Throughout history, famous explorers have embarked on risky journeys to explore undiscovered territories, pushed the boundaries of human knowledge, and satisfied their insatiable curiosities. In their pursuit of knowledge, these daring individuals traversed perilous terrains, travelled huge oceans, and endured extreme hardships.
Famous explorers in history pushed the boundaries of what people understood about the world and expanded their understanding of culture, geography, and natural history. They contributed to advancing technology, commerce, and diplomacy, and their legacies continue to inspire and influence people today.
15 of the most famous explorers in history
The Age of Exploration, often known as the Age of Discovery, saw a significant increase in human discovery and marked the start of globalisation. It also saw the rise of some of history's greatest famous explorers. Discover who these explorers are and what they did.
1. Marco Polo (1254–324)
Marco Polo, a Venetian from the thirteenth century, is unquestionably one of the most famous historical explorers in the world due to his travels along the Silk Road. As one of the first European explorers to visit China, he departed Venice with his family in 1271 and traversed the Middle East.
They spent three years traversing Afghanistan, Jerusalem, and the Gobi Desert en route to China. Polo remained in China for 17 years, and it wasn't until 1292 that he returned to Venice via Istanbul. He is famous for his book The Travels.
2. Abel Tasman (1603–659)
Abel Tasman was a Dutch explorer who worked as a captain for the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. He is most known for his trips to the South Pacific Ocean in 1642 and 1644. He discovered New Zealand, Fiji, and Tasmania during these expeditions.
3. Christopher Columbus (1451–1506)
Christopher Columbus is one of the famous explorers and navigators from Italy. He traversed the Atlantic Ocean four times, paving the way for European exploration and colonisation of the Americas. His expeditions were the first confirmed contact between Europeans and the Caribbean and South and Central America.
4. Vasco da Gama (1460–1524)
Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese explorer who sailed from Lisbon towards India in 1497. His trip made him the first European to sail to India and established the first sea route connecting Europe and Asia. The discovery of the Cape Route by Vasco da Gama ushered in a period of Portuguese exploration and colonization in Asia.
5. Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521)
Magellan, another of the world's most famous explorers, is credited to being the first man to circumnavigate the Earth. Magellan departed Spain in 1518 and travelled to South America's Patagonia.
He made his way down the coast, discovering Cape Horn and passing through the straits named after him into the Pacific Ocean. Despite his death during his expedition, his crew completed the historic voyage, delivering indisputable proof of the Earth's roundness.
6. James Cook (1728–1779)
Captain James Cook is one of the explorers from the Age of Exploration. Between 1768 and 1779, this British explorer undertook three significant voyages, meticulously mapping vast areas of the Pacific Ocean. His expeditions included discovering the Hawaiian Islands and charting the eastern coast of Australia.
7. Diogo Cão (1452–1486)
Cão was a Portuguese mariner and one of the most famous explorers of the fifteenth century. Although less popular than other explorers, his expeditions paved the path for their achievements. Cao, in particular, undertook two trips along Africa's west coast in the 1480s, exploring the Congo River and the shores of modern-day Namibia and Angola.
8. Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512)
Vespucci was an Italian merchant, explorer, and navigator. He is said to have discovered Cape St. Augustine and the Amazon River during his first voyage.
He discovered the present-day Rio de la Plata and Rio de Janeiro on his third and most successful trip. He named South America the New World, believing he had found a new continent. Consequently, America was named after him in 1507.
9. Elizabeth Cochran Seaman (1864–1922)
Better known by her pen name Nellie Bly, Elizabeth is one of the famous female explorers. She was a well-known American journalist who made a record-breaking tour worldwide in 72 days.
Her journey was inspired by Jules Verne's fictional character Phileas Fogg. She was a trailblazer in her field, ushering in a new era of investigative journalism.
10. Henry the Navigator (1394–1460)
Henry was a Portuguese prince. His support of Portuguese exploration enabled the colonisation of the Madeira and Azores islands and voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and down the western coast of Africa. The Age of Discovery and the Atlantic slave trade were primarily credited to Henry.
11. Henry Hudson (1565–1611)
He was an English sea navigator and explorer most known for his discoveries of parts of the north-eastern United States and what is now Canada. Hudson led numerous trips searching for a northwest passage that would have provided a direct sea route from Europe to Asia.
12. Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596)
Sir Francis Drake is mainly remembered for his 1577–1580 solo circumnavigation of the globe. In addition, he contributed to the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and made discoveries in the "New World" of South America. Francis started his sea adventures at the age of 18.
13. Hernán Cortés (1485–1547)
He was a Spanish conquistador. He oversaw an expedition in the early 16th century that led to the collapse of the Aztec Empire and the conquest of a sizable chunk of what is now mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile.
Other Hernán Cortés' accomplishments include being part of the generation of Spanish conquistadors and explorers who started the initial phase of the Spanish colonization of the Americas.
14. Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and Lieut. William Clark (1770–1838)
What famous explorers travelled up the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean? The Corps of Discovery Expedition, also known as The Lewis and Clark Expedition, was the US expedition that traversed the newly acquired western part of the nation following the Louisiana Purchase.
Meriwether Lewis and Lieut. William Clark led this expedition. In 1805, the expedition crossed the Americas' Continental Divide in the Lemhi Pass, eventually arriving at the Pacific Ocean and Columbia River.
15. Gertrude Bell (1868–1926)
Bell was an English explorer, writer, geographer, and archaeologist. She spent most of her life exploring and mapping the Middle East. Her knowledge and contacts as an Arabist helped her become influential in British colonial policy-making. British Intelligence requested her assistance in transporting people across the desert during World War I.
The remarkable exploits of these famous explorers demonstrate the indomitable human spirit and the insatiable urge to explore the unknown. Their travels, discoveries, and ground-breaking accomplishments widened people's understanding of the world.
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