To the Ends of the Earth

Geographical, February 2008 | Go to article overview

To the Ends of the Earth

Whether motivated by the prospect of fame and fortune, the pragmatic need to find new resources and commodities, or the desire to fill in the blank spaces on a map, explorers have long ventured into the unknown. Here, a selection of images drawn from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society show some of the best-known explorers, whose travels into uncharted territories have helped to build a clearer picture of the world as we know it today


an engraving of Italian merchant, cartographer and explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512). Vespucci played an important role in the early voyages to the New World, discovering, between 1499 and 1502, that that size and potential of South America extended much farther than previously thought, which led to his assertion that it was, in fact, a continent. It's thought that for this reason, a distortion of his name-Amerigo--was given to the Americas; a 1776 oil painting of Captain James Cook (1728-1779) by Nathaniel Dance. Enlisting in the Royal Navy in 1755, Cook's investigative rigour in charting the coast of Newfoundland led to his involvement in a scientific expedition to Tahiti aboard the Endeavour in 1768. This was the first of three epic voyages to the Pacific that sealed his reputation as a great explorer, navigator and leader. During his career, he mapped New Zealand, claimed Australia for the British crown, circumnavigated Antarctica and charted numerous Pacific islands


an engraving of Portuguese soldier and navigator Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521). After enlisting in the army at the age of 25, Magellan fought in India and North Africa, where he was wounded and left with a permanent limp. Despite this, on 20 September 1519, he led a fleet of five ships on behalf of King Charles I of Spain, with the aim of finding a westward route to the so-called Spice Islands (the Moluccas in Indonesia). After many months at sea, a storm sent the ships through what came to be known as the Magellan Strait at the southern tip of South America and into the Pacific. The first European to reach the Philippines, he and his crew became embroiled in local disputes and, at the Battle of Mactan on 21 April 1521, Magellan was killed. Just 18 of the original 241 crew members returned to Spain alive in the one remaining ship; an engraving of Sir Thomas Cavendish (1560-92), the third man to circumnavigate the globe, after Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake. Born in Suffolk in 1560, Cavendish inherited a small fortune at the age of 12, following the death of his father. He spent the next decade living an extravagant and luxurious lifestyle, rapidly exhausting the family fortune. In search of gainful employment, he turned to the sea, setting sail in Desire from Plymouth in July 1586 in a deliberate attempt to emulate Drake's lucrative voyages of some years before. After negotiating the Magellan Strait, he captured a Spanish galleon off the coast of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. The Santa Anna proved to be the voyage's greatest prize, harbouring too much treasure for Cavendish's three ships. In a characteristically extravagant gesture, he had the ship burnt, sending it and the remainder of the treasure to the bottom of the sea. After frittering away his second fortune in much the same way as he had his first, Cavendish set sail once more in 1591 on what proved to be an ill-fated voyage. Most of the crew, Cavendish included, fell prey to starvation and illness in the South Atlantic; a steel engraving of poet, courtier, privateer and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618). A favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, Raleigh was knighted in 1585 for helping to supress Irish rebellions as well as for his involvement in the early colonisation of the New World. But after secretly marrying one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, he was thrown in the Tower of London. After his release, he set sail for South America in 1594 in pursuit of a 'golden city', publishing an account of his experiences in The Discoverie of Guiana, which contributed to the legend of El Dorado. …

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