When Europeans first set sail over the Atlantic Ocean, they were looking for fresh ways to China and the East, but what they discovered was more than they could have imagined: the fresh World.
Discover more about some of history’s most notable explorers and their groundbreaking discoveries:
Marco Polo was a Venetian adventurer best remembered for his book The Travels of Marco Polo, which chronicled his journey to and experiences in Asia. Polo traveled extensively with his family from Europe to Asia from 1271 to 1295, spending 17 of those years in China. Polo moved up the ranks and eventually became governor of a Chinese city. Later, Kublai Khan appointed him as a Privy Council officer. He used to be the tax inspector for the city of Yanzhou.
Around 1292, he departed China, acting as consort to a Mongol princess being transported to Persia along the journey. Polo acquired acclaim in the years following his death that he did not get during his lifetime. Many of his claims have been confirmed by scholars, academicians, and other explorers. Despite the fact that his reports were based on other travelers he encountered along the road, Polo’s narrative inspired numerous more explorers to strike out and see the globe.
Christopher Columbus was an Italian sailor and adventurer. As a youth, Columbus set sail on multiple commercial expeditions in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. One such expedition, to the Greek island of Khios, got him the closest he would ever get to Asia.
In 1492, he set off from Spain on the Santa Maria, accompanied by the Pinta and Nia ships, in search of a new passage to India.
He made four expeditions to the Caribbean and South America between 1492 and 1504 and has been both lauded and blamed for opening up the Americas to European colonization. On May 20, 1506, Columbus most likely died of acute arthritis caused by an illness, still thinking he had found a faster way to Asia.
America was called after Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine navigator, and explorer who was instrumental in the discovery of the New World.
On May 10, 1497, Vespucci set out from Cadiz with a fleet of Spanish ships on his maiden journey. In May 1499, Vespucci departed on his second journey as a navigator under the leadership of Alonzo de Ojeda, sailing under the Spanish flag. They traveled over the equator to the coast of what is now Guyana, where it is thought Vespucci abandoned Ojeda to investigate the coast of Brazil. Vespucci is supposed to have found the Amazon River and Cape St. Augustine on this voyage.
He found present-day Rio de Janeiro and Rio de la Plata on his third and most successful journey. He named South America the New World because he believed he had found a new continent. America was named after him in 1507. On February 22, 1512, he died of malaria in Seville, Spain.
John Cabot was a Venetian adventurer and navigator who claimed a British claim to land in Canada after mistaking it for Asia during his 1497 journey. The actual site of Cabot’s landing is debatable. Some historians think Cabot arrived on Cape Breton Island or on the mainland of Nova Scotia. Others say he landed in Newfoundland, Labrador, or Maine.
Cabot vanished after setting sail in May 1498 on a return journey to North America, and his last days remain a mystery. Cabot is said to have died around 1499 or 1500, but his fate is unknown. Cabot was granted permission to conduct a fresh expedition to North America in February 1498; in May of that year, he set out from Bristol, England, with five ships and a company of 300 men. One ship got crippled on the way and went to Ireland, while the other four ships carried on. The fate of the trip and Cabot is mainly conjecture at this time.
Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer in the service of Spain, launched the first European expedition of discovery to circle the world. Magellan studied mapmaking and navigation as a child. Magellan joined a Portuguese fleet traveling to East Africa in 1505 when he was in his mid-20s. By 1509, he had arrived at Diu, where the Portuguese had destroyed Egyptian ships in the Arabian Sea. Two years later, he explored Malacca, which is now in Malaysia, and took part in the capture of Malacca’s harbor.
Magellan went off in 1519, with the help of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to discover a better way to the Spice Islands. Magellan’s ship arrived at Homonhom Island on the outskirts of the Philippines in March 1521, with just 150 of the 270 men who had set out on the mission. Magellan soon built a connection with the island’s monarch, Rajah Humabon. Magellan was slain in combat on April 27, 1521, when the Spanish crew got entangled in a fight between Humabon and another opposing captain.
Hernán Cortés was a Spanish explorer who explored Central America, defeated Montezuma and his huge Aztec empire, and gained Mexico for Spain’s throne. At the age of 19, he set the ship for the New World for the first time. Cortés subsequently became a member of an expedition to Cuba. He headed off to explore Mexico in 1518.
Cortés formed alliances with some of the Indigenous peoples he met in Mexico, but with others, he employed lethal force to conquer the country. He battled Tlaxacan and Cholula soldiers before setting his eyes on conquering the Aztec kingdom. Cortés and his army are reported to have massacred 100,000 Indigenous peoples in their brutal fights for dominance over the Aztecs. In 1522, he was named governor of New Spain by King Charles I of Spain (also known as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V).
Sir Francis Drake
Admiral of the United Kingdom Sir Francis Drake was the most famous Elizabethan sailor and the second person to circle the world.
In 1577, Drake was selected as the head of an expedition to circumnavigate South America through the Strait of Magellan and investigate the coast beyond. Drake completed the expedition successfully and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I upon his triumphant return in 1580. Drake participated in the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, but he died of illness in 1596 following a fruitless raiding voyage.
Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh was a soldier, explorer, and writer from England. He fought alongside the French Huguenots at the age of 17 and went on to study at Oxford. After serving in Queen Elizabeth I’s troops in Ireland, he became a favorite of the monarch. He was knighted in 1585 and appointed Captain of the Queen’s Guard within two years.
Raleigh, an early promoter of colonizing North America, attempted to build a colony, but the queen forbade him from leaving her service. Between 1585 and 1588, he engaged in a series of Atlantic excursions, aiming to create a colony near Roanoke, on the coast of what is now North Carolina, and naming it “Virginia” in honor of Elizabeth, the virgin queen. Raleigh was imprisoned and subsequently executed after being accused of treason by King James I.
James Cook was an adventurer, navigator, and naval commander. Cook entered the British Navy as an apprentice and was promoted to ship’s master at the age of 29. During the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), he was the commander of a seized ship for the Royal Navy. He was given charge of the first scientific voyage to the Pacific in 1768.
Cook explored New Zealand and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef aboard his ship the HMB Endeavour in 1770. This location is now regarded as one of the world’s most perilous to travel. He subsequently debunked the existence of Terra Australis, the mythical southern continent. Cook’s expeditions aided generations of explorers by providing the first precise map of the Pacific.
In 1513, Spanish explorer and conqueror Francisco Pizarro accompanied Vasco Nez de Balboa on his march over the Panama Isthmus to the “South Sea.” During their trip, Balboa and Pizarro found what is now known as the Pacific Ocean, but Balboa is said to have seen it first and hence is credited with the ocean’s initial European discovery.
Pizarro returned to Spain in 1528 and obtained a mandate from Emperor Charles V to conquer the southern peninsula and create a new Spanish province there. Pizarro, supported by his brothers, ousted Inca monarch Atahualpa and invaded Peru in 1532. Three years later, he established Lima as the new capital city. Tensions grew throughout the time between the first conquistadors who invaded Peru and others who came later to make a claim in the new Spanish territory. This dispute culminated in Pizarro’s murder in 1541.