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EXPLORATION. The early modern period, in European usage, defined the centuries in which Europeans explored the rest of the world. The motivations of individual explorers and their sponsors varied, but taken collectively, their efforts greatly increased European knowledge about the world's lands and peoples and brought vast continents and their inhabitants into contact with Europe, for both good and ill.


The so-called Age of Discovery began in the late fifteenth century, but Europeans had been probing the known areas and boundaries of their world for several centuries before that, motivated by tales of fabulous riches in distant kingdoms in Africa and Asia. Christian missionaries and leaders of the Catholic Church in Rome had also sent emissaries into Asia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, seeking to fulfill the biblical mandate to spread the message of Christianity. Later they sought allies against the growing power of Muslim rulers in the Middle East. Developments in the mid-fifteenth century added momentum to those efforts. Western Europe showed unmistakable signs of economic growth by 1450, as population and the economy recovered from the century of crisis that began in the early fourteenth century and was worsened by waves of epidemic disease from 1348 on. In 1453 the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, the heir to ancient Rome and capital of Orthodox Christianity, and brought it within the Muslim world. At about the same time, the invention of movable type (associated with Johannes Gutenberg) made it possible to reproduce written materials more cheaply and quickly. Reports on great events such as the fall of Constantinople, plus ancient treatises about geography and real or fanciful books about travel, inspired many Europeans to seek new venues for trade, spread the message of Christianity, and search for allies against Ottoman expansion.

Potential explorers sought out investors among wealthy merchant communities, and asked for sponsorship from the various national monarchies emerging in the climate of economic recovery that marked the late fifteenth century. Portuguese explorers such as Gil Eanes, Nuno Tristão, and Alvise da Cada Mosto had explored down the western coast of Africa in the 1430s, 1440s, and 1450s, respectively. After 1479 and a treaty with Castile that gave them exclusive rights to African exploration, Portuguese expeditions continued their search for trade opportunities and a sea route to India. The voyages of Diogo Cão, Bartolomeu Dias, and Vasco da Gama (1498) established that route by 1500. Castilian expeditions after 1479 explored westward in search of fabled islands, conquering the Canary Islands in the process. Isabella of Castile and her husband Ferdinand of Aragón also sponsored the four voyages of Christopher Columbus between 1492 and 1504 to search westward for Asia, as well as sponsoring voyages by other explorers in the same period.

By the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, Portugal and Castile agreed upon spheres of influence in lands discovered across the Ocean Sea (the Atlantic Ocean). Probing the treaty's limits, the Portuguese brothers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real explored a northern route across the Atlantic, staking a claim to rich fishing grounds near Labrador; Pedro Álvares Cabral touched the northeast coast of Brazil in 1500 on the way to India. The Italian father and son John and Sebastian Cabot and their associates aimed above all to find a northwest passage to Asiaan aim that would continue to inspire explorers thereafter. Henry VII of England (ruled 14851509) sponsored expeditions by the Cabots in the 1490s to explore toward the northwest, following up on presumed voyages from Bristol in the 1480s that left little or no trace in the records.


In terms of sea and overland routes established and coastlines and hinterlands explored and mapped, Europeans probably accomplished more in the early sixteenth century than in any other half-century in history. In 1513 the Spaniard Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and saw the great western ocean that would be named the Pacific. That same year his compatriot Juan Ponce de León cruised around the southern tip of Florida. In 1519 the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan, having quarreled with the king of Portugal, sailed under Spanish auspices to find a westward route to Asia that would challenge the south and eastward route pioneered by the Portuguese. Sailing south beyond the known coastlines of America, Magellan explored the treacherous strait that would bear his name and crossed the vast Pacific Ocean to the islands of East Asia, where the Portuguese were already established. Anxious to spread the Christian Gospel and support local allies, Magellan was killed in a skirmish in the islands later known as the Philippines. The remnant of his expedition finally made it back to Spain in 1522 under the leadership of Juan Sebastián de Elcano (del Cano), sailing ever westward around Africa and accomplishing the first voyage around the world.

From the 1520s through the 1540s, Spaniards, Portuguese, and a few Germans, Frenchmen, and others probed the interior of the Americas, from the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains of North America to the great river and mountain systems of South America, mapping lands of stunning natural beauty and awesome physical challenges. In the process, Hernán Cortés (14851547) conquered the Aztec empire, Francisco Pizarro (c. 14751541) conquered the Inca empire, and numerous other explorers, conquerors, clerics, and officials working for the crown established the administrative structure of a Spanish empire in the Americas.

Francis I of France, the great rival of Spanish King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, supported several expeditions to North America. Among others, he sponsored the Italian Giovanni da Verrazano's discovery (1524) of New York Bay and Jacques Cartier's exploration (15341541) of the Gulf and river of St. Lawrence. Wherever Europeans went, they inadvertently brought with them the whole array of diseases that Europeans, Africans, and Asians had long endured, but which the native populations of the Americas had never experienced. The result was a demographic catastrophe for native populations. Many scholars argue that syphilis was transferred from the Americas to the Old World, with serious but not devastating effect.

The Portuguese established a basic administrative structure in Brazil, but their overseas efforts focused largely on Asia in the sixteenth century. Portuguese mariners learned how to navigate the trade routes of the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Searoutes that were well known to local peoples but were new to Europeans. A Dutch expedition would find its way to East Asia in 1595, challenging the Portuguese thereafter. Although several expeditions sailed westward to Asia from America in the decades after Magellan, Spaniards did not discover the eastward route back across the Pacific until the voyage of Andrés de Urdaneta in 1565. Thereafter, they established a trading base at Manila, with regular voyages between New Spain (Mexico) and the Philippines, and discovered various other island groups in the South Pacific.

At the same time, English expeditions under Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor (1553), and Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman (1580), plus a Dutch expedition under Willem Barents (15941597), tried to find a viable northeast route through the Arctic Ocean to Asia in the late sixteenth century. Russian fur-trading expeditions probed the area as well; one of these expeditions, under the Cossack Ermak Timofeevich (15811582), began the exploration of Siberia. The continuing search for a northern passage to Asia inspired English efforts under Martin Frobisher (15761578) and John Davis (15851587), who sailed eastward, and Francis Drake (15771580), who sailed westward. By the late sixteenth century, some European mapmakers showed a clear understanding of the world's major coastlines and oceans, but others replicated antiquated or misleading information. Similarly, Europeans still knew little about the vast interior spaces of Africa, Asia, North America, and parts of South America.


By the early seventeenth century, Europeans competed for trade and colonies in the areas already discovered and explored the boundaries of a known world that was already much larger than it had been at the start of the early modern period. The Portuguese António Fernandes (1613) and the Spanish Jesuit Pedro Paez (1618) explored the interior of East Africa, while Dutch expeditions under Willem Schouten and Isaac Le Maire (16151616) discovered Cape Horn, and Frederik de Houtman (1619) traced the western coast of Australia. Expeditions under Franz Thyssen (1627) and Abel Janszoon Tasman (1640s) explored and charted other parts of Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, and nearby island groups, but never found the legendary great southern continent (Terra Australis) that had graced many early maps.

In North America, Henry Hudson (1610) discovered the bay later named for him, thinking it was the great western ocean at the end of the Northwest Passage. Other expeditions proved him wrong, but the search at least increased geographical knowledge. The vast lands south of Hudson's Bay and north of New Spain remained largely unknown to Europeans in the early seventeenth century, apart from a few Spanish settlements in the southeast and a few English and Dutch settlements in the northeast. During the century, France sponsored a series of expeditions that challenged the English presence in the north and sought a route through the continent. Samuel de Champlain (16031615) explored the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. Jean Nicolet (1634) and Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chomart, Sieur des Groseillers (16581659), continued French exploration of the Great Lakes region. In the last few decades of the century, King Louis XIV sponsored a series of expeditions that explored from the Great Lakes to the network of river systems in central North America, aiming to establish a French empire between the English in the north and the Spanish in the south. The most famous expeditions were led by Réné-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (16731687), Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet (1673), and Louis Hennepin (16791680). Approaching from the Gulf of Mexico, Pierre le Moyne d'Iberville (1699) discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River. By the time Louis XIV died in 1715, France had a chain of settlements from Quebec to the Gulf of Mexico, though they remained small and vulnerable to hostile local peoples and international rivals alike.

In South America, expeditions from the 1630s to the 1660s traced the awesome extent of the Orinoco and Amazon River systems, as Spain and Portugal struggled to grasp the true extent of their colonial dominions. The discovery in the 1690s of gold and gem deposits in Brazil gave added impetus to exploration of the interior, within the structure of settled colonial regimes run by Spain and Portugal. Nonetheless, huge areas would remain unknown to Europeans until well beyond the early modern period.

European exploration in the eighteenth century, as in earlier times, was motivated in large part by political rivalries as well as by enduring goals such as oceanic passages northwest and northeast from Europe to Asia and the search for the elusive great southern continent. Vitus Bering, a Dane in the service of Tsar Peter I ("the Great") of Russia, made two major voyages (1728 and 17331741) in search of a northeast passage, in the process mapping much of coastal Siberia and discovering the strait later named for him between Asia and Alaska. In the Americas, the French founded New Orleans in 1718 and sponsored expeditions in the 1720s and 1730s to continue exploration in the middle of North America, even as they faced increasing pressure from England in the northeast. In the Seven Years' War (17561763) they lost most of the territory they claimed in North America to England. Nonetheless, French exploration continued, driven by the increased interest in scientific endeavors that was part of the Enlightenment.

Scientific voyages of exploration are traditionally associated with the eighteenth century, although the scientific urge to discover, classify, and understand lands, peoples, animals, and plants characterized European exploration throughout the early modern period. Eighteenth-century voyages concentrated on the Pacific Ocean, one of the last great spaces on Earth that remained largely unexplored. The Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen (1722) is credited with discovering Easter Island and some of the Samoan islands in the South Pacific, though he claimed to have sighted the great southern continent as well. Pacific voyages in the last half of the century reflected the rivalry between England and France, while at the same time searching for that elusive continent and other new lands and observing various natural phenomena. Samuel Wallis of England, while circumnavigating the globe from 1766 to 1768, discovered the Society Islands (Tahiti), while Philip Carteret on another ship in the expedition sailed farther south looking for Terra Australis. A French expedition under Louis Antoine de Bougainville also reached Tahiti in 1768. The greatest of the eighteenth-century voyages were those of the Englishman James Cook. In three major expeditions (17681771, 17721775, and 17761779), Cook probed and tested most of the legends and lore about the vast Pacific Ocean. With superb mapmaking skills, and aided on the second and third voyages by the most accurate timepiece yet developed and other modern navigational aids, Cook was able to chart the Pacific and its islands with unprecedented accuracy. He confirmed the existence of and mapped numerous islands, explored the northwest coast of North America, and proved to all but the most diehard believers in Terra Australis that whatever land existed in the far south was not habitable. His reports and maps became best-sellers among the literate public in Enlightenment Europe. On his third voyage, Cook's expedition became the first documented European arrival at the Hawaiian Islands. Although some of the officers who accompanied him assumed that some Spanish voyage or other must have preceded them, Cook dismissed those assumptions. He died in a skirmish with local islanders in 1779, on a return visit to the islands. A French expedition under Jean-François de Galaup, Count of la Pérouse (17851788) and a Spanish expedition under the Italian Alessandro Malaspina (17891795) carried out their own extensive Pacific voyages. Their agendas reflected European political rivalries as well as a search for scientific knowledge.

In North America as well, exploration by Daniel Boone into Kentucky (17691775), Alexander Mackenzie across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific (17891793), and George Vancouver along the northwest coast (17921794) established an English presence in an area long claimed by Spain but hardly settled or defended by her. Belatedly, Spain dispatched expeditions along the coast from Mexico that established a chain of presidios (garrisons) and missions along the length of California, exploring and mapping as they went. By land José Ortega discovered San Francisco Bay in 1769, and by sea Juan Pérez and Bruno Heceta discovered Nootka Sound (17741775). The far northwest corner of North America thus became a focus of rivalry for England, Russia, Spain, andafter 1783the fledgling United States, which sponsored Robert Gray's expedition along the northwest coast (17871793).

At the very end of the early modern period, English expeditions into the African interior (Mungo Park to the Gambia and Niger Rivers in 17951805 and Sir John Barrow northward from the Cape of Good Hope in 17971798), foreshadowed a major focus for European exploration in the nineteenth century. During the early modern centuries, Europeans had explored and mapped much of the world, driven by a combination of motives that ranged from religious zeal and scientific curiosity to commercial and political rivalries and personal ambitions. In their travels, they had not only explored the world; they had changed it forever.

See also Africa ; Asia ; British Colonies ; Cartography and Geography ; Columbus, Christopher ; Cortés, Hernán ; Dutch Colonies ; Europe and the World ; French Colonies ; Gama, Vasco da ; Islands ; Magellan, Ferdinand ; Pizarro Brothers ; Portuguese Colonies ; Shipbuilding and Navigation ; Spanish Colonies .


Baker, Daniel B., ed. Explorers and Discoverers of the World. Detroit, 1993.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Before Columbus: Exploration and Colonization from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 12291492. Philadelphia, 1987.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe, ed. The Times Atlas of World Exploration. London, 1991.

Goetzmann, William, and Glydwr Williams. The Atlas of North American Exploration: From the Norse Voyages to the Race to the Pole. New York, 1992.

Newby, Eric. The Rand McNally World Atlas of Exploration. Chicago, 1975.

Penrose, Boies. Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance, 14201620. Cambridge, Mass., 1952.

Phillips, William D., Jr., and Carla Rahn Phillips. The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Williams, Glyn. Voyages of Delusion: The Northwest Passage in the Age of Reason. London, 2002.

Carla Rahn Phillips


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During the Middle Ages, Europeans knew little about the world beyond their lands and the seas around them. The Renaissance brought a great leap forward in geographic knowledge and interest in the rest of the globe. Beginning in the 1400s, Europeans made a series of remarkable voyages to Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific Ocean. This exploration led to the opening of new trade, the conquest of foreign territories, and the founding of colonies. From these colonies grew the overseas empires of Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, and France.

Driven by economic, religious, and political forces, the great age of European exploration was unlike anything before or since. As Spanish chronicler Francisco de Jérez asked in 1547: "When, among the ancients or the moderns, have been seen such great undertakings of so few individuals to go conquering the unseen and the unknown ... in such diverse climates and reaches of the sea or across such distances?"


Why did the great age of world exploration begin in Europe in the early 1400s? Some historians argue that new techniques and tools of shipbuilding and navigation launched a wave of ambitious voyages. However, before this time, three practical problems would have discouraged Europeans from sailing beyond the familiar Mediterranean Sea or the Atlantic coast. The problems involved maps, navigation, and ships.

First, mariners lacked maps and charts of foreign waters and possessed little useful knowledge of winds and currents. The only way to gather information and create maps was through voyages of discovery. Charting unfamiliar shores would be one of the great accomplishments of Renaissance explorers.

Second, mariners did not have much experience sailing out of sight of land, and their navigational tools and methods were primitive. They had crude compasses but did not really understand the differences between magnetic north and true north until the 1500s. They could measure latitude with instruments called astrolabes and quadrants, but using these instruments aboard moving ships was difficult. As the age of exploration progressed, sailors devised more efficient methods of measuring latitude. However, the accurate measurement of longitude at sea did not occur until the 1700s.

Third, few ships were well equipped for long ocean voyages or unfavorable winds. Explorers in the early 1400s used caravels—small, triangular-sailed ships built for coastal cruising. Over time, Atlantic sailors adapted caravels to handle square sails as well, making them better suited to wind conditions on the high seas. As voyages became longer, the need for bigger storage areas led to the development of a larger ship called the nao or carrack. By 1500 carracks might be as much as four times as large as caravels.

Solutions to the problems of maps, navigation, and ships arose during, not before, the age of exploration. The Europeans of the early Renaissance pushed out into the unknown with inadequate equipment from the past. The spark that drove them did not come from advances in technology but from forces within society.

European exploration during the Renaissance grew out of various motives and factors. One was simple curiosity, the growing interest in the world that was a key feature of the dawning Renaissance. Economic motives played a key role as well. Contact with the Muslim world had given Europeans a taste for the spices, silks, and other luxury goods of Asia. When the city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks* in 1453, the overland trade route to the East was disrupted. The European demand for luxury goods fueled the search for a sea route to Asia.

Religion also played a part in the growth of exploration. Some European rulers who sponsored voyages felt a sincere duty to carry Christianity to other parts of the world. Others wanted to gather allies to fight the growth of the Muslim empire. Finally, political ambition was an important force that propelled exploration. European nations that discovered new territories could acquire great riches, power, and prestige through trade and colonial outposts.


Historians date the great age of exploration from 1415, when a Portuguese prince named Dom Henry helped capture Ceuta, a Muslim city in North Africa. This adventure inspired the prince, later called Henry the Navigator (1394–1460), to sponsor a series of voyages of exploration. Over the next century, such expeditions would eventually bring Portugal colonies in Africa, Asia, and South America.

Prince Henry the Navigator. In 1419 Henry began outfitting ships for missions into the Atlantic. Some of these voyages led to the establishment of colonies on the islands of Madeira and the Canaries. Other expeditions probed southward along the west coast of Africa. By 1434 one of the prince's navigators had passed Cape Bojador, the southernmost point reached by Europeans. From then on the Portuguese were venturing into unknown waters.

In a series of voyages from 1444 to 1460, the Portuguese found the mouth of the Senegal River, explored the Cape Verde Islands, and reached Sierra Leone. During that period, they began trading with Africans along the coast for ivory, gold dust, and slaves. By the time of Henry's death, Portuguese mariners had made at least 35 voyages to western Africa. Historians debate how many of these journeys Henry directly sponsored, but clearly he played the leading role in the nation's drive to explore other lands.

Later Portuguese Exploration. A succession of Portuguese kings sponsored voyages along the African coast to the mouth of the Congo River and beyond. These expeditions resulted in increased trade in gold, pepper, and slaves—one expert estimates that Portugal brought back 150,000 slaves from western Africa before 1500.

The voyages raised questions about the geography of Africa that led Portuguese king John II (ruled 1481–1495) to launch several expeditions in 1487. One group of explorers traveled by land in search of a route across Africa. Others went to India to learn about the commerce and navigation of the Indian Ocean. Most importantly, Bartolomeu Dias sailed off to find the southern tip of Africa and a route around it. In 1488 Dias returned to Portugal and reported that he had rounded the tip of Africa, which the king named the Cape of Good Hope. These trips produced two valuable pieces of information: that ships could sail around Africa and that regular commerce existed between eastern Africa and India across the northern Indian Ocean.

Nearly nine years passed before another Portuguese expedition set out to take advantage of these discoveries. In 1497 Vasco da Gama left Portugal with four ships. The fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope and stopped at several ports in eastern Africa before landing on the coast of India. Gama returned to Portugal in 1499, having found the basic sea route that would open to Europeans the trade of India and the Asian lands beyond.

About six months later, a much larger fleet under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral sailed from Portugal for India. However, on the way the ships were blown westward by storms and ended up on the coast of Brazil. Cabral claimed the land for Portugal. After a few weeks he resumed his journey, reaching India in September 1500, and he set up several trading posts. Within a few years, other expeditions had built fortified trading posts along the eastern coast of Africa, at the entrances to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and along the shores of the Indian peninsula. The Portuguese also created settlements farther east, eventually gaining control of the trade of the Spice Islands (now called the Moluccas).


While the Portuguese were opening and exploiting* the sea route that led eastward around Africa to the Indian Ocean and Asia, others turned westward. Christopher Columbus hoped to reach Asia by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean but landed instead in the Americas. His historic voyage across the ocean and back in 1492–1493 was just the beginning of transatlantic exploration.

The Americas and Beyond. Columbus made three more voyages, determined to find a passage to the markets of Asia. Even before his death in 1506, however, other navigators had visited the Americas. Although many of them focused their efforts on finding a way through or around the continents to Asia, others were interested in the geography, people, and resources of the uncharted lands. Mapmakers had begun to realize that these lands were part of the world previously unknown to Europeans. As early as 1493 Pietro Martire d'Anghiera, an Italian scholar in Spain, called Columbus's discovery "the New World."

One of the first to venture into that world was John Cabot, an Italian navigator working for England. In 1497 he sailed from Bristol to the island of Newfoundland, now part of Canada. On a second expedition a year later Cabot was lost without a trace. Soon afterward Portuguese mariners explored the region around Newfoundland; by 1506 they had begun fishing for cod in nearby waters.

Meanwhile, several Portuguese expeditions along the northern and eastern coasts of South America began to reveal the vast size of the continent. Spanish navigators looked along the coasts of Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula for an easy water passage through the Americas.

Geographers realized that these continents lay between Europe and Asia. It might be possible, however, to sail around the southern tip of South America as the Portuguese had sailed around Africa. In 1519 Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan led an expedition for Spain that would test that idea. Magellan, who believed that a narrow sea separated South America from the Spice Islands (Moluccas) and Asia, managed to find a route through the turbulent waters at the tip of South America and into the Pacific Ocean. Although Magellan had greatly underestimated the distance to Asia, he landed in the Philippines with his fleet after 106 days at sea. Magellan died in the Philippines in 1521, but Juan Sebastián del Cano took command of the remaining ship and returned to Spain in 1522. He was the first navigator to sail around the world. As a result of Magellan's voyage, Spain claimed the Philippines as a colony.

Phantom Passages and Golden Cities. During this first phase of Renaissance exploration, Europeans learned the shape and size of Africa, mapped many Asian islands and coasts, discovered new continents, and established European colonies in the tropics. Many later voyages and expeditions failed to reach their goals but still added to the accumulation of geographic knowledge.

One of the most frustrating goals was to find a Northwest Passage, a waterway that would enable ships to sail through North America to the Pacific Ocean. Between 1524 and 1610, Giovanni da Verrazano and Jacques Cartier for the French, Martin Frobisher and John Davis for the English, and Henry Hudson for the Dutch all tried to find the route and failed. However, Cartier's voyages up the St. Lawrence River launched French exploration and colonization in Canada, and Hudson's voyage into the bay that carries his name led to later expeditions and the establishment of the English fur trade in the region.

Far to the south, stories of legendary golden cities and kingdoms lured explorers. Such rumors drew adventurers such as Walter Raleigh and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado into the interior of South America and the North American southwest. No such cities were found, but each expedition resulted in more information about the American continents. Spanish military leader and conqueror Hernán CortÉs and other conquistadors* went deep into the interior and captured the fabulously wealthy empires in Mexico and Peru. By the mid-1500s Europeans had some knowledge of all the major river systems of South America and had traced most of the continent's coast.

The mammoth Pacific Ocean was the great unknown. A Spanish expedition meant to follow Magellan's route around the globe ended in disaster in the 1520s. Fifty years later, England's Sir Francis Drake made the second complete trip around the world, pioneering an alternate route around the tip of South America and possibly exploring part of the California coast. Perhaps more significant, though, was the achievement of Spanish navigators Felipe de Salcedo and Andrés de Urdaneta. In 1565 they established a practical east-west sailing route across the Pacific that took advantage of winds and currents. It became one of the world's great trade routes. Europeans could now travel and trade regularly across all the oceans of the world.


The age of European exploration yielded enormous improvements in geographic knowledge, travel, and trade. It had darker results as well. Many of the peoples that Europeans "discovered" in other continents had their lives violently disrupted. Whole civilizations in the Americas were conquered and wiped out, and millions of Africans became merchandise in a growing international slave trade.

Earlier historians tended to celebrate the heroic achievements of Renaissance explorers. They also presented a positive view of the colonizers and missionaries whose work followed on the heels of exploration. In recent years, scholars have instead portrayed the legacy of Renaissance exploration as cruelty, environmental destruction, and the inability of cultures to communicate. Both views contain elements of truth, and each is one-sided and incomplete without the other. For better or worse, the explorers of the European Renaissance brought the various branches of the human family together and laid the foundations of the modern world.

(See alsoAfrica; Americas; Asia, East; Geography and Cartography. )

see color plate 4, vol. 4

* Ottoman Turks

Turkish followers of Islam who founded the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s; the empire eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

see color plate 2, vol. 4

* exploit

to take advantage of; to make productive use of

Naming the New World

Christopher Columbus "discovered" the Americas for Europe but thought they were part of Asia. Fifteen years later the Americas were named for a traveler who insisted that they were a "new world." Between 1501 and 1504, Amerigo Vespucci of Italy accompanied two Portuguese voyages of exploration along South America's coastline. His popular, colorful accounts of these missions greatly exaggerated his own importance in the expedition but made him famous. On his world map of 1507, Martin Waldseemüller labeled the new southern continent America (for Amerigo) and the name stuck.

* conquistador

military explorer and conqueror

see color plate 3, vol. 4


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Mapping the Continent . Well before Meriwether Lewis and William Clarks monumental journey from

Saint Louis to the mouth of the Columbia River, explorers were mapping what would soon become the western coast of the United States. British Capt. George Vancouver explored and mapped the Pacific coast in 17901792, and published an atlas with the first accurate maps of that region in 1798. The federal government started mapping with the creation of the U.S. Coast Survey (today known as the Coast and Geodetic Survey) in 1807. In addition to such government-sponsored expeditions, private trade missions were often the driving force behind geographic exploration. Robert Gray of Boston, on a fur-trading mission to China, commanded the first ship to travel around the world under the American flag (17871789). On his next voyage (17901793) he was the first to explore the Columbia River, which he named after his ship. American statesmen would later use Grays short voyage up the Columbia as the basis for the United States claim to Oregon, which was not included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

The Great Von Humboldt . The most famous explorer of the age was the German Alexander von Humboldt, whom Ralph Waldo Emerson called one of those wonders of the world who appear from time to time as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind, the force and range of his facultiesa universal man. His extraordinary five-year journey throughout South America and Mexico (17991804) resulted in the classification of thirty-five hundred new botanical species; a better understanding of Native American cultures; the first link between volcanoes and the dynamic structure of the earth; the discovery of declining magnetic intensity from the poles to the equator; and more important, detailed maps of the Pacific coast. Humboldt was drawn to the political principles of the United States, which he described as the only corner of the earth where man possesses liberty and where the small evils are compensated by the great goods, although he added that slavery was detestable. He also greatly admired Thomas Jefferson and visited him at Monticello in 1804. Jefferson was always pleased to meet fellow scientists, and doubly so in this case because of Humboldts intimate knowledge and maps of the northern portion of Mexico, which bordered the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. At the time of Humboldts visit, in fact, Lewis and Clark were on the outbound portion of their own long and extraordinary journey through the million-square-mile expanse of uncharted land.

Lewis and Clark Expedition . The greatest American scientific expedition of the time was Meriwether Lewis and William Clarks journey through the wilderness of northwestern America between 1804 and 1806. Like Humboldts expedition, Lewis and Clarks goal was scientific discovery, but political purposes were equally important. President Thomas Jefferson planned the expedition, which resulted in an enormous increase in knowledge of American flora, fauna, geography, and native culture. It also opened up the vast Louisiana Territory, stretching from New Orleans to the headwaters of the Missouri River, to further exploration, trade, and eventual civilization. Jefferson and the American Philosophical Society had wanted to do such an expedition for years, but since the United States did not own this territory, they had been prevented. Still, the Lewis and Clark expedition had been planned before Jefferson knew he might be able to purchase this vast area. When the federal government acquired the region from France, it doubled the size of the United States, and Jefferson was prepared to find out what was there, and not just in scientific and geographical terms. The president also wanted to know the extent of the Missouri River watershed, which the United States could legally claim as part of Louisiana. If it extended far to the North, he could push the British out of the profitable western fur trade.

Journey to the Pacific . Lewis and Clarks epic journey took twenty-eight months. The company consisted of thirty-four permanent members plus fifteen soldiers and experienced rivermen for the first leg up the Missouri. The main boat, fifty-five feet long, with a sail and twenty-two oars, and two smaller open boats were crammed with supplies: firearms, gunpowder, medicine, and whiskey, plus a large supply of coats, plumed hats, glass, beads, and knives to trade with the Indians. Two horses, led along the riverbank, would be used for extended hunting trips. Leaving Saint Louis on 14 May 1804, the party traveled up the Missouri as far as the season would permit, spending the winter near the friendly Mandan Indians in what is now North Dakota. In the spring they pushed on to the headwaters of the Missouri, where they were forced to abandon their canoes and trade for horses to carry them over the Rocky Mountains in search of the River of the West. A young Shoshone woman named Sacajawea played a vital role as interpreter for Lewis and Clark. Many legends have sprung up around her, investing her with magical powers. She was an indispensable member of the expedition and made this incredible journey carrying her infant child on her back. With help from Sacajawea and Nez Percé Indians the white explorers made it to the Snake River, then to the Columbia River, which carried them to the Pacific Ocean. After spending the rainy winter of 18051806 in a collection of huts they called Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River, they retraced their steps but with notable variations, including splitting the party into two groups for several weeks, which could have left them vulnerable to hostile Indians. But they survived the return journey to arrive in Saint Louis on 23 September 1806. Along the way they had peacefully negotiated with dozens of Indian nationsmany at war with each otherand recorded valuable scientific, geographical, and cultural information, including the sad state of many of the Indian villages that had been decimated by smallpox. They had traveled almost eight thousand miles amid Indians both friendly and hostile, raging rivers, bears, bitter cold, and near starvationall with the loss of only one man.

No Northwest Passage . Lewis and Clark did not achieve one of their main goals: they did not find an all-water route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Between the point at which the Missouri River became too shallow for navigation and the start of the westward flowing river system were hundreds of miles of wild country, and instead of the Stony mountains shown on early maps were the almost impenetrable Rockies. Jeffersons hope of a Northwest Passage had been shattered, yet the West had been opened and the stage set for the expansion of the United States to the Pacific.

Exploring the East . The West was not the only scene of adventurous expeditions, for there was still much to be explored in the East. In 1791 William Bartram published his Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, The Cherokee Country, The Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws, an account of his journey through the forests of the Southeast from 1773 to 1777. In addition to rich descriptions of the beauty of nature in the United States, and detailed drawings of a wide variety of plants and animals, Bartram also portrayed with unusual empathy the Native Americans that he encountered along the way. Son of the British natural scientist John Bartram, William was the first American-born botanist of international stature. His writing inspired,

among others, William Wordsworth, James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Tho-reau.


Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996);

Douglas Botting, Humboldt and the Cosmos (New York: Harper & Row, 1973);

Thomas P. Slaughter, The Natures of John and William Bartram (New York: Knopf, 1996);

Page Smith, The Shaping of America (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980).


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Growth of Geographical Knowledge. Between 1750 and 1914 there was a rapid transformation in the scope and detail of geographical knowledge, largely as a result of European empire building and colonization. Imperial governments, trading companies (such as the East India Company), learned and missionary societies, colonial scientists, and solitary adventurers invested large amounts of capital and effort into exploration and cartography. These processes were central to the making of the modern industrialized world as they fixed the location of valuable natural resources (from whale-breeding grounds to mineral deposits), facilitated the creation of new trade routes and posts, and laid the foundations for military conquest, colonial expansion, and colonization by white settlers.

Pacific Ocean. In this period there were two major forms of exploration: oceanic exploration and the exploration of continental interiors. Oceanic exploration largely focused on the Pacific during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By this time the Atlantic and Indian Oceans were well known and accurately charted as a result of their incorporation into European trading networks and empires from the late fifteenth century. Europeans first entered the Pacific Ocean in the sixteenth century, and Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to cross the vast ocean in 1520. During the remainder of the sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch explorers tentatively probed the region, but they assembled only a partial and frequently unreliable image of its geography. In the first half of the eighteenth century, British and French navigators explored the central Pacific, but the resulting additions to the map of the Pacific were

fragmentary, and most of the southern Pacific remained a mystery. The limitations of European knowledge of the Pacific are best seen in the notion of Terra Australis Incognita, “The Unknown Southern Land,” the great continent that supposedly dominated the South Pacific. This belief was widely supported by European geographers until the mid eighteenth century. The three Pacific voyages of British captain James Cook vanquished this myth. Between 1768 and 1779 Cook mapped much of the Pacific, constructing detailed maps of Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and the northwest coast of North America. His third voyage also disproved the notion that an easily navigable Northwest Passage linked the Pacific to the Atlantic (in 1906 the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen di complete a three-year journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Canada’s Arctic islands and iceberg fields, but this dangerous route has never been commercially viable). Cook’s voyages were truly revolutionary, as they fixed the location of the major landmasses of the Pacific and opened up the region to European commercial and imperial activity. Most important, Cook opened the way for exploration of two of the three continental interiors that were extensively mapped for the first time in the nineteenth century: Australia and Antarctica.

Australia. From their arrival in Australia in 1788, European colonists rarely ventured far inland, preferring the rich resources of the coast and easily explored coastal plains. The rugged mountain chains and arid deserts that lay inland were a daunting barrier that slowed the spread of European settlement and protected the Aboriginal communities of Australia–s interior from immediate contact with the colonists. Not until 1813 did Gregory Blaxlan William C. Wentworth, and William Lawson first cross the Blue Mountains, which lie some fifty miles to the west of modern-day Sydney. This initial foray into the interior was not extended until 1829-1830, when Charles Sturt traversed the Great Dividing Range (of which the Blue Mountains are part), exploring the Murrumbidgee, Darling, and Murray Rivers before ending his journey at the confluence of the Murray at Encounter Bay on the southern coast. This journey confirmed that Australia’s interior was arid, disproving the popular theory that it contained a vast inland sea, and was pivotal in the selection of South Australia as a site for British colonization. In the 1840s, as a result of the epic journeys of Edward John Eyre and George Grey in southern Australia and the long journey of Robert Burke and William John Wills from Melbourne in the southeast to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the North, much of Australia’s interior was mapped and its land was opened up for pastoralism, mining, and white settlement.

Antarctica. The first tentative explorations of Antarctica occurred in the 1840s. James Ross, in command of the British navy’s Erebus and Terror, explored the coast of Antarctica’s Victoria Land. The body of knowledge he gathered as a result of his venture was not extended until the 1890s, when the Norwegian whaler Leonard Christensen

landed at Cape Adare. When he disembarked in 1894, he became the first human to set foot on the Antarctic continent. News of Christensen’s landing sparked great interest in Antarctica’s resources. In the first decade of the twentieth century British, German, and French explorers began mapping the continent’s coastline and interior. The quest for the South Pole became an intense battle for personal and national glory. The British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his party reached the pole on 17 January 1912, only to find that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had already reached the pole on 14 December 1911. Tragically, Scott’s entire party perished in a blizzard on their return journey.

Africa. While the exploration of Australia and Antarctica completed the cartographic revolution in the Pacific initiated by Cook, the prime focus of European continental exploration in the nineteenth century was Africa. Although there was a long history of contact between Europe and Africa, European knowledge of the continent in the late eighteenth century was largely restricted to its coastline: Europeans had only a sketchy understanding of the huge river systems that shaped the continent. Moreover, early attempts to push into the interior were hampered by exceptionally high rates of morbidity and mortality. Malaria remained the chief barrier to the fulfillment of the European desire to open up the interior of Africa in the early nineteenth century. Europeans in tropical Africa experienced mortality rates up to forty times higher than those who remained at home in London, Paris, or Berlin. Although it was not until 1897 that European scientists identified the Anopheles mosquito that spread malaria, white settlers in Africa started in the 1820s to experiment with quinine as a deterrent to the disease. Quinine is an alkaloid produced from the bark of the cinchona tree. David Livingstone, who took quinine daily during his great African expeditions, was convinced of the efficacy of this remedy, and his faith was borne out by a rapid decline in the rate of European mortality in Africa in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

Probes in the Interior. Europeans attempted to map the interior of Africa and open up the continent to European commerce. Mungo Park, a young Scottish surgeon, was the first European to explore the interior of West Africa in the late 1790s, compiling the initial maps of the river Niger. The Englishman Richard Lander, who followed the river down to its mouth in 1830, extended Park’s pioneering work. Further south, the Zambezi, the great river of southern central Africa, remained unknown to Europeans until the epic journey undertaken by David Livingstone between 1853 and 1856. His last expedition, from 1865 to 1871, initiated at the behest of the president of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society, explored the complex drainage system between Lake Nyasa and Lake Tanganyika and charted the Congo’s headwaters.

Nile River. Livingstone had hoped to discover the ultimate source of the Nile River, a quest that had enchanted Europeans and the people of North Africa for centuries, but he ultimately failed in this mission. In fact, the first step toward confirming the basic structure of the Nile was undertaken under the direction of the Ottoman Viceroy in Egypt, Muhammad ’Ali, who dispatched three expeditions up the Nile between 1839 and 1842. They ultimately reached Juba, only 250 miles from the Nile’s source. The exact nature and location of that source remained uncertain. The explorations of three German missionaries in the 1840s, Johann Ludwig Krapf, Johannes Rebmann, and Jacob Erhardt, located the mountains of Kilimanjaro and Kenya, which they believed were potential sources of the river. In light of this intelligence the British explorers Richard Burton and John Speke followed the long-established Arab trade routes into the interior of East Africa, discovering Lake Tanganyika in 1857. From there, Speke pushed north to a lake that he believed was the Nile’s source, which he named Victoria Nyanza (Lake Victoria). In a subsequent expedition in 1862 Speke collected more evidence to support his contention, that it drained into and began the Nile, but it fell to Henry Morton Stanley to finally confirm this theory. In 1875 Stanley circumnavigated Lake Victoria, mappin the course of the Lualaba River to the Congo River. He then followed the Congo to its mouth. The journey produced a detailed image of the structure of the key African river systems and paved the way for a new age of European imperialism in the continent. This situation culminated in the partition of Africa among the European powers in the final two decades of the nineteenth century.


J.C. Beaglehole, The Exploration of the Pacific (London: Black, 1934).

Anne Hugon, The Exploration of Africa: From Cairo to the Cape (New York: Abrams, 1993).

John Parker, ed., Merchants and Scholars: Essays in the History of Exploration and Trade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965).

A. L. Rice, Voyages of Discovery: Three Centuries of Natural History Exploration (New York: C. Potter, 1999).

Donald Simpson, Dark Companions: The African Contribution to the European Exploration of East Africa (New York: Barnes ’c Noble, 1975).

Peter Whitfield, New Found Lands: Maps in the History of Exploration (New York: Routledge, 1998).

Lynne Withey, Voyages of Discovery: Captain Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific (New York: Morrow, 1987).

Richard Worth, Stanley and Livingstone and the Exploration of Africa in World History (Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2000).


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The people of medieval times knew little of the world outside their towns and villages. The most knowledgeable people were unaware of distant continents and had no idea of the true size of the earth. Sailors had no maps to guide them beyond the familiar coasts. Navigational tools were of very limited use in long-distance voyages, especially in uncharted waters. Only a few merchants traveled any distance. Their reports from the coasts of Africa and Arabia, and the overland caravan route known as the Silk Road, made up the limits of exploration.

In the fifteenth century, Portugal began an important era of long-distance exploration. Portuguese navigators began maneuvering a lighter, more nimble craft known as the caravel down the western coasts of Africa. They sailed beyond the capes, which experienced mariners believed lay at the edge of the world. The craft of shipbuilding improved the caravels, making them larger and rigging them to handle the varying wind conditions of long sea voyages. With their larger holds and ability to support crews for months at a time, carracks came into use around the turn of the sixteenth century and allowed even longer voyages.

Henry the Navigator, a prince of Portugal, began sponsoring voyages of exploration after the conquest of Ceuta in North Africa. Henry sought to expand Portugal's trade with Africa and to convert that continent's pagan souls to Christianity. His officers touched at the island of Madeira, the Canary Islands, and the Azores. Gil Eanes passed Cape Bojador, the traditional limit of southern navigation, in 1434. Diogo Gomes reached the Cape Verde Islands in 1455. The Portuguese built fortified trading posts at the river mouths and obtained gold, slaves, and ivory. After figuring a method for determining latitude in the southern hemisphere, Portuguese sailors were able to navigate to the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa. After the death of Henry the Navigator, King Joao II continued royal patronage of exploration. The superior navy of the Portuguese limited the expeditions of their main rival, Castile. By a treaty signed in 1479, Castilian ships were barred from sailing past Cape Bojador. In 1487, Bartolomeo Dias became the first to round the Cape and explore the Indian Ocean coasts of Africa.

Vasco da Gama followed Dias in 1497, sailing up the east African coast and then across the Indian Ocean to India. This important voyage opened up trade in the valuable spices of the Moluccas and the East Indies. After da Gama returned, King Manuel I commissioned a second journey to the Indian Ocean in 1500 by Pedro Alvares de Cabral. Blown off course, Cabral was brought by wind and current to the coast of Brazil.

In the meantime, Spain was exploring west to the Americas, beginning with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Columbus had failed to interest the Portuguese king Joao II in a westward voyage that Columbus believed would reveal a faster route to the East Indies. Despite skepticism on the part of court scientists and astronomers, Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to back him in 1492. After Columbus returned with reports of unknown islands to the west, Spain claimed the new lands with the support of the Spanish pope Alexander VI. Columbus returned to the Caribbean three times, each time bringing home further knowledge of what European geographers now realized was an entirely new hemisphere.

Spain and Portugal were building rival commercial empires, and racing to establish hegemony over previously unknown parts of the world. The Portuguese established forts in India, Malaysia, and the Moluccas and prevented Spain from exploiting the rich trade in spices. By the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, a line drawn in the western hemisphere granted Africa, India, and Brazil trade to Portugal and all lands to the west to Spain.

At the same time, the English were sending expeditions across the North Atlantic. In 1497 Giovanni Caboto, known in English as John Cabot, reached Newfoundland. Cabot was lost on a second voyage with four of his ships, but the English did not give up their search for a northwest passage to Asia.

The Spanish explored the New World, the coast of Venezuela and the mouth of the Orinoco River. Goncalo Coelho led an expedition of 1501 that roamed the northern coasts of Brazil. A member of his company, Amerigo Vespucci, coined the term New World in his account of this voyage, which was the first to speculate that Europeans had found an entirely new continent. To honor Vespucci, the German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller named this part of the world America.

In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set out to reach the Spice Islands by a westerly route. Magellan navigated the straits at the southern tip of South America. After his death in battle in the Philippines, Sebastian del Cano led one ship back to Spain, becoming the first navigator to make a circumnavigation of the earth. The voyage brought the Philippines into Spain's possession and gave navigators a clear idea of the distances involved in transoceanic travel.

In the sixteenth century geographical knowledge of the Americas expanded as new voyages of exploration returned to Europe. Giovanni da Verrazano explored the Atlantic Coast of North America, from Maine to Florida, in 1524. Jacques Cartier made two voyages to Canada in the 1530s, attempting to colonize the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. Martin Frobisher and John Davis explored Greenland, Baffin Island, and the Arctic Ocean straits. Henry Hudson reached a great arctic bay in 1610, believing he had reached the Pacific Ocean. Hudson was cast adrift by his mutinous crew, but his discovery of Hudson Bay led to England's control of a new and lucrative fur trade.

Exploration in the Spanish Americas led to conquest and colonization. Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana navigated the entire Amazon River in 15411542. Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas of Peru and Hernán Cortes, the Aztecs. Francisco Coronado explored the American southwest in 1540. Spain now had claim to the largest colonial empire on earth. Spain also established a cross-Pacific trade route between Mexico and China. European exploration had led to the colonization of much of the world and control of trade. In turn this expanding trade brought about Europe's economic expansion and industrialization, allowing Europeans to dominate the global economy for centuries to come.

See Also: Cartier, Jacques; Columbus, Christopher; Cortes, Hernán; da Gama, Vasco; Henry the Navigator; Magellan, Ferdinand


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Geography. Having been influenced by traders’ successes, especially the exploits of Far Eastern merchants, explorers became the foremost proponents by the end of the Middle Ages of a connection with other lands. Their background as warriors or merchants and their love for adventurous travel formed their belief that exploring would be useful for their lives and their society. To that end they envisioned a new kind of formal outing that would reveal the world’s future boundaries. Until 1492, however, what Ptolemy had displayed in his Geography (second century C.E.)—a world limited to the Mediterranean basin and its adjacent hinterlands, northern Africa, and parts of Asia—would not be extended. Drawn in about 1300, England’s Hereford Mappa Mundi included nothing farther away than Eden, at the eastern extreme from Britain.

Roman Legacy. The medieval Christians’ ideas departed little from the fundamental geography of the earlier Roman imperial military and intellectual boundaries. In his natural historical work, the Roman Pliny had speculated broadening that conception by adding another patch of land, to balance those already known. Imaging “Paradise,” “the island of unknown men,” and “Gog and Magog”—places that even they thought might be metaphorical—and employing symmetry as the guide to configuration, mapmakers seemed to base their medieval creations on imagination rather than affirmed information. Their maps could not guide travelers to places in Africa, Antarctica, or to any spot other than the ones classical and biblical education had prepared them to represent, such as the Tanais (Don) River, the Nile, and the Mediterranean Sea, or the four rivers flowing from Eden. Although map-makers considered it important to show an earthly and possible location for Paradise, for example, exact coordinate representation was not the organizing focus of their efforts.

Viking Adventurers. With the exception of the fearless Irish monks, the Vikings were the earliest medieval explorers. In the guise of traders and warriors from Scandinavia, they raided and later settled in parts of northern Europe, Iceland, and North America between the ninth and the eleventh centuries. The Vikings’ ideas of successful exploration were realized first in 874, when Iceland was discovered; by 900 twenty-five thousand Norwegians had settled there. The new discovery introduced further exploration possibilities: one was via the traditional Viking sea voyage, offering the chance of being blown off course to discover a previously unknown island; the other was the maritime explorer’s way in which adventurers would take specific preparatory steps to settle a new land, such as loading supplies for permanent settlement elsewhere, recording sightings of land and sea routes, and taking women along. For the second approach, Snaebjorn, Erik Thorvaldson (known as Erik the Red), and Leif Eriksson formed the core of the Viking explorers, each wanting to find land for new colonies in which they could live and thrive. Snaebjorn saw Greenland, found earlier by his great-grandfather, Gunnb-jorn, as an extremely important site to establish a settlement. Later in the tenth century, Erik the Red would lead a voyage of exploration to the west coast of Greenland, once, and then again eventually to settle there.

Transplants. Erik the Red continued his explorations from Greenland. Although he did not become the first Viking to sit on American soil, he planned the expedition of his son Leif, remaining behind only because of a horse-fall injury. Having purchased a ship whose owner Bjarni Herjolfsson had originally spotted North America, Leif, as set forth in Eiriks Saga, which described the discovery of the New World, happened on “lands which he did not even know existed.” The Viking explorations are the favorite example of many historians who seek in the Middle Ages an instance of medieval people venturing into the unknown. But the Vikings were most interested in colonial settlement, each one wanting his to succeed. Intuit presence on the Newfoundland coast overpowered the Vikings’ initial settlement attempts, and their colony in Vineland collapsed under the threat of the more numerous local inhabitants whom they called Skraelings. In a few centuries the Vikings were removed as colonists of Vineland and Greenland, but they maintained a presence in Iceland from that era forward. It was not until almost a millennium later that the Vikings’ maritime discoveries were affirmed by archaeological findings in North America; in 1968 a Viking settlement was unearthed at L’Anse-aux-Meadows, Newfoundland, one of many Viking archaeological finds that based its searches on some of the Old Norse sagas of the improbable sounding Vikings’ maritime explorations.

Marco Polo. In 1271 Marco Polo of Venice began his travels across Asia to China, visiting Hangzhou, the Song

dynasty’s rich second capital of one million merchants, artisans, officials, scholars, servants, and slaves. From 1275 to 1292 he worked for the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, returning to Venice in 1295. In 1299 Rustichello of Pisa took the idea of the travels of Marco Polo and wrote Divisament dou monde (Description of the World), adapting some of the descriptions recounted to him by Marco Polo in jail to give a more exotic and Eastern perspective in this new travelogue. Omissions in the work, such as no reference to the Great Wall of China, have been cautiously explained as elliptical, to shelter the Mongols’ world from crudely explicit descriptions. Nevertheless, Rustichello’s significant detail has brought much credence to his work. He recounted the splendors of China, including evocative specifics about the seaport Zaiton, the court of Kublai Khan, the sounds of the Gobi Desert, and the mores of Chinese women. Also new were the accounts of Java, Sumatra, polar Russia, East Africa, and Japan. To Marco Polo belonged twin distinctions. He became known for the many exaggerations about his travels, earning the nickname “Mr. Thousands.” On the other hand, he respected the distinctiveness of pagan Eastern cultures. Although impractical and much less concrete than the accounts of John of Plano Carpini (1245–1247), William of Rubruck (1253–1255), and Francesco Balducci de Perlotti (flourished 1340), Marco Polo’s description was the broadest and most intriguing. His travels stimulated the explorations later undertaken by Henry the Navigator and Christopher Columbus in the fifteenth century.

Ibn Battuta. About the same time that Marco Polo was writing his last will, ibn Battuta was thinking and talking about new places to see. Born in Morocco and educated in the way of the Maliki legal school, ibn Battuta arrived in Mecca in 1325 and, after consulting a holy man there, proceeded to Russia, India, and China. From ibn Battuta’s travel stories ibn Juzayy wrote an elaborately detailed compilation titled Tuhfat al-nuzzar fi ghara’ib al-amsar wa-’aja’ib al-asfar (Precious Gift to Those Interested in the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling), or al-Rihla (The Journey). His “classical” travelogue model was ibn Jubayr’s twelfth-century travels to Mecca, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Sicily, and his practical orientation was that of a pilgrim traveling to holy sites and Islamic countries. Like Marco Polo’s Chinese adventure, this was a rare instance. Ibn Battuta had also advised the Sultan of Delhi in matters of Islamic law and record keeping. Ibn Battuta wrote his notes possibly with the hope that he would be acknowledged as a candidate for quadi (adviser) to his own Marinid sultan in Morocco, but he was not eligible until he became a sedentary scholar in 1357. His travels so impressed the sultan Abu ’Inan, however, that he sent ibn Juzayy to compile the notes for ibn Battuta, whom he invited to become quadi in a provincial Moroccan town. Ibn Battuta accepted the position. Thus, for the twenty-seven years from 1325, when, under the terms of Islamic law, he went on the hajj (pilgrimage), until five years after becoming quadi of Delhi and of the Maldive Islands of Sri Lanka, ibn Battuta traveled to become the Arab world’s most renowned explorer.


Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the 14thCentury (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Before Columbus: Exploration and Colonization from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229–1492 (Philadelphia: University of California Press, 1986).

Marcia Kupfer, “Medieval World Maps: Embedded Images, Interpretative Frames,” Word and Image, 10 (1994): 262-288.

Margaret Wade Labarge, Medieval Travellers: The Rich and Restless (London: Hamilton, 1982).

Arthur Percival Newton, ed., Travel and Travellers of the Middle Ages (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968).

J. R. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Marco Polo, The Travels, translated by Ronald Latham (London: Penguin, 1958).

Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History (London: Athlone Press, 1987).

Marjorie Rowling, Everyday Life of Medieval Travellers (London: B. T. Batsford, 1971).

G.V. Scammell, The World Encompassed: The First European Maritime Empires, c 800–1650 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

Kristen A. Seaver, The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America ca. AD 1000–1500 (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1996).

Bertold Spuler, History of the Mongols, Based on Eastern and Western Accounts of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, translated by H. and S. Drummond (London: Routledge, 1972).


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exploration. The notion of Europeans discovering other peoples and telling them who they are and where they live is now suspect, especially as an explorer's discourse is said to be determined by his mind-set rather than any objective reality. Yet descriptions of the surface of the globe and its peoples have been put into a framework of knowledge which has affected historical development. In fact exploration has been linked with the exercise of political and economic power and sometimes religious evangelism. Britain's increasing domination of exploration broadly accompanied the rise of the English and then the British state to world power after 1500. From the late 18th cent., Britain not only organized the most important expeditions but also set the agenda by insisting that exploration be ‘scientific’—which meant at the very least that latitudes and longitudes must be established.

More science did not lessen the connections between exploration and other aspects of British life. The state continued to be closely involved, partly for strategic reasons and partly because naval or military personnel so often led expeditions. The upper-class tradition of the grand tour with travel seen as heightening knowledge and experience had a powerful effect on the organization of exploration and the way it was written up. Another spur to expeditions from the 1790s was the desire of British protestant churches to evangelize overseas. Livingstone is the perfect example of the missionary becoming a great scientist and associating with aristocratic hunters and travellers before writing a best-selling travel work.

Exploration entered British consciousness in other ways: explorers became the pattern for heroes of boys' adventure stories and the subjects of numerous anthologizers and biographers. Hakluyt began the anthologies with his Principall Navigations … of 1589. The great 18th-cent. travel collections continued the tradition and in 1846 William Desborough Cooley founded the Hakluyt Society to publish historical accounts of voyages and travels, as it has done ever since. Biographies abound. We learn that Livingstone was a victim of cyclothymia, or that Speke had a mother fixation. This sort of writing has had the unfortunate effect of grossly distorting the true significance of explorers in the history both of Britain and of the regions they explored.

Despite Hakluyt, the English contribution to primary exploration in the great age of maritime discovery was rather modest. John and Sebastian Cabot, English by adoption, contributed to the discovery of the Americas in 1497 and 1509, but most English maritime adventurers in the Tudor period merely followed the Portuguese and Spanish and attempted to steal some of their treasures. This was true of Drake although his circumnavigation of 1577–8 involved the discovery of California. But the English did try to open up new routes to the Orient—the North-East and North-West Passages with the voyages of Willoughby and Chancellor to Russia in 1558 and the contemporary landward travels in central Asia of Jenkinson matched by the voyages to the west of Frobisher in 1576 and Davis in 1585–7. The North-West Passage was to preoccupy Britain for 300 years, no doubt because of its comparative proximity to Canada. Hudson reached the bay bearing his name in 1607–11 and in the following century attempts on the passage were to be made from the Pacific as well as the Atlantic.

Partly for this reason, the Pacific attracted much British attention in the 18th cent. with Dampier's New Voyage round the World of 1697 and the circumnavigations of Anson in 1740–4 and Byron of 1764–6 adding interest. The prize would be the trade of the great southern continent believed to exist. Cook's first voyage of 1768–71 did reveal New Zealand and eastern Australia but the second voyage of 1772–5 effectively disproved the existence of a southern continent. Cook's third voyage was to the northern Pacific, so completing the greatest series of scientific expeditions ever undertaken. Banks had been on the first voyage and then came to dominate British exploratory activity, sending out more naturalist travellers and being instrumental in founding the African Association in 1788. This aimed to do for the interior of Africa what Cook had done for the Pacific. Mungo Park reached the upper Niger in 1795–6. Government took over the organization of expeditions by Clapperton and others and in 1830 Lander solved the vexed question of where the Niger debouched into the sea. The mantle of the African Association was taken on by the Royal Geographical Society, founded in 1830, which, often in association with government, sent explorers especially to eastern and central Africa and to the Polar regions. Livingstone, Burton, Speke—who reached the source of the Nile—Cameron, Stanley, and Thomson were the great African explorers, while the old obsession with the North-West Passage led to the expeditions of Parry, and especially of Franklin whose disappearance after 1845 led to no fewer than 40 search expeditions. In the south polar region, Ross, Bruce, Shackleton, and Scott are the great names.

Scott's failure to be first to the South Pole in 1912 was perhaps a sign that the age of British dominance in exploration was coming to an end. Perhaps the era did end when a British expedition was the first to conquer Everest in 1953, albeit with a New Zealander and a Nepalese actually reaching the summit.

Roy C. Bridges


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Since the beginning of human history, people have explored their surroundings. Historians believe that early humans migrated out of Africa and into Eurasia about 60,000 years ago. They were seeking new food sources and leaving areas with unfavorable environmental conditions. Asia was likely populated 40,000 years ago, the Americas about 30,000 years ago. Evidence suggests that agriculture developed in the Middle East around 10,000 years ago. This important innovation spread throughout Europe and Asia during the next 5,000 years.

The first evidence of ocean voyages dates from 1200 bce, when Phoenicians sailed simple ships along the Mediterranean coast to find places to sell their wares. Between c. 900 and 700 bce, Greeks, Chinese, and Polynesians began exploring their surroundings by ship. Sailors started producing charts documenting important features along the coastline.

Ancient Greeks made steady progress exploring the globe between c. 200 and 100 bce. Using information from camel traders and measurements of the sun's shadows, Greek astronomer Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c. 275 bce-c. 195 bce) calculated the circumference of Earth. Soon after, explorers learned to navigate using the stars, and cartography evolved.

During the first millennium, the Polynesians made many explorations. The Chinese launched major travels throughout Asia and the Pacific. However, the Dark Ages in Europe led to few explorations beyond those of the Vikings. The Renaissance marked the beginning of the Age of Discovery in Europe. Prince Henry (1394–1460) helped the Portuguese become a marine power, exploring much of the African coast. Italian navigator Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) explored the Americas, developing charts of the Atlantic Ocean. Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480?–1521)) made the first trip around the world by ship.

Fueled by various motives—some noble, others greedy or religious—exploration of the Americas continued. The Dutch, Spanish, French, and British explored mainly for economic riches. Juan Ponce de Leon (1460–1521) explored the Florida coast, while fellow Spaniard Francisco Vá squez de Coronado (1510?–1554) trekked across what is now the southwestern United States. British navigator James Cook (1728–1779) traveled extensively along the Pacific Ocean. In 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition ventured across the North American West. In some cases, the explorations were intrusive and harmful to existing native populations, cultures, and environments.

By 1900, the most accessible regions of the globe had been explored. Only the most extreme environments remained undiscovered. These places included areas high in the mountains and deep in the ocean, or amid frigid polar regions and dense rain forests. By the mid-1900s, adventurers had climbed the highest mountain, Mount Everest, and explored the North and South Poles. However, new environments continue to beckon, including the ocean depths and space.

This chapter discusses the relationships and issues that have evolved from the discovery of diverse environments. One common element related to social issues and debate is how human exploration has changed and challenged new environments. Another element is how explorers define new environments in terms that are understandable to their culture, sometimes endangering or disregarding the native populations, cultures, and environments.


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236. Exploration (See also Frontier.)

  1. Balboa, Vasco Nuñez de (14751517) discovered the Pacific Ocean. [Sp. Hist.: Benét, 75]
  2. Columbus, Christopher (14461506) expeditions to West Indies, South and Central America; said to have discovered America in 1492. [Ital. Hist.: Jameson, 107108]
  3. de Soto, Hernando (c. 15001542) discovered the Mississippi River. [Sp. Hist.: Benét, 266]
  4. Enterprise starship on 5-year mission to explore space. [Am. TV: Star Trek in Terrace]
  5. Gama, Vasco da (c. 14601524) navigator who discovered route around Africa to India. [Port. Hist.: NCE, 1040]
  6. Golden Hind ship on which Sir Francis Drake (15401596) became the first Englishman to sail around the world. [Br. Hist.: EB (1963) VII, 575]
  7. Hudson, Henry seeking a northwest passage to the Orient, in 1609 he explored the river later named for him. [Am. Hist.: Benét, 482]
  8. Journey to the Center of the Earth expedition through the core of a volcano to the earths center. [Fr. Lit.: Verne A Journey to the Center of the Earth in Benét, 1055]
  9. Lewis and Clark Expedition proved feasibility of overland route to the Pacific. [Am. Hist.: Benét, 583]
  10. Polo, Marco (12541324) Venetian traveler in China. [Ital. Hist.: NCE, 1695]
  11. Ponce de Leon, Juan (c. 14601521) seeking the fountain of youth, he discovered Florida and explored its coast. [Sp. Hist.: Benét, 802]


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ex·plo·ra·tion / ˌekspləˈrāshən/ • n. the action of traveling in or through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about it: voyages of exploration. ∎  thorough analysis of a subject or theme: an exploration of the religious dimensions of our lives. DERIVATIVES: ex·plo·ra·tion·al / -ˈrāshənl/ adj.

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