Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1700-1799

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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1700-1799


Explorers throughout history have been driven by a desire for discovery that has incorporated a multitude of objectives both personal and nationalistic. From the conqueror to the adventurer, all types of explorers, both men and women, have traveled to the furthest corners of Earth. As man broadened his horizons, one of the strongest forces driving further exploration became the pursuit of trade, especially in luxury goods such as precious metals, jewels, furs, silk, aromatic scents, and spices. In the 1600s organizations such as the East India Company made historic ocean voyages to the Orient and South Pacific. Trade soon led to permanent trading posts and these in turn led to colonial occupation such as the colonies founded in North America. By the end of the seventeenth century explorers also began to venture forth for nobler motives—some as missionaries, others for the love of travel, as well as those interested in satisfying scientific curiosity.

In the eighteenth century explorers made great strides in compiling more accurate geographic and meteorological data and maps, and contributed to political history and expansion, diplomacy, and geography. Their expeditions also helped to dispel many myths and superstitions regarding the oceans and continents of Earth. Others traveled to expand the new sciences of mathematics, physics, and astronomy (all of which influenced navigation). Still others widened the knowledge of archaeology, geology, anthropology, ethnology, and other natural sciences.

European Nations Explore the Pacific Ocean

Much European exploration had concentrated in previous centuries on the Atlantic Ocean and the lands bordering its coastlines. In the 1700s Europe's nations began to survey, explore, and lay claim to lands along and islands in the Pacific Ocean, the largest of Earth's three great oceans. Prior to the eighteenth century the Pacific had been a vast sea to be crossed by circumnavigators and others seeking routes to the East or by men seeking undiscovered continents. Although the search for the elusive terra australis, a legendary southern continent filled with mythic, fantasy creatures, still spurred voyages to the Pacific in the early and middle part of the century, more significant exploration was accomplished by those seeking to learn more about the great ocean itself.

The quest for terra australis led Dutch Admiral Jacob Roggeveen (1659-1729) to the first of many islands to be visited by Europeans. On Easter Day 1722 his voyage, sponsored by the West Indian Company, resulted in the discovery of Easter Island, and set the stage for future voyages to the South Pacific. Similarly, the British Admiralty selected Captain Samuel Wallis (1728-1795) for a voyage of exploration to the South Pacific in search of terra australis. Wallis instead discovered Tahiti, introducing the island to European society.

The North Pacific was also explored during this time. In 1728 and again in 1733-41, the Russian Navy sent Vitus Bering (1681-1741) on voyages to map large portions of Russia's coasts and northwestern North America. These voyages had a great impact on Russian trade in the area. The strait separating Asia from North America is named for Bering. Also exploring the North Pacific was British Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798), who surveyed and mapped the Pacific coast from Alaska to Monterrey between 1790-95. Vancouver's voyage, its critical survey, accurate soundings, and the coastal data returned had a tremendous impact on the expansion of British control of land and sea in the region.

The French, long embroiled with political and national concerns at home, made their first major ocean explorations in the 1700s—and the first French navigator to sail around the world on a voyage of discovery was Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811), who spent a significant time in the South Pacific. In 1785 Jean-François de Galaup, comte de la Pérouse (1741-1788?), explored the North Pacific from China to Japan. On the return voyage via Australia, the comte and his crew were lost at sea. In an effort to discover La Pérouse's whereabouts, the French sent Antoine de Bruni (1739-1793) to the South Pacific, where he charted the Tasmanian and Australian coasts and many of the region's islands before dying of scurvy. De Bruni's accurate maps allowed France to lay claim to numerous islands he discovered—France soon expanded its territorial possessions to include many South Sea islands. His records of oceanographic and meteorological data were invaluable to future mariners and aided the French in planning trade routes and military objectives in the South Pacific.

The most significant Pacific explorer was Britain's Captain James Cook (1728-1779). His three major voyages of discovery to the Pacific yielded vital data for navigators, botanists, and naturalists, and the medical sciences (especially with regards to proper diet to prevent scurvy). On his first voyage, Cook made important celestial observations, circumnavigated New Zealand, and explored the east coast of Australia; on his second, he circumnavigated the globe from west to east, discovered New Caledonia, the South Sandwich Islands, and South Georgia, was the first to travel below the Antarctic Circle, and his voyage of over 60,000 miles (96,560 km) also proved that terra australis did not exist; on his third voyage, he proved the Northwest Passage was not a practical route from the west and discovered Hawaii, where he was killed during a second visit. The data collected on his voyages provided a more realistic map of the globe. Overall, as a single man, Cook had a tremendous impact on the world he lived in and helped shift the world's focus from exploration to development.

Europeans in North America and Africa

Although the Pacific was the region most visited by explorers in the 1700s, other expeditions were traveling to unexplored lands closer to Europe and its colonies. From 1731-43, Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye (1685-1749) led an expedition team that included his sons on an extensive journey that established numerous forts and trading posts throughout the northern half of North America and spurred the fur trade and Indian relations for his sponsors. (Others who influenced fur trade in the northernmost parts of North America included seafarers Bering and Vancouver.) From 1736-43 Frenchman Charles-Marie de La Condamine (1701-1774) led the first scientific exploration of the Amazon River. Other explorers blazed trails in North America that aided expansion to the West—such as Frenchman Pedro Vial (1746?-1814) who was hired by the Spanish governor of Santa Fe to establish trade routes from there to St. Louis, New Orleans, and San Antonio. (The 1803 signing of the Louisiana Purchase would give American settlers direct access to Vial's Santa Fe Trail.)

Trailblazing translated to rivers in Africa, where in 1772 British explorer James Bruce (1730-1794) became the first European to follow the Blue Nile to where it converged with the White Nile in Ethiopia. In 1795 Scotsman Mungo Park (1771-1806) located the Niger River and followed it over 1,000 miles (1,609 km) through the African interior. His adventures, which he published, and his description of Africa fueled Europe's interest in the continent. Another unique expedition was one sponsored by the Danish government to the Near East from 1761-67—the first European expedition to that area of the world. The only survivor, a German explorer and surveyor, was Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815), who continued exploring even after the deaths of his companions, returning to publish several important reports as well as a three-volume set of notes from the expedition's naturalist. Even the possibility of death was not a deterrent for the most intrepid of adventurers, and many were to follow in Niebuhr's footsteps in the nineteenth century.

As European explorers traveled around the world, other discoveries and firsts were made closer to home. The year 1786 saw the birth of modern mountaineering as three men made momentous ascents of Mont Blanc in the Alps. The birth of modern archaeology can be traced to three separate events in the eighteenth century—the 1738-48 discovery and meticulous excavation of the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in Italy, covered since a.d. 79 by volcanic debris; the 1790 discovery and revolutionary interpretation of Stone Age tools on the lands of John Frere (1740-1807) in England; and the 1795 discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Egypt by French soldiers in Napoleon's army. All three events had lasting impact on the science of archaeology.


By the end of the eighteenth century superstition and hearsay about the world's lands and oceans were a thing of the past. In the 1800s men turned to science, and governments turned to colonial expansion. Historic ocean voyages, epic adventures, and exhaustive expeditions rapidly expanded national boundaries and imperial domains as well as scientific knowledge in the fields of botany, zoology, ornithology, marine biology, geology, and cultural anthropology. By the end of the nineteenth century few areas of the world remained undiscovered and unexplored by man.


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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1700-1799

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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1700-1799