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During the nineteenth century technological advances, nationalist fervor, and commercial development spurred European interest in opening up uncharted regions of the globe. Through a combination of public and private initiatives, nations sponsored extensive programs of scientific and geographical exploration. Explorers, primarily men but also a few women, became international celebrities whose stories and adventures stirred the imagination of the public.


During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries exploration of the South Pacific continued following the voyages of the British captain James Cook (1728–1779) and the French Comte de la Pérouse (1741–c. 1788). Between 1795 and 1803 Matthew Flinders (1774–1814) circumnavigated and mapped the coastline of Australia for the Royal Navy, and Nicolas-Thomas Baudin (1754–1803) mapped the Australian coastline for France. The establishment of Britain's permanent settlements in Australia opened up the interior of the continent to many explorers over the next several decades. Edward John Eyre (1815–1901) was the first European to walk across southern Australia, in 1840, and Edmund Kennedy (1818–1848) explored the interior of Queensland and New South Wales later in that decade. Robert Burke (1820–1861) and William Wills (1834–1861) were the first Europeans to cross the continent from south to north in 1860–1861, and died attempting to make the return trip.

The primary focal point of nineteenth-century exploration, however, was Africa. Before the late eighteenth century, the difficulties presented by disease and terrain meant that Europeans knew very little of Africa's interior. Technological and medicinal advances during the first half of the century, such as the development of the steamboat and the discovery of quinine's antimalarial properties by Europeans, made the African interior increasingly accessible to European explorers.

The Scotsman Mungo Park's (1771–1806) explorations of the Niger River between 1795 and 1805, popularized in his 1799 work Travels in the Interior of Africa, not only confirmed the course of the river but also stoked popular interest in the mysteries of the continent's interior. Other adventurers soon followed in his wake. In 1828, lured by the ten thousand–franc reward put up by the French Geographical Society, René-Auguste Caillié (1799–1838) became the first European to travel to Timbuktu and return safely. Much more information about the interior of northern Africa came about as a result of the journeys made by the German Heinrich Barth (1821–1865) between 1849 and 1855. Traveling alone for much of the time, Barth immersed himself more deeply into African societies and cultures than did many nineteenth-century explorers. His Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa, published in 1857–1858, remains one of the most detailed accounts of the peoples of Northern Nigeria and the Western Sudan.

The most famous midcentury explorer was the missionary-turned-explorer David Livingstone (1813–1873). He began his African career in the service of the London Missionary Society in 1841, and throughout the 1840s explored much of southern Africa beyond the Orange River. By the 1850s, however, Livingstone had given up on the life of a settled missionary and turned his attention toward the interior of sub-Saharan Africa. Between 1853 and 1856 he crossed Africa from the Atlantic coast to the Indian Ocean, along the way becoming the first European to see Victoria Falls. Livingstone's best-selling account of his travels, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857), engaged the public with tales of his adventures, excited evangelical Christians with accounts of unknown peoples introduced to the gospel, interested merchants

with the prospects of trade in the African interior, and impressed the scientific community with its geographic observations. Livingstone made his third and final series of journeys, in East Africa, between 1866 and 1873. During this time he attempted to open trade routes on the Zambezi River, established the ill-fated Universities Mission in Nyasaland, and sought further information on the debate over the source of the Nile. Livingstone died in Africa in 1873, and his remains were returned to England, where he received a hero's funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey.

Livingstone's name is now forever linked with that of Henry Morton Stanley (1841–1904), the journalist and adventurer sent in 1871 by the New York Herald to find Livingstone in the African interior. Stanley made several other significant journeys of exploration during the subsequent decades. Crossing the continent from east to west between 1874 and 1877, he confirmed Lake Victoria as the source of the Nile. He assisted King Leopold II (r. 1865–1909) of Belgium in the establishment of the Congo Free State. In 1887 he led the expedition to rescue the German-born governor of Equatoria, Emin Pasha (born Eduard Schnitzer) (1840–1892), who had been isolated in the interior because of the Mahdist rebellion in the Sudan.

Richard Burton (1821–1890) and John Hanning Speke (1827–1864) played the central roles in discovering the source of the Nile, the greatest geographical mystery of the century. In 1856 the Foreign Office and the Royal Geographical Society commissioned Burton, already famous for his journeys to Mecca and Medina, to lead an expedition in search of the source of the great river. Burton invited Speke, an officer in the British Indian army who had traveled with Burton through Somalia in 1854. The expedition set off from Zanzibar in 1857 in search of the great lakes of the interior of eastern Africa, reaching Lake Tanganyika in early 1858. When Burton fell ill Speke continued on to a second, larger lake, to which he gave the name Lake Victoria. Upon their return the two engaged in a well-publicized dispute, Burton claiming that Lake Tanganyika was the ultimate source of the Nile and Speke insisting it was Lake Victoria. Subsequent explorations by Speke, Livingstone, and Stanley ultimately confirmed that Lake Victoria was the source.

Although men dominated the field of exploration, by the end of the century women explorers became more common. Mary Kingsley (1862–1900), the daughter of the physician and travel author George Henry Kingsley (1827–1892), made two journeys to West Africa in 1893–1894. Kingsley was the first European to visit certain remote parts of Gabon and the French Congo. Her 1897 book, Travels in West Africa, was controversial for its sympathetic portrayal of indigenous Africans and its critique of certain European imperialist policies. The Swiss-born Isabelle Eberhardt (1877–1904) frequently disguised herself as a man during her travels in North Africa. Eberhardt's accounts of her travels, and of the secret Sufi brotherhood, the Qadiriya, were published in books and numerous French newspapers.

During the first decades of the twentieth century the attention of explorers and the public turned to polar exploration. The American Robert Peary (1856–1920) led the first successful expedition to the North Pole in 1909. Included in his team was Matthew Henson (1866–1955), one of very few African American explorers. More dramatic was the race to the South Pole between the Englishman Robert F. Scott (1868–1912) and the Norwegian Roald Amundson (1872–1928). During his second Antarctic expedition, Scott set off for the pole from Ross Island in November 1911. However, traveling a shorter distance across the Ross Ice Shelf with a smaller team, Amundson reached the pole first on 14 December. Scott arrived about a month later, discovering to his disappointment a Norwegian flag and a letter from Amundson. Polar exploration was especially hazardous, taking the lives of many explorers, including Scott, whose entire team perished attempting to return from the pole, and Amundson, who died in an Arctic plane crash in 1928.


A variety of factors motivated both explorers and the organizations or individuals that supported them. The growth of nineteenth-century European exploration occurred as a direct result of the development of scientific, industrial, financial, and organizational resources that could be directed toward the systematic study of unknown areas of the globe. Expeditions occurred primarily as a result of assistance from government or private interests. National geographic societies, established in Paris in 1821, Berlin in 1828, and London in 1830, provided both logistical and financial support for most major expeditions of the nineteenth century. Missionary societies also sometimes facilitated exploration, as in the early career of David Livingstone.

The general interest in adventure and knowledge of faraway places drove popular support for exploration, while commercial and imperial concerns impelled government involvement. Most explorers and expeditions emphasized their scientific objectives, but some journeys, such as Jean-Baptiste Marchand's (1863–1934) 1895 march to Fashoda, were entirely imperial from their conception. Even the early twentieth-century polar explorations, the most ostensibly scientific given the nature of the regions being explored, were not immune to nationalist sentiment, as is evident in Amundson and Scott's race to the South Pole.

On a personal level most explorers were driven by a combination of a desire for adventure, the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and the lure of popular adulation. Although some, such as Burton, produced vividly written accounts of the societies and cultures they encountered, most explorers showed a general hostility toward all things indigenous. Burton's descriptions of East Africa were colorful, but also contained ample evidence of his lack of respect for the people and cultures he was describing. Stanley was infamous, even during his own era, for the violence and brutality of his dealings with Africans. Nineteenth-century explorers were men of adventure, and often men of science, but were rarely ever humanitarians. Livingstone was the primary exception. He conceived of his exploration as part of the divine calling to end the slave trade and bring Christianity, commerce, and civilization to the African interior. To what extent ordinary Africans desired or welcomed the benefits of Livingstone's humanitarian cause remains open to debate. He was, nevertheless the only of the well-known explorers to clearly articulate a vision of exploration that promised Africans a form of future progress and advancement.


Assessing the impact of the nineteenth-century era of exploration is complicated. Explorers clearly facilitated the process of cross-cultural exchange, bringing indigenous peoples into contact with Europeans and European culture. They played an instrumental role in transmitting information about the geography and the peoples of the globe to European audiences, although it is important to also recognize that many of the "discoveries" made by European explorers were often little more than the affirmation of things already known to indigenous populations. Clearly the opening up of the interiors of Africa or Australia to European involvement had profound long-term negative consequences for the indigenous societies of those continents. Even though the largest expeditions numbered in the hundreds, it is not at all clear that they had much direct contemporary impact. The vast majority of Africans went about their lives completely unaware of the explorers in their midst and of the longer term consequences of their presence. While exploration was inextricably linked with the expansion of nineteenth-century European imperialism, it should be seen as only one of several factors. Livingstone's humanitarian and moral arguments likely played a far more significant role in encouraging European involvement in Africa than his scientific and geographical discoveries. Explorers were as important to the history of nineteenth-century Europe for their role in circulating information about then-unknown parts of the globe as they were for their role as agents of imperialism.

See alsoAfrica; Civilization, Concept of; Imperialism; Missions; Oceanic Exploration.


Baker, J. N. L. History of Geographic Discovery and Exploration. 1937. Reprint, New York, 1967.

Bell, Morag, Robin Butlin, and Michael Heffernan, eds. Geography and Imperialism, 1820–1940. Manchester, U.K., and New York, 1995.

Keay, John, ed. The Royal Geographical Society History of World Exploration. London, 1991.

Rotberg, Robert I., ed. Africa and Its Explorers: Motives, Methods, and Impact. Cambridge, Mass., 1970.

Stafford, Robert A. "Scientific Exploration and Empire." In The Oxford History of the British Empire: Vol. III, The Nineteenth Century, edited by Andrew Porter. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1999.

Van Orman, Richard A. The Explorers: Nineteenth Century Expeditions in Africa and the American West. Albuquerque, N.M., 1984.

Michael A. Rutz