6 Interesting Facts About Great Explorers


Okay. So maybe you knew America was named after Amerigo Vespucci. But do you know these 6 facts about your favorite explorers? Read on to find out!

1. The Long Shortcut

To the end of his life, the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus clung to his belief that by sailing westwards he had found not a new continent, but merely a short sea-route to Asia. Like other geographers, he underestimated the size of the Earth and overestimated the east-west extent of Asia. A globe made at the time of Columbus’ first voyage to 1492 showed the distance from the Azores westwards to Japan as no greater than the length of the Mediterranean. Thus when Columbus reached the Bahamas he thought he had arrived at the Indies (the collective name then used for India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia), which is why the Caribbean islands are called the West Indies. During his second voyage in 1494, all the members of his crews had to swear that the coast of Cuba, along which they were voyaging, was ‘the mainland at the beginning of the Indies’. The penalties for breaking the oath later dependent on rank: offenders paid a fine, had their tongues cut out, or received 100 lashes.

2. Quarrel That Ended In Tragedy

A row about the source of the Nile may have cost the life of the Victorian explorer John Hanning Speke. He died on the morning of the day when he was to debate the question with his fellow-explorer and latterly, arch-rival, Sir Richard Burton. Burton and Speke and twice gone to east Africa together. On the second expedition, when Burton became to ill to travel, Speke went off on his own in July 1858 and  found the lake he named Victoria. This he believed, correctly, to be the source of the Nile, but Burton disagreed. The controversy rumbled on until 1864 when Speke agreed to the public debate. He is known not to have been looking forward to it, because he was less articulate than Burton. On the morning of the confrontation, Speke went out partridge shooting – and was later found dead from shotgun wounds. Whether it was an accident or suicide is uncertain.

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3. The Faithful Followers

Ten Africans gave their lives to get the body of Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone back to Britain after his death in 1873. When he died in the village of Chitambo in what is now Zambia, the 60 Africans of his party determined to take the body to the coast near Zanzibar so that it could be returned home for burial. They removed and buried the heart and all internal organs, embalmed the body with raw salt, and dried it in the sun. The gruelling journey which covered 1600 km took from May 1873 to February 1874 and ten men died during it.

But the survivors’ only reward was their normal wages, paid by the British consul in Zanzibar and a commemorative medal struck by the Royal Geographical Society which probably very few of them received.
Only the two Africans – Chuma and Susi – who led the journey, gained real benefit, because they were brought to Britain to fill the gaps in Livingstone’s journals. The game they gained in Europe made them sought after guides when they returned home to Africa.

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4. The Ship That Changed Its Name

“The Golden Hind”, the flagship in which the English explorer Sir Francis Drake sailed round the world in 1577- 80, started the voyage with a different name. It was originally named “The Pelican”. The renaming happened after Drake suppressed a threatened mutiny and had their ringleader, Thomas Doughty, beheaded.  The execution created a political problem for Drake because Doughty had been secretary to Sir Christopher Hatton, a major shareholder in the expedition and a man who was high in Queen Elizabeth’s favour. Drake solved the problem by an astute gesture of flattery. The crest on Hatton’s coat of arms was ‘a hind statant or’, which means a standing gloden deer without antlers. And by the time Drake’s ships had entered the Strait of Magellan, a few days of Doughty’s execution, “The Pelican” had become “The Golden Hind” in Hatton’s honour.

5. Survivor Who Went Native

John King, the first white man to cross the Australian continent and survive, did so only because of the generosity of Aborigines. King was a member of the Burke and Wills expedition, which set out from Melbourne in 1860. After the expedition established a supply camp at Copper’s Creek in South Australia, four men went on northwards and reached the tidal marshes at the edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria. They were Robert Burke, William Wills, King and a man named Charles Gray. But the party ran out of supplies on their return journey and Grey died of starvation before they reached Cooper’s Creek.
The three exhausted survivors were horrified to discover at the camp a message saying that the support party had given up waiting and gone back South that same morning. Even though the support party had left behind a cache of supplies, the three men were so weak and ill that they could not get far without help. Aborigines had helped the explorers on their outward trip by giving them fish. However, Burke, crazed by hunger, lost his head when they approached again and ordered King to shoot over their heads to drive them away. Burker and Wills later died of starvation. But King used his rifle to shoot birds for the Aborigines and so win their help. A relief party found him, emancipated but alive, six months later.

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6. Prison Diary

Talking of explorers, how can we forget Marco Polo?
His account of his years of travel in Asia, “The Description of the World”, was written when he was a prisoner of war. After his return from the East he served in the Venetian forces fighting Genoa. He was captured in 1298 and imprisoned in a Genoese jail. There he and another prisoner, Rusticiano of Pisa, an experienced writer, collaborated on the book. It was widely read, and was given the nickname “Il Milione”, meaning “ The Million”, probably because of the innumerable tall stories it was thought to contain.