You Gotta Know These Explorers
Marco Polo (ca. 1254 – ca. 1324): The Venetian merchant brothers Niccolo and Maffeo Polo traveled to China in 1261, serving Kublai Khan from 1266 to 1269. Kublai sent them back to Europe as envoys in 1269; when they returned to China in 1274 they brought Niccolo’s son Marco along. The Polos served Kublai Khan until 1292, with Marco spending time as governor of Yangzhou. After being captured by the Genoese at the naval Battle of Curzola, Marco Polo dictated his memoir, a text known as Il Milione, to his prison cellmate Rusticiano (or Rusticello) of Pisa.
Christopher Columbus (1451–1506): On his first voyage (1492), Christopher Columbus sailed for Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, taking the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria and landing at San Salvador in the Bahamas (where he dubbed the Arawak inhabitants “Indians”) before discovering Hispaniola and founding the settlement of Navidad there. On his second voyage (1493), he returned to Hispaniola before discovering Jamaica. On his third voyage (1498), he discovered South America, and on his fourth voyage (1502), he landed in Central America.
John Cabot (1450–1499), Jacques Cartier (1491–1557), and Samuel de Champlain (ca. 1567–1635): Three early explorers of Canada. John Cabot, a Genoese explorer, sailed for Henry VII of England. Cabot’s 1497 voyage aboard the Matthew landed somewhere in eastern Canada, probably in what is today Newfoundland. Frenchman Jacques Cartier went on three expeditions (1534–1542) for Francis I. On the second one, he sailed up the St. Lawrence River and named the hill behind the village of Hochelaga “Montreal.” Fellow Frenchman Samuel de Champlain went on several voyages (1603–1635), founding what is now Quebec City and becoming the first European to see Lake Huron.
Ferdinand Magellan (ca. 1480–1521): Emperor Charles V endorsed Magellan’s proposal to sail around the Americas and across the Pacific, and the expedition left in 1519. Magellan began with five ships: the San Antonio, Trinidad, Concepción, Santiago, and Victoria. The expedition discovered and navigated the Strait of Magellan in 1520, reaching the Philippines in 1521. There, Magellan was killed in battle on the island of Mactan. Only the Victoria, commanded by Juan Sebastián Elcano, returned to Spain in 1522.
Hernan Cortés (ca. 1485–1547): Spanish conquistador who participated in the conquest of Cuba. In 1519 the Cuban governor Diego Velázquez commissioned Cortés to sail west and explore the mainland coast. Fearing that Velazquez would change his mind, Cortés left Cuba secretly and began a mission of conquest rather than exploration. On the coast of the Yucatan the Cortés expedition was joined by the Spanish castaway Jeronimo de Aguilar and a Nahua captive known as “La Malinche” or “Doña Marina,” who served as translators. After traveling north, Cortés and his men defied the authority of Velazquez by founding the city of Veracruz, an act which allowed Cortés to take legal control of the expedition. The Spanish then pressed inland, surviving an attempted massacre in the city of Cholula and making allies with the Tlaxcalans, who were traditional enemies of the Aztecs. Upon reaching the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, Cortés and his men were welcomed by the Aztec emperor Montezuma II. Cortés took Montezuma prisoner, but was forced to return to the coast to deal with a punitive expedition sent by Velazquez and commanded by Panfilo de Narvaez. Although Cortés won the new arrivals over to his side, the situation in Tenochtitlan deteriorated as the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado murdered celebrants at a festival. Shortly after Cortés returned to the city, Montezuma was killed and the Spanish were forced to flee during the Noche Triste (Night of Sorrows). After escaping, Cortés marshalled Spanish and indigenous forces to fight the Aztecs, who were successively led by the emperors Cuitlahuac and Cuauhtemoc. After the Aztec defenders were seriously weakened by an outbreak of smallpox, Cortés and his followers captured Tenochtitlan in 1521 and rebuilt it as Mexico City. Much of our knowledge of the conquest of Mexico comes from a follower of Cortes named Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who wrote detailed memoirs of the expedition.
Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1475–1541): After receiving a commission from Emperor Charles V, Francisco Pizarro went with his partner Diego de Almagro, the priest Hernando de Luque, and a small force to Peru (1530). The invaders marched to the city of Cajamarca, where they seized the emperor Atahualpa and held him for ransom. Even though the Incas brought the Spanish a ransom of precious metal, Pizarro killed Atahualpa and captured the Incan capital of Cuzco. In 1535 Pizarro founded Lima, where he was murdered six years later.
Sir Francis Drake (ca. 1543–1596): In 1576, Elizabeth I of England sent Francis Drake to find the unknown southern continent. Drake’s ship was the Pelican, which he renamed the Golden Hind. After sailing through the Strait of Magellan, Drake sailed up the western coast of South, Central, and North America as far as California, capturing Spanish ships and treasure along the way. After circumnavigating the globe and returning to England (1580), Drake fought against the Spanish Armada (1588).
Henry Hudson (ca. 1565–1611): Sailing for the Dutch in 1609, Hudson journeyed up the New York river now named for him as far as present-day Albany. On his final voyage (1610), Hudson sailed for England in search of the Northwest Passage aboard the Discovery. After sailing between Baffin Island and Labrador (now called the Hudson Strait), he turned south into what is now called Hudson Bay. There, most of his crew mutinied under the leadership of Robert Juet. Hudson, his son, and some loyal crew members were placed in an open boat and left to die.
James Cook (1728–1779): On his first voyage (1768–1771), Captain Cook sailed aboard the Endeavour to observe the transit of the planet Venus from Tahiti. From there he went to New Zealand (discovering that it was two islands by sailing through the Cook Strait), then to Australia’s Botany Bay. On his second voyage (1772–1775), Cook sailed aboard the Resolution and became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle. On his third voyage (1776–1779), Cook failed to find the Northwest Passage and was killed when he came into conflict with the inhabitants of Hawaii.
Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838): The Lewis and Clark expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery, departed from Camp Wood (near St. Louis) in 1804, sailing up the Missouri River. The group wintered at Fort Mandan in present-day North Dakota, where they met Sacajawea, the Shoshone wife of fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau. The group’s last winter was spent at Fort Clatsop, along the Columbia River in Oregon near the Pacific.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Saul Hankin.