The travels of Marco Polo and the early expeditions of Leif Ericson inspired many famous explorers. However, Europe was wrapped in turmoil, as corruption had infested the church and countries were divided. After the fall of Rome, Europe fell into the dark ages. The age of the empire was over and instead of one defining government there were dozens. During this time, Europe was ruled by warring factions and the Roman Catholic church. Corruption was wide-spread and nations rose and fell in power constantly. These times were defined by The Crusades, The Plague, The Reformation and eventually The Renaissance.
Eventually, what would emerge from this superstitious time was some of the greatest discoveries the world had ever seen. Artists such as Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci would capture the eyes of the world. Rulers such as Ferdinand II of Aragon, Pope Alexander VI, The Tudor Monarchy and Charles VIII would come into power and establish nation-states and develop world empires, but these empires would not be located in Europe. They would be settled in a New World and would eventually give birth to new ideas that would lead to the birth of a new country. However, this new world would have never been if it had not been for the famous explorers who set sail into the unknown in search of riches and glory.
Soon men such as: Juan Ponce de Leon, Hernan Cortes, Francisco Pizzaro, John Cabot, and Jacques Cartier would become names that every young boy would learn about. These men would discover a new world and open up a new trade route, conquer civilizations, and begin to colonize.
Here is an infographic from The History Channel’s website that gives a nice peek into what life as a sailor would look like:
Famous Explorers: Portuguese Explorers
Portugal is often forgotten in the study of European powers and famous explorers. When most think of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries they tend to think of England, France, and Spain, but Portugal was the first global empire in the history of the world.
The beginnings of the Portuguese Empire was laid by Henry the Navigator when he began to discover and colonize the African coast. With advancements in technology the Portuguese began to push farther down the coast of Africa and in 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Ten years later Vasco da Gama would sail around the southern point of Africa and into India. Da Gama made contact with India and would eventually be able to establish trade with them. Two years after da Gama Pedro Alvaras Cabal discovered Brazil. These discoveries allowed Portugal to set up a lucrative trade route that would produce the strongest economy in Europe.
Portugal began to decline when Britain, France and the Netherlands began to attack their trade outposts and capture them. Portugal was a small nation and did not have the population to defend their colonies. Unlike many of the European powers, Portugal did not become powerful due to its military might. She became powerful due to her economic strength.
List of Famous Portuguese Explorers:
Famous Explorers: Spanish Conquistadors
It is impossible to study the Age of Exploration without studying the Spanish explorers. Spain became a powerful nation under the rule of Ferdinand and Isabel. Both were effective leaders and were able to unite Spain which would lead to many of its discoveries and ultimately a Spanish Empire. The most notorious of these explorers was the first, Christopher Columbus. Columbus was an Italian who believed that there was a route to India that was to the west of Europe. He would be the first European, since Leif Ericson and the Vikings, to set foot on the New World, however he would die believing it was India. It would be Amerigo Vespucci who would hypothesize that this discovery was not India, but rather a new continent.
Spain would dominate the New World scene in the first half of the 16th century. The Spanish Conquistadors would begin to conquer great New World civilizations such as the Aztecs and Incas which would create a vacuum of power that they could fill. It would not be until the late 16th century that Spain’s empire began to decline. England and France would emerge as the two world powers that would result in many wars between the two and the inevitable collapse of the Spanish empire.
List of Famous Spanish Explorers and Conquistadors:
- Christopher Columbus
- Amerigo Vespucci
- Juan Ponce de Leon
- Ferdinand Magellan
- Hernan Cortes
- Francisco Pizarro
- Vasco Nunez de Balboa
- Francisco Vasquez de Coronado
- Hernando de Soto
- Don Juan de Onate
- Panfilo de Narvaez
- Cabeza de Vaca
Famous Explorers: The Dutch Empire
Initially the Dutch Empire grew through conquest rather than exploration. Soon, the Dutch East and West India Companies began to explore the New World through such explorers as Henry Hudson, Abel Tasman and Willem Barents. These explorers revealed that there was still vast amounts of land to be had. The Dutch would go on to place colonies on the east coast of North America, the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean.
The Dutch were the first to settle present-day New York City. Their city, New Amsterdam, was the capital of New Netherlands. They would continue to have a presence in the New York landscape until its British capture in 1664. This British aggression resulted in the second Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch would recapture New York and rename it New Orange in 1673 at the outbreak of the third Anglo-Saxon war. They would relinquish New Orange with the Treaty of Westminster
The Dutch empire was not as influential in the New World. The Spanish, English and French each established large empires in the New World and although the Dutch were successful in some of the wars fought against these empires they were never able to gain a significant foothold. Each of their colonies were either taken from them or smothered by surrounding cultures, i.e Curacao. Even-so, they were influential in the early years of the age of Discovery.
List of Famous Dutch Explorers:
Famous Explorers: The French Empire
French explorations began with an Italian explorer Giovanni de Verrazanno in 1524 and again in 1534 when Jaques Cartier became the first Frenchman to set foot in Canada and lay claims for France. Cartier would also discover the St. Lawrence river which would lay the foundation for Samuel de Champlain’s expeditions a few years later and other vital french explorations from explorers such as: Jacques Marquette, Robert de LaSalle and Louis Hennepin.
These explorers set the stage for a powerful French Empire that would remain until World War II. The French colonial empire would extend to many different places in the world. In North America the French claimed Canada and west of the Mississippi. They had multiple colonies in the Caribbean and many colonies in Africa. Their empire also extend into Asia where they held a portion of India and multiple small islands across the world.
The Empire began a quick expansion under Napoleon and a swift decline after his defeat. Napoleon sold the United States the Louisiana Purchase to help fund his war efforts in Europe. Many argue that he planned to take it back after his victories, but we will never know because he was defeated.
List of Famous French Explorers:
Famous Explorers: The English Empire
King Henry VII, denied Christopher Columbus the funding he needed to find a new passage to India. By the time he decided that he would fund Columbus’s voyage Columbus had already agreed to sail for Spain. Five years later King Henry VII would fund explorer John Cabot who would reach the coast of Newfoundland and then disappear on his second voyage. Soon after, England fell into decades of internal conflict which would result in them missing much profit that could have easily been gained in the New World. It would not be until the protestant Queen Elizabeth I that England would once again begin its exploration of the New World. At this point they were close to 100 years behind and staring into the face of a Spanish Empire that boasted the most powerful navy in the world. However, King Henry VIII wisely invested in a navy and it would pay off after his death and during the reign of his protestant daughter.
England’s empire would begin with Sir Francis Drake’s defeat of the Spanish Armada. This defeat would begin a new era in which England would begin to rise and Spain would begin to decay. Sir Francis Drake would circumnavigate the world and claim California for England, Henry Hudson would also sail for England.
For most of the 16th century England’s presence in the New World was nonexistent. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada that would change. Sir Walter Raleigh would attempt the first english colony at Roanoke Island, Captain John Smith founded Jamestown Colony, The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony would begin to immigrate over and colonize the eastern coast of North America. England’s success was largely based on their military might rather than a number of explorers. Most of the New World had been charted by the time they entered the race, but much of it had not been colonized. England would begin to do so and in the process establish the British Empire.
List of Famous English Explorers:
Famous Explorers: Online Resources
- Mr. Nussbaum: A nice overview of some of the more famous explorers. Gives a breakdown of explorer by nationality.
- Famous-Explorers: A list of most European Explorers and a link to a detailed biography.
- Wikipedia: Wikipedia’s exhaustive list of explorers.
- Mariner’s Museum: America’s National Mariner’s Museum.
- The History Junkie’s Guide to Colonial America
- The History Junkie’s Guide to the American Revolutionary War