by Kathy Wolfe

An explorer is defined as “one who travels to distant or unfamiliar, previously unknown places.” This week, Tidbits breaks out the history books to recall these courageous individuals who braved the high seas to discover uncharted lands.   

Who was Erik Thorvaldsson? We know this 10th-century Norse explorer by his nickname Erik the Red, credited as having founded the first European settlement in Greenland. Born in Norway in 950 A.D., he earned his moniker for his ginger hair and fiery temper. He and his father had been exiled to Iceland from Norway, for his father allegedly killing a man. Erik himself was later exiled from Iceland after being found guilty of murder, and so began the voyage that would lead him to Greenland.    With a desire to start a settlement in Greenland, he returned to Iceland to solicit colonists. He called the island Greenland, believing that people would be convinced to move if the area had a favorable name. Iceland was in the midst of a severe famine, and people were ready for a new opportunity. In 985, 25 ships set sail for Greenland, but tragically, 11 were lost at sea on the 900-mile journey over open ocean. 350 people arrived safely, and the settlement grew to 5,000, and Erik the Red held the title of “paramount chieftain” of Greenland.

One of Erik the Red’s four children was also a famous explorer. Leif Erikson, also known as Leif the Lucky, is believed to have been the first European to have discovered the Americas, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. There is evidence that this 11th-century explorer established a Norse settlement in Newfoundland and explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence centuries before other explorers. Upwards of 800 Norse objects have been unearthed at the archaeological site known as L’Anse aux Meadows on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland.

    Scottish explorer David Livingstone studied medicine in order to become a medical missionary, and departed for Africa in 1841 to pursue that purpose. He also had the goal of mapping rivers and lakes, including charting the Zambezi River all the way to the sea, as well as discovering the    source of the Nile River. After years of exploration, in 1855, he became the first European to see the colossal waterfall the natives had dubbed “Smoke that Thunders.” Livingstone named the falls “Victoria Falls” after Queen Victoria. Located on the Zambezi River in Southern Africa, the Falls are the world’s largest sheet of falling water, twice the height of Niagara Falls and more than twice the width. By 1856, Livingstone had crossed the African continent from west to east.    Although he returned to England a few times, during which he published books and articles, Livingstone spent most of his life in Africa, dying there, deep in the wilderness, in 1873 at age 60. He was an outspoken abolitionist, having seen the tragic consequences of the slave trade and made monumental efforts to combat slavery of Africans. He also developed the connection between malaria and mosquitoes, and advocated the use of quinine as a remedy for malaria. Ironically, it was malaria that took his life.

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In 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier was commissioned by the King of France to journey to the New World in search of gold, spices, and other riches, along with seeking a northwest route to Asia. He didn’t find Asia, but after a 20-day voyage with two ships and 61 men, he landed on Newfoundland. The ships sailed through the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where he became the first European to discover Prince Edward Island. When he returned to France five months later, he was certain he had reached an Asian land. Another expedition followed the next year, a 14-month-long trek that resulted in 25 men dying of scurvy and a conflict with the previously-friendly Iroquois natives. One more voyage in 1541 brought Cartier to Quebec, which he claimed for France. He called the region “Kanata,” from the Iroquois word for “settlement,” a term later expanded to the entire country of Canada.

    Ferdinand Magellan was responsible for naming the Pacific Ocean, and was the first European to cross the Pacific. Seeking to establish a trade route, in 1519, Magellan, along with 270 men and five ships, sailed west across the Atlantic toward South America, landing at present-day Rio de Janeiro three months later. Ten months after that, his expedition discovered a sea route in southern Chile that was a natural passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, a passage that became known as the Strait of Magellan. Magellan anticipated a short journey to Asia from South America’s southern tip, believing it would be about four days. The crossing took over three-and-a-half months, during which time their food and water supplies were depleted, resulting in the death of 30 crew members, mostly from scurvy.

    Magellan’s fleet reached Guam in March, 1521. Although Magellan’s expedition was the first to circumnavigate the Earth, the explorer himself did not make it back home. He was killed in a fight with the native people of Mactan Island in the Philippines. The remainder of the fleet finally returned to Spain in 1522, with only 19 survivors.

    Magellan may have named the Pacific Ocean, but he wasn’t the first European to see it. That honor belonged to Spanish conquistador and explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who led a 1513 expedition in search of gold. He had already established a settlement on the Isthmus of Panama and led upwards of 200 Spaniards and natives across the Isthmus. Balboa climbed a steep mountain peak and the Ocean came into view. The group named it the Mar del Sur, meaning South Sea. Seven years later Magellan renamed and sailed across this body of water.

Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama is credited as the first navigator to sail around Africa’s southern Cape of Good Hope and as the first European to reach India by sea. In July, 1497, da Gama departed Portugal, leading a fleet of four ships carrying 170 men, seeking to discover a sea route from Europe to the East and establish a profitable trade relationship for precious spices. The fleet sailed down the western coast of Africa, around Good Hope, reaching the trading posts of India ten months later. After a successful venture, the ships, laden down with spices, set out for home, a journey that would last 11 terrible months. A crew of 170 that had set sail 732 days earlier and traveled 24,000 miles (38,624 km), consisted of just 54 survivors. The majority of the men had perished from illness, primarily scurvy.    A second journey to India in 1502 consisted of 20 ships, returning with a fortune in spices, gems, and pearls. In 1524, da Gama was asked to return to India to deal with the corruption of Portuguese officials. He died in India that year.