The Age of Exploration is a major chapter of world history and a defining moment of the Early Modern Era. From around the 15th century, though one could argue earlier, European explorers undertook a transformative task: the extensive overseas exploration of the world. Coinciding with the Age of Sail in maritime history, European explorers took sailing ships and reached faraway lands, meeting new worlds and starting a dramatic transformation. The Age of Exploration marked an evolution of navigation, global trade, and warfare. It also marked a darker chapter: the first wave of European colonization. Here are four of the famous explorers who pioneered this era.
1. Christopher Columbus & His Voyages to the Americas
Perhaps the most famous European explorer in history, Christopher Columbus was responsible for the so-called Discovery of the Americas when he and his crew set foot in the Bahamas and met with Indigenous Americans in 1492. Columbus was actually not the first to discover the Americas, nor was he the first European to set foot on the continent. But his expeditions remain a significant chapter in history and were highly consequential.
Columbus’ voyages to the Americas began in 1492 after he convinced the Spanish Crown to sponsor his expedition. He completed four voyages in total, the first being his most famous. His fourth voyage sought to make him the first man to circumnavigate the world but was ultimately unsuccessful. Much like other explorers, Columbus was a navigator, a seafarer, and a trader.
But Columbus was also a ruler, not separate from the politics of his time. At one time, he was even arrested in the name of the Spanish Crown, being sent back to Spain after an expedition was sent to investigate his cruel rule in the West Indies. The Spanish Crown eventually sided again with Columbus and sponsored his fourth voyage.
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Cristopher Columbus’ legacy is largely controversial. Considered by some a discoverer and by others a conqueror, he remains an important figure whose actions changed the world as we know it. By winning over the Spanish Crown, Columbus, a Genoese, set the first stone of globalization.
2. Vasco da Gama & His Voyages to India and Africa
Vasco da Gama was a renowned Portuguese explorer whose greatest achievement was commanding the first ships that traveled directly from Europe to India. Da Gama came from a privileged background: his father was a knight and was appointed civil governor of their hometown. He received taxes from said appointment and was also governor of the Military Order of Christ. Although much about Da Gama’s early life is generally unknown, historians believe that Da Gama received a good education, being instructed in mathematics and navigation.
Portuguese King John II assigned Da Gama to chastise the French navy in the South of Portugal for their acts of vandalism committed against Portuguese navigation efforts. Da Gama was successful in his endeavor and was rewarded with leading an expedition to India to open a new trade route. Initially, the expedition would be led by Da Gama’s father, but his death made the Portuguese king entrust Da Gama instead. The expedition was planned based on previous Portuguese findings that led them to correctly believe that India could be reached by the Atlantic Ocean without needing to go through the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
At the time, the spice route was practically monopolized by the Venetians, so the Portuguese Crown set one major objective: to reach Asia by sailing around Africa. Da Gama and his crew set sail in 1497. They first reached Cape Verde, then Mozambique, then Kenya, and eventually, India. Arriving in 1498, Da Gama and his crew reached Calicut, now Kerala. With this, the Portuguese had successfully created a new trade route to the Indies and the beginning of the end of the Venetian monopoly on the spice trade.
3. Ferdinand Magellan & the First Circumnavigation of Earth
Another renowned Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan was largely responsible for the first circumnavigation of Earth. Famously, Magellan didn’t live to see it, as he died during the expedition before the task was successfully completed. A son of a Portuguese minor noble and mayor, Magellan was made a page boy to Queen Eleanor, consort of King John II, the same monarch who had tasked Vasco da Gama’s father with his expedition.
In 1505, Magellan accompanied the Portuguese fleet taking the first viceroy to Portuguese India. Years later, he participated in the conquest of the port city of Malacca and was rewarded with great riches. For a while, Magellan led a less promising career and even fell out of favor with the Portuguese Crown. His proposed expedition to the Moluccas was repeatedly rejected by King Manuel I of Portugal; hence, Magellan turned to the Spanish. Disputes had developed over the new Spanish colonies in the Americas, given previous agreements that granted all lands south of the Canary Islands to the Portuguese. The issues were supposedly solved under the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, but the treaty made no great specifics on the territories Magellan intended to explore.
Magellan successfully convinced King Charles I of Spain to grant him the expedition. The Spanish fleet led by Magellan left in 1519 and arrived at their destination in 1522 under the leadership of Spanish navigator Juan Sebastian Elcano. The expedition departed from Spain, crossed the Atlantic, and stopped at different spots in South America. It then traversed the challenging strait that separates the mainland from the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. The expedition then crossed the Pacific and arrived at the Philippines, where a fight broke out with the natives, and Magellan was killed. Nevertheless, in 1522, the expedition arrived at the Moluccas but soon left for Spain.
4. Sir Walter Raleigh & His El Dorado Expedition
Sir Walter Raleigh was a notable statesman, soldier, and explorer during the Elizabethan era. Favored by Queen Elizabeth I, Raleigh and his entire family enjoyed privileged endeavors under Protestant rule. In 1579, Raleigh participated in the colonization of Ireland. For his “undertaking,” Queen Elizabeth granted him thousands of acres of land. Raleigh supposedly brought potatoes to England and Ireland. His position as a landlord and the role of potatoes in the Great Famine make Raleigh a dark figure in Irish history.
Later, in 1584, under a royal charter granted by Queen Elizabeth, Raleigh was given permission for seven years to settle in the New World. He was free to explore, colonize, and settle so long as one-fifth of all the gold was given back to the British crown. Raleigh commanded two expeditions to be sent to North America and establish a colony that made it possible to raid the Spanish fleet. Raleigh never sailed to North America, and his failed colony would become the infamous Lost Colony of Roanoke.
Raleigh’s involvement against the first Spanish Armada was minimal yet interesting. His ship, the Ark Royal, was sold to the English Crown and given to Lord Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral of the English fleet. It became the flagship and first saw action during the attack of the Spanish Armada.
Raleigh’s true exploration came with his first expedition to Guyana. He had learned of a fabled golden city in northern South America, in the Orinoco River. It is believed that Raleigh’s expedition was in search of the mythical city of El Dorado. No city of such was ever found by him nor anyone else. Still, on his return to England, Raleigh made a great deal of his expedition in his accounts of exploration.
Bonus: The Others–Cabot, Cabral, Drake & More
Dozens of more explorers were highly consequential during the Age of Exploration. From the more fortunate, like Amerigo Vespucci, whose contributions were arguably lesser than others, yet a whole continent bears his name, to the more renowned, though often forgotten or unknown by many, like Chinese Admiral Zheng He.
John Cabot, for example, was an Italian explorer known for his 1497 voyage to North America, where, though mistaking the land for Asia, he reached Newfoundland. Cabot is thought to have died only a few years later, possibly on a similar voyage.
Another famous and successful explorer was Sir Francis Drake. The English explorer was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world in 1580, third overall. He served as Vice Admiral against the attack of the first Spanish Armada and was considered a pirate for his raids against the Spanish ships in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Drake was also a slave trader who aided in the breaking up of the monopoly set by the Spanish and Portuguese.
Before Drake ever circumnavigated the world, passing through South America, Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral became the first modern European to reach Brazil in 1500. Cabral had initially sailed to India and had to first reach Cape Verde on the West Coast of Africa. However, after a short incident, the ship veered to the west and, after days, reached shore at a different place. The crew saw natives and eventually disembarked. Cabral’s expedition had accidentally reached Brazil.
Other famous expeditions also took place during the Age of Exploration, such as Barentsz’s exploration of the Artic, Hudson’s exploration of North America, and the first exploration of Japan, in a situation similar to Cabral’s accident.