Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1800-1899

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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1800-1899


One of the greatest thrills man can experience is the discovery of something that no one has ever seen. The exhilaration of traveling a wild unexplored locale, facing hazards natural and native while discovering the hitherto unknown, has attracted explorers of the world for thousands of years. By the eighteenth century man's quest for the unknown led explorers such as Captain James Cook (1728-1779) on scientific voyages around the globe. Some attempted, unsuccessfully, to reach the farthest corners of the globe—such as a 1773 British Admiralty expedition to the North Pole. Others, such as surveyor and explorer Alexander Mackenzie (1763-1820), who traveled across land to the Pacific Ocean, explored a single continent—North America. Organizations developed such as the African Association founded in June 1788, whose main objective was the exploration of Africa. By the end of the eighteenth century, man's hunger for knowledge of the world had become insatiable, leading to the most active period of Earth exploration: the 1800s.

The expeditions of the 1700s were limited in scope and significance when compared to the amazing accomplishments of explorers in the 1800s. Never before or since has so much of Earth been discovered in such a brief period of its history. In all, man's compulsion to discover, describe, and catalog his world—as well as conquer it—resulted in a flood of exploration in the 1800s. There were expeditions to solve unanswered geographical questions, such as the existence of a Northwest Passage and the source of the Nile. There were expeditions to expand scientific knowledge, such as the first deep-sea exploration of the HMS Challenger (1872-6) and voyages to South America that led to new discoveries in the fields of zoology, botany, and geology. Meanwhile, other explorations, especially those sponsored for political purposes, were expanding national boundaries—in America and Australia, for example—as well as imperial domains, as was the case in Africa. Adventure in the nineteenth century was not only for explorers, however, as archaeological discoveries in the Middle East and Mediterranean were also significant.

Exploration for Scientific Purposes

The first class of nineteenth-century exploration, for scientific purposes, could accurately describe nearly every expedition undertaken in the period. The information brought back by explorers stimulated a new perspective on man and his environment. New, more accurate maps and geographical reports resulted from the journeys and voyages of topographical engineers and surveyors. New discoveries were made in the fields of botany, zoology, ornithology, marine biology, geology, and cultural anthropology. Especially significant were expeditions to South America. From 1799-1802 Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858) explored the Orinoco River and most of the Amazon River system in northwest South America, identifying plant and animal life and studying climatology, meteorology, and volcanoes. Humboldt used his discoveries to create an encyclopedic work entitled Kosmos, which cataloged his own extensive scientific knowledge and much of the accumulated knowledge of geography and geology of his time. In northeast South America Robert Schomburgk (1804-1865) explored the interior of Guyana from 1835 to 1839 as one of the first funded expeditions of Britain's Royal Geographical Society, which was founded in 1830. In addition to extensive mapping of rivers and geographical features, Schomburgk collected hundreds of botanical, zoological, and geological specimens for study. Along the coast of South America, the voyage of the British ship HMS Beagle (1831-6), with Charles Darwin (1809-1882) aboard, made scientific discoveries that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution, one of the titanic achievements in modern science.

While explorations were penetrating the hot jungles and rivers of South America, other scientific expeditions were braving the frosty regions of the North Pole, Antarctica, and Tibet and discovering, at last, both the Northwest and Northeast Passages. In 1831 James Clark Ross (1800-1862) was the first to discover the Magnetic North Pole. The first major voyage of exploration undertaken by the young United States was the U.S. Exploring Expedition led by Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), which sighted the Antarctic mainland early in 1840. Several American scientists accompanied Wilkes on the voyage and returned with thousands of scientific specimens from the lands visited, as well as important information on weather, sea conditions, and safe sea passages, bringing distinction to the expedition. Two more firsts were accomplished by the discoverers of the Northwest and Northeast Passages, sought by 300 years of explorers. In 1854 Irishman Robert McClure (1807-1873) completed a four-year journey of the Northwest Passage to Asia—by ship, by foot, then by ship again. Likewise, in 1879 Nils Nordenskiöld (1832-1901), a Finnish scientist, completed the first transit of the Northeast Passage, a sea route from Europe across the northern coast of Asia to the Pacific.

Exploration to Expand National Boundaries and Imperial Terrain

The second class of nineteenth century exploration, for political purposes, includes expeditions sent out for the express political goal of expanding national boundaries as well as those intended to expand imperial terrain. Continental/national boundaries were addressed by expeditions in Australia, Siberia, and North America. In 1802 Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) was the first to circumnavigate Australia and to chart its southern coast. The Australian interior was explored by numerous teams of scientists, surveyors, and discoverers. These included Edward Eyre (1815-1901), the first to explore central Australia and the first to traverse the continent, and the illfated transcontinental explorers Robert O'Hara Burke (1820-1861) and surveyor William John Wills (1834-1861), who, after traversing the continent from Melbourne to present-day Normanton near the Gulf of Carpenteria, both died of starvation on their return journey.

While Australia was eagerly exploring its continental boundaries, Russia was rapidly expanding its borders, annexing Siberia and other central Asian provinces. Thanks to the extensive explorations of men such as Nikolay Przhevalsky (1839-1888), who traveled throughout central and eastern Asia, mapping, collecting biological specimens, and surveying future travel routes, Russia was able to lay claim to considerable natural resources and valuable winter ports and to consolidate its territories in the Far East.

Like their counterparts in Australia and Russia, nineteenth-century American explorers played no small part in the rise of its Manifest Destiny—the expansion of its boundaries to the Pacific Ocean. One of the most significant feats of American exploration was that of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery. From 1804-6 Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) explored the uncharted American Far West on their way to the Pacific Ocean, helping cement the United States' claim to parts of the Pacific Northwest. Another American expedition that spurred interest in western expansion was that of Zebulon Pike (1779-1813), whose discoveries led to the conquest and settlement of lands in the Southwest. American expansion was further aided by the expeditions of John Frémont (1813-1890), whose dramatic account of western adventures excited the American public to a greater level of enthusiasm for the West.

National boundaries weren't the only lines expanding due to nineteenth-century exploration. Explorers were both the forerunners and forefathers of European imperialism, especially on the African continent. The "Dark Continent" was traversed in 1855-6 by David Livingstone (1813-1873), the first known European to do so, covering much uncharted African territory. Another important African discovery, made in 1858, was the source of the Nile found at Lake Victoria by John Speke (1827-1864). From 1874-7 Henry Stanley (1841-1904) explored the entire length of the Congo. The southern and central African expeditions of Livingstone, Speke, and Stanley resulted in a frenetic race between European nations to colonize Africa and introduce so-called "civilized" European ways into the continent's peoples. This included an infusion of Christian missionaries and enterprise-oriented merchants and traders, many of whom exploited the African natives.

Archaeological Exploration

The final class of nineteenth-century exploration, while not technically of that classification, hinges closely on the spirit of romanticism tied to the exploration of the time. Nineteenth-century romanticism stressed not only an interest in the remote and an appreciation of external nature; it also emphasized an exhaltation of the primitive and an idealization of the past. The subsequent rising interest in antiquities produced several significant archaeological discoveries such as the uncovering of the Egyptian temple of King Ramses II in 1813 by Jean-Louis Burckhardt (1784-1817), the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone in 1822 by Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), and the locating of the ancient Greek city of Troy in 1873 by Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1900).


Fundamental developments in technology changed the character of exploration after the 1800s. Most significant were the evolution of the aviation and aeronautics industries and the revolution of photography and film. Computers, telephones, and global positioning satellites have also "technified" the business of exploring. With the assistance of such technology, twentieth-century explorers have been able to make more detailed surveys of Earth's surface, explore the depths of the ocean and Earth's interior, and voyage to the moon and stars, as the quest for the unknown has extended beyond Earth.


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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1800-1899

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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 1800-1899