first, the Board which administered the prize refused to award Harrison the 20,000 pounds because his clock had small flaws, and scientists dubbed his scheme as too simple-minded to work. King George III finally had to intervene and grant Harrison his money.

5. Sailor Moon

In 1504, Christopher Columbus found himself stranded in Jamaica. Knowing that a lunar eclipse was approaching, Columbus demanded that locals take care of him and his crew, or else the moon would disappear! Lo and behold, the moon did disappear soon after, effectively intimidating the local tribesmen and convincing them to help him.

4. Ancient Delicacy

Guests of the 1951 Explorer’s Club annual dinner were served a 250,000-year-old piece of wooly mammoth meat that had been preserved in ice in the Aleutian Islands. Bon Appetit!

3. Peer Review or Prude Review?

In 1911, the British explorer George Murray Levick observed necrophilia among the penguin communities of Antarctica. Back in England, he produced a paper on his findings titled Natural History of the Adélie Penguin. However, his sections on their sexual antics were deemed too tawdry for British sensibilities, and were not officially published until 2012.

2. Icy Sacrifice

In the middle of his 1912 expedition, Antarctic explorer Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates came down with gangrene and frostbite. Knowing that his ill-health could compromise the lives of his crew, Oates instead chose his own certain death. He walked away into the cold, never to return, and his body has never been found.

1. No Inspiration Without Defecation

Peter Freuchen was a 1950s Danish explorer and a handyman with his own waste. Once trapped in an avalanche, Freuchen freed himself with a dagger made from his own hardened feces.

Sources1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28

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