The wilderness in the backyard

By the middle of the 18th century, European explorers had visited and mapped most of the world, and yet there was unknown terrain close to home. Mountaineering, which is now a pastime leisure activity, was unknown, and the residents of high-elevation terrain (in Europe, at least), did not venture into the heights that surrounded their homes.

Mont Blanc, for example, the highest of the Alps, had never been climbed and there was doubt that humans could survive the thin air. It was a distant, dangerous world, and yet also right there in plain sight. In the present day, Mont Blanc is actually considered a relatively simple climb, little more than a strenuous hike. Compared to the famed alpine challenges of the Matterhorn or the north face of the Eiger, Mont Blanc is a mountain for amateurs or children—literally: the youngest person to reach the summit was 10 years old.


But in the 18th century, the mountain had never been climbed.

Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a resident of Geneva, was fascinated with the mountains and with Mont Blanc. As a young man, he visited the town of Chamonix and was inspired to offer a reward for a successful ascent of the peak. He also offered to pay the costs of failed attempts. Nonetheless, it would be over 25 years before the reward was claimed in 1786.


When it finally was claimed, Saussure was not satisfied. The mountain had been climbed, but Saussure wanted more than just the ascent: he wanted scientific data that could only be collected at (or near) the summit, and as a result, Saussure himself would lead an expedition that would make an ascent the year after the mountain was first summited, and would remain near the peak for two weeks.

Saussure’s journals and expedition became famous, and their glowing descriptions of the alpine peak are now viewed as the spark that inspired the new sport/recreation of alpine mountaineering in 19th century Europe.


“The soul is uplifted,” he wrote, “the powers of the intelligence seem to widen and in the midst of this majestic silence, one seems to hear the voice of Nature and to become the confidant of her most secret workings.”

By the time Saussure’s fascination with Mont Blanc inspired mountaineering, Europeans had been sailing around the world for centuries, mapping and exploring much of the inhabited world. Icy wildernesses remained, but one of those—the Alps—the wilderness close to home—were soon to become familiar terrain.

National Pride and polar exploration

For centuries, the dominant political entity in Europe was the Holy Roman Empire, which encompassed large tracts of Central Europe from northern Italy to the shores of the Baltic. However, following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, much of the center of that empire became independent principalities. At the time that the great European colonial empires were expanding, the many small, independent principalities and duchies in the lands that we now recognize as Germany, as well as the Austrian Empire (which, in 1867, would merge with the Kingdom of Hungary, to form the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and Prussia, were in a difficult position to pursue colonial expansion. Additionally, these nations had long focused their military power on the land.

Map of Europe drawn by Martin Waldseemüller, dedicated to Charles V (Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire 1519–1556).

Map of Europe drawn by Martin Waldseemüller, dedicated to Charles V (Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire 1519–1556).

Thus it was that in the middle of the nineteenth century, they had little to show in the way of their own explorers. In 1869, an expedition was mounted to explore towards the north pole. The plan was to follow the Gulf Stream/North Atlantic Drift, which flowed up the Scandinavian coast, in hopes that the warm current would provide ice-free access to the pole, and perhaps to lands in polar regions.


The expedition included two ships: the Germania, an iron-clad steamship intended for the dangerous explorations, captained by the expedition’s leader Carl Koldewey, and the Hansa, a wooden sailing ship carrying supplies, captained by Paul Hegemann. The expedition was as much one for national pride as it was for scientific discovery. Koldewey wrote that they hoped to “show that German sailors are as qualified, as bold, and as persevering” as those of other nations.  And perhaps they did. Their explorations are not particularly notable: they explored the east coast of Greenland, but not much more. But, they did, at least, manage to survive the arctic exploration with few casualties, which was a success in itself, given how often and how badly polar expeditions often turned out.

The Germania had little difficulty, and its explorations make an bland story. But the Hansa suffered a different fate. In late July 1869, the two ships were separated in a fog, and soon after, the Hansa was trapped by ice floes. For a ship like the Hansa, getting trapped in the ice was a death warrant, and indeed, the Hansa itself was destroyed that October.


But Hegemann and his crew had already evacuated the ship and, using their ample supplies, had built themselves a chalet on the ice. For the next six or seven months, they lived on the ice floe, though at one point they were forced to evacuate their chalet and rebuild it when the floe itself split through the building’s middle.  

In May of 1870, with their floe shrinking, they began their attempt to escape, dragging their ship’s side boats across ice floes until, in early June, they came to open water, upon which they launched their boats, and within a week had made it to a Danish settlement at Friedrichstahl, at the southern end of Greenland. Their survival was assured and they returned home without loss of life.

Although their expedition did not meet fatal failure, their return was greeted with little acclaim: by the time they reached Bremerhaven in August, Prussia and the German states were at war with France, which had initiated hostilities in July. Within a year, after their rapid military defeat of France, the newly formed German empire would unite the German states with Prussia under the guidance of Otto von Bismark.

La Salle and the death of explorers

Frenchman René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle explored the Mississippi River in the 1780s -- an endeavor which, according to the rules of European exploration of the new world, meant claiming the entire watershed for France.


La Salle is perhaps notable amongst famed explorers for being particularly harsh in his treatment of subordinates. Many of the famed explorers were known as harsh masters, and many faced mutinies. Columbus, Magellan and others faced mutinies. Mutineers famously set Henry Hudson adrift in a boat with his son and a few loyal others.

La Salle was apparently so difficult that he was constantly facing desertion from his expeditions.  In one incident, he hunted down his deserters, perhaps to recover supplies they had stolen.

Painting by Gudin titled  La Salle's Expedition to Louisiana in 1684;  they are at the entrance to Matagorda Bay.

Painting by Gudin titled La Salle's Expedition to Louisiana in 1684; they are at the entrance to Matagorda Bay.

La Salle's intention was to set up a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi in 1685 CE. The colonists landed at the mouth of the wrong river (near present-day Matagorda Bay, Texas, about 500 miles west of the Mississippi—the problem of determining longitude would not be solved for almost another century), and due to La Salle’s conflicts with the captain of the ships that carried his expedition, the ships departed immediately after landing the colonists. Thus, when they discovered that their settlement was not on the mouth of the Mississippi, they had to scout for their desired location overland. 

La Salle lost his life on one of these expeditions to find the Mississippi overland from his settlement. While decoyed by one of his command, Jean L'Archevêque, La Salle was shot from ambush by Pierre Duhaut, one of the men in his command. Plenty of dangers awaited explorers of territories unknown, getting shot in the back by one’s own associates was not one of the common ones. 

Many of the great explorers died on the missions for which they were famous. Magellan did not circumnavigate the globe, even though his expedition did.

Consider, for example, the Muscovy Company (originally the Mystery and Company of Merchants Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places unknown), which sought the Northeast Passage—a sailing route to Cathay (China) north of Russia, through the arctic seas to the Pacific. Their first mission, in 1554, sent out three ships. Two of them, under command of Sir Hugh Willoughby, did not return. Willoughby’s ships were found in 1556, but the expedition that was trying to recover them was lost with few survivors.

In the 1590s, William Barents (or Barentz) led three expeditions into arctic waters in search of the northeast passage. In those expeditions, he mostly sailed in the waters near the islands of Novaya Zemlya, west of which is the section of the arctic oceans now given Barents’s name.  In the third of those expeditions, he lost his ship, his life, and many of his crew.  

The Death of Willem Barentsz  (1836) by Christiaan Julius Lodewyck Portman

The Death of Willem Barentsz (1836) by Christiaan Julius Lodewyck Portman

The explorers did not fill their ships with conscripted sailors forced to serve by law and fear of the lash, but with sailors hoping for riches, however small their share of a successful voyage might have been. The working conditions were terrible, but it should be remembered that the rewards were great: the few survivors of Magellan’s expedition became rich.

Hudson, Foxe, and James: The Search for the Northwest Passage

Christopher Columbus famously set out to sail to China and instead found the Americas. The riches of China and India drew traders, but the difficulty of known routes inspired explorers. When the Americas were found, the southern route around the Cape Horn proved an even more difficult route than the southern route around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.

Lacking any quick southern route, explorers sought northern routes through Arctic seas—the Northeast passage, north of Russia and the great Asian Steppes, and the Northwest passage, across the north of the Americas. Sea ice made these routes impracticable for sailing ships, but that was not known until these routes were explored.

Map of Hudson's voyages to North America

Map of Hudson's voyages to North America

Perhaps the most famous of these explorers was Henry Hudson, who at different times, sought both the Northwest and Northeast passages. In 1609, working for the Dutch East India Company, Hudson explored the great river that reaches the ocean at what is now New York City—a river he explored in the hope that it might prove to be the elusive passage west—in doing so, he played a crucial role in the foundation of New Netherland and New Amsterdam. 

But most of his journeys were farther north. In 1611, sailing westward, to the north of the Labrador Peninsula, he passed through the difficult waters at the entry of what is now named the Hudson Strait—waters perilous enough that English explorer Martin Frobisher had called it the “Furious Overfall”—and into the vast bay that now bears his name.

Trapped by ice in the southern extension of Hudson Bay—now known as James Bay, for a later English explorer—Hudson and his crew were forced to overwinter. Although he survived the hard winter, when he wished to sail west again as the ice thawed, his crew mutinied and Hudson, along with his son and a few others of the crew, was sent away from the ship in a small boat—and nothing more is known of Hudson’s fate.

John Collier's painting of Henry Hudson with his son and some crew members after a mutiny on his icebound ship. The boat was set adrift and never heard from again.

John Collier's painting of Henry Hudson with his son and some crew members after a mutiny on his icebound ship. The boat was set adrift and never heard from again.

Twenty years after Hudson set out, two other English ships set out to find the Northwest passage, and they, too, explored Hudson Bay extensively. One under the command of Foxe returned the same fall, to little acclaim, though his explorations and notes of the Hudson Bay were extensive. The other, James’s Henrietta Marie (named for King Charles I’s wife) overwintered and returned to great acclaim. James Bay at the southern end of Hudson Bay is named for him. Neither ship was able to discover a Northwest passage.

Although these explorers did not find a route to the riches of China, they discovered a rich land. By the time of the voyages of Foxe and James, colonies had been established by England, France, and the Dutch on the eastern seaboard of North America, and the riches of this unexplored continent were beginning to drive colonial expansion. The French had been trading fur in Canada for decades, claiming much of the land west of the English and Dutch colonies. For the English, the explorations of Hudson, Foxe, and James surveyed the lands that would become controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company, formed in England in 1670 (and still an operating business concern, though no longer trading furs or wielding the military power they once held).

Exploration on a Whim

By the end of the 19th century, most of the inhabited world had been explored and much of it made subject to the European imperialist powers. Conquest and wealth through trade were no longer motivating factors for explorers.

The motivation for exploration might have been what Sir Edmund Hilary expressed about Everest: “because it’s there.”

Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi (1873 - 1933), Italian mountaineer and explorer

Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi (1873 - 1933), Italian mountaineer and explorer

Luigi Amadeo Giuseppe Mario Fernando Francisco di Savoia-Aosta, the Duke of Abruzzi, was an adventurer. Young, powerful and wealthy, prince of the House of Savoy (which had been established in the year 1006 CE), third son of the King of Spain, and cousin to the King of Italy, Abruzzi was an accomplished mountaineer, who had climbed the Matterhorn in 1894 (only 29 years after the first ascent of that mountain, which is so difficult that it was not until 1931 that its north face was scaled, and not until 1962 that its west face was scaled) and in 1897 was the first person to ascend Mt. St. Elias, the third highest peak in North America (after Denali and Mount Logan).

In 1899, he set his aim to reach the North Pole.  He spoke with Fritjof Nansen, who (with Hjalmar Johansen) had more closely approached the pole than any other person. He bought sled dogs from Russia. He bought a steamship, which he renamed the Stella Polaris (Pole Star). He recruited a team of Italians to make the over-ice trek, including Captain Umberto Cagni, who had been a mountaineering companion.


In August 1899, they landed on Franz Josef Land, to prepare for the spring, when their over-ice journey would begin. During the winter, the plan was to practice traveling over ice, and it went wrong in only one aspect: Abruzzi himself met an accident that resulted in his losing the tips of two fingers to frostbite. As a result Abruzzi himself never set out with his sledge teams. They were led by Cagni, instead.

Cagni and his teams would beat Jansen’s approach to the pole by about 20 miles.  

Compared to the disasters that had met many previous polar expeditions, Abruzzi’s was highly successful: he lost only three men—one of the support teams that had set out with Cagni’s attempt had turned back when their supplies were exhausted (according to plan) failed to return.

For Abruzzi, though, the loss was too great. He returned to mountaineering and never again attempted the pole.

Ferdinand Magellan and the renaming of the South Sea

On November 1, 1520, All-Saints’ Day — in the South American spring — Ferdinand Magellan entered the strait that he named for the day: Estrecho de Todos los Santos (Strait of All Saints), but which now bears his name. The channel was relatively narrow and currents and wind were strong and treacherous, but Magellan and most of his fleet were able to navigate it successfully, on their way to circumnavigating the earth.

Anonymous portrait of Ferdinand Magellan.

Anonymous portrait of Ferdinand Magellan.

One of Magellan’s captains, Estêvão Gomes, mutinied in the straits, and turned his ship, the San Antonio, back, returning to Spain across the Atlantic. Magellan had already faced and suppressed a previous attempt at mutiny, and if the strait had not reached the Pacific Ocean, Magellan’s expedition might never have completed its circumnavigation.


On maps of South America, the Strait of Magellan is hardly visible because it is so narrow. The sweep of the South American continent appears unbroken down to the tip of the island of Tierra del Fuego. The east coast of Tierra del Fuego runs southeast and then east in a curve over 150 miles in length—a great barrier to the small sailing ships of Magellan’s fleet. South of Tierra del Fuego are the narrow Beagle Passage and the perilous Drake’s Passage. The clipper ships of the 19th century would choose the wide and stormy Drake’s Passage, but for a long time, the Strait of Magellan was the best passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

“Pacific,” incidentally, was the name that Magellan gave the ocean for the calm waters into which the ships sailed after passing through the Strait. The first European to sight the Pacific was Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who on crossing the Isthmus of Panama, saw the ocean to the south and named it “Mar del Sur” or South Sea.

On antique maps, the two names are used interchangeably, or together, well into the 18th century; a classic example being this 1691 map by Vincenzo Coronelli, Mare Del Sud detto altrimenti Mare Pacifico ("South Sea also called the Pacific Sea"):

The Niger River

World maps display the surface of a sphere on a flat surface, necessarily introducing distortion. In the Mercator projection, named for 16th century Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, the lines of longitude are represented as parallel vertical lines, even though on the surface of the earth, the lines of longitude approach each other, until they meet at the poles. Objects near the poles are expanded relative to objects near the equator. Greenland appears as large as, or larger than, Africa; Africa, which straddles the equator, appears deceptively small.

The Niger River, with a drainage basin about two-thirds that of the Mississippi, is tucked into the bulge of Africa, arising in the Guinea Highlands, only about 150 miles (240 km) from the Atlantic— quite close to an ocean for a river that is over 2,500 miles (about 4,000km) long. From its source, the Niger flows east-northeast, away from the ocean, towards the Sahara, before turning southeast and then south, to flow into the Gulf of Benin.

As the 19th century dawned, even though European ships had been sailing down the west coast of Africa for centuries, the Niger’s actual course was unknown to Europeans. Europeans had knowledge of the river from ancient times — its existence had been reported by the Greeks, Phoenicians, and others — but its route was a mystery. Some Europeans speculated that it was linked to the Nile, others to the Congo, and others offered other alternatives.

This lack of European knowledge was at least partly due to the many who did know the Niger: it passed through lands populated by a variety of peoples, many of whom were hostile to outsiders. In 1795, the explorer Mungo Park found the Niger, but did not follow it. He returned in 1805, leading an expedition that included a troop of 44 redcoats. They never returned, reportedly killed by locals. Disease, too, preyed upon explorers.

Portrait of Mungo Park.

Portrait of Mungo Park.

In the early decades of the 19th century, the British Lords of the Admiralty sent several expeditions to map the Niger. Most failed, with many casualties, but by 1831, the last portions of the river were mapped by an Englishman named Richard Lander, setting the stage for the expansion of European imperial control in the 1870s and 1880s.

Richard and John Lander traveling down the Niger.

Richard and John Lander traveling down the Niger.

Vasco da Gama lands in Kozhikode, India

In 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, landed at present-day Kozhikode, India, which was then Calicut, “The City of Spices,” capital of the independent Samoothiri (Zamorin) kingdom, which was then a rising power on India’s western Malabar coast.

Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal,  mural by John Henry Amshewitz

Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal, mural by John Henry Amshewitz

During the 14th century, the city grew into a center of the spice trade between Asia and the Middle East, serving as a major destination port on the sea route across the Arabian Sea from ports in northeast Africa, Egypt, and on the Arabian Peninsula. When the Portuguese fleet led by da Gama arrived at Kozhikode, there were reportedly 700 ships waiting to offload goods, and da Gama was greeted by an Arab merchant who spoke Portuguese. It also was an important producer of the cloth named for the city: calico.

The Portuguese went to great lengths to keep their geographic knowledge secret, but evidence of their explorations is soon found on maps. This map, printed from a woodblock in 1541, is an important early document of Portuguese voyages to South India:

For the Portuguese and other Europeans, da Gama’s successful journey was a rich opportunity to expand a spice trade that had always been dangerous and expensive, and had, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, become increasingly costly and difficult, as the Ottoman empire closed off the traditional trade routes that had made Venice and other Italian maritime city-states wealthy. The rise of Portuguese power followed on the success of da Gama’s voyage, which proved the viability of maritime trade over routes around the south of Africa and across the Indian Ocean. And with the spice trade came the rise of European imperial power in Asia.

Image of Kozhikode from Braun & Hogenberg's  Civitates orbis terrarum , 1572.  Click here for more city views by Braun & Hogenberg.

Image of Kozhikode from Braun & Hogenberg's Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572. Click here for more city views by Braun & Hogenberg.

For Kozhikode, da Gama’s success was rather less pleasant. In 1500, a Portuguese fleet led by Pedro Álvares Cabral became embroiled in violence with Arab merchants, and then traveled to the nearby kingdom of Cochin, an unwilling vassal of the Zamorin, who would ally with the Portuguese. In 1502, da Gama returned with a Portuguese fleet of 15 ships, and demanded that the Zamorin (the ruler) expel all Muslim merchants, and, when this order was refused, da Gama bombarded the city, before sailing to Cochin, where the Portuguese were welcomed. 

Despite the Portuguese aid to the Cochin rebellion, Kozhikode remained a powerful local state. It was not until the next century that Dutch and then British forces began to dominate the city.

Columbus and the 1492 hurricane season

The basic facts around the explorations of Christopher Columbus are known to most: under the patronage of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Castille, Columbus set off across the Atlantic in search of the East Indies (South and Southeast Asia), but instead landed in what would later be known as the West Indies, specifically the Bahamas archipelago and an island he named San Salvador.

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519.

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519.

Most histories of Columbus offer an extra layer of historical context, demonstrating that it was no accident that Columbus’s journey was financed by the newly-ascendant Spanish crown, which had just completed the Reconquest of the Iberian peninsula.

The return of Christopher Columbus; his audience before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella , painting by Eugène Delcroix.

The return of Christopher Columbus; his audience before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, painting by Eugène Delcroix.

But the devastating 2017 hurricane season, including Harvey, which led to massive flooding in Houston, and Irma, which ravaged Puerto Rico and neighboring islands, reminds us that a negative fact played a crucial role in the Columbian narrative: Columbus did not report meeting any storms during the fall of 1492 as he sailed through the Bahamas to Cuba and along the coast of Cuba and Hispaniola. The Bahamas had first been sighted on October 7, 1492, and Columbus’s fleet did not head east for Spain until January, 1493.  Although the Atlantic hurricane season peaks in late September, it is generally considered to run from June 1 to November 30. For almost two full months, Columbus sailed in hurricane territory without facing a major storm. Hurricanes struck Hispaniola in late September 1494 and late October 1495.

First voyage. Modern place names in black, Columbus's place names in blue

First voyage. Modern place names in black, Columbus's place names in blue

Ships like Columbus’s Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria certainly could survive a hurricane, but their chance of being lost in a great storm was hardly small. In fact, on the return journey, after the Santa Maria was lost running aground, the caravels Niña and Pinta both survived a big February storm that reportedly sank a fleet of 100 similar ships.

Columbus, spurred by a miscalculation in the size of the Earth, benefitted from much good fortune; a quiet 1492 hurricane season should be included on the list.

Francisco de Orellana: Crystal skulls, Amazons, and the Land of Cinnamon

In the 21st century, it’s possible that the conquistador Francisco de Orellana is best known from the film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in which Orellana is said to have sought the fictional city of Akator, and in whose grave Jones finds the titular crystal skull. But Orellana’s adventures make a good story without adding any fictional elements.

Bust of Francisco de Orellana in Trujillo, Cáceres, Spain.

Bust of Francisco de Orellana in Trujillo, Cáceres, Spain.

Orellana was a conquistador in the army of Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of the Inca. When Pizarro’s brother, Gonzalo, set out to find the Land of Cinnamon (cinnamon was rare and expensive), Orellana was in his command.

In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro’s command set out from Quito, in command of about 300 conquistadores and a support train including 4,000 native porters and a herd of 2,000 pigs. It was heavy going crossing the Andes, and then the jungles east of the Andes. At one point, having come to a river—the Coca—Pizarro had a boat built, the San Pedro, to help move supplies. As conditions grew more dire, Orellana was sent ahead to scout downstream, in command of a party of 57, intending to return after a few days.

Orellana did not return to Pizarro’s expedition. Having sailed downstream to the junction of the Coca and Napo rivers, Orellana found the current too strong to return up river. In the face of possible mutiny, Orellana and the expedition decided to continue downstream (with the exception of one man, Hernán Sanchez de Varga, who had made his way through the jungles back upstream to Pizarro’s camp). Fortunately for us, a priest named Gaspar de Carvajal accompanied Orellana and chronicled the journey.

It was December, 1541. The Napo River joins the Amazon. Orellana and his crew continued downstream. It took eight months to reach to open sea at the mouth of the Amazon. In so doing, Orellana and his men were the first Europeans to travel the length of that great river.

Orellana's first voyage (1541-2).

Orellana's first voyage (1541-2).

Along the way, in June of 1542, Orellana’s expedition fought the Tapuyas, a tribe in which women fought alongside the men. These women warriors recalled the Amazons of Greek myth, and the great river that Orellana traveled—which was named “Rio de Orellana” for a time—was given the name “Amazon.”

Gonzalo Pizarro returned to Quito with about 80 survivors of an expedition that had started with over 4,000 people. By contrast, Orellana was able to return to Spanish possession in Venezuela with 47 of his original command of 57, sailing along the Atlantic coast until reaching Cubagua Island —one of the great feats of survival in the history of exploration.

Finding Timbuktu

In 1324, Musa Keita I, the mansa (king or sultan) of the Malian empire, set out upon the Hajj—the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Along the way, he gave gold to the poor—so much gold, in fact, that he devalued the metal, as prices for all things increased. This display of wealth contributed to the legend of his capital, Timbuktu.

Mansa Musa depicted holding a gold coin from the 1375 Catalan Atlas.

Mansa Musa depicted holding a gold coin from the 1375 Catalan Atlas.

Word of Timbuktu filtered slowly to Europeans through Islamic sources, and by the time European explorers were mapping the world and dividing it up for their colonial empires, the city had, in the European imagination, become a byword for the distant and fantastic. In truth, its power and wealth had declined. Located in the heart of Sub-Saharan Africa, near the Niger River (which had itself never been mapped by Europeans), Timbuktu was accessible either across the Sahara, through lands controlled by Muslims hostile to Christian Europeans, or through the tropical jungles of West Africa. Starting in the 17th century, European expeditions had set out in search of the fabled city, but expedition after expedition failed, and many or most did not return.

In this map by William Berry published in London in 1680, we see only a generalized Kingdome of Tombut with a stylized representation of the city of Tombut situated on the Niger River.

In the early 19th century, an American sailor claimed to have been to Timbuktu after being shipwrecked and enslaved, but his account of a poor, dull, and dirty city was not believed.

In August of 1826, a British explorer, Alexander Gordon Laing, sent a letter from Timbuktu, having become the first European to cross the Sahara from north to south. Laing’s journey had taken 13 months of great hardship—including the loss of his right hand to Tuareg raiders. In September, shortly after setting out north to recross the Sahara, Laing was killed, and his papers never recovered.

Two years later, a Frenchman, René Caillé, arrived in Timbuktu, having made the journey in disguise as an Egyptian Muslim who had been raised in France. On his return, Caillé was able to claim the prize offered by Geographical Society of Paris for the first person to reach the city. Like the American sailor, Caillé reported that Timbuktu was small and poor. The myth of the city of vast wealth was dispelled, and it would be a quarter century before another European would set foot there.

René Caillié, "Vue d'une partie de la ville de Temboctou, prise du sommet d'une colline, à l'Est-Nord-Est."  Timbuktu looking west. Three mosques are depicted. In the foreground is the Sidi Yahia Mosque. On the right hand side is the Sankoré Mosque. In the middle distance is the Grand Mosque (Djingareyber Mosque).

René Caillié, "Vue d'une partie de la ville de Temboctou, prise du sommet d'une colline, à l'Est-Nord-Est."

Timbuktu looking west. Three mosques are depicted. In the foreground is the Sidi Yahia Mosque. On the right hand side is the Sankoré Mosque. In the middle distance is the Grand Mosque (Djingareyber Mosque).

Exploration & Science - Alexander von Humboldt

The earliest explorers were financially motivated; Columbus, Drake, Hudson (among many others) were looking for wealth, whether through trade or plunder. But as the world became better known, journeys of exploration took an increasing focus on scientific discovery. Captain Cook’s voyages were commissioned for scientific exploration (though Cook’s imperial claims for the British Empire were not trivial). While the most famous voyage of scientific discovery is perhaps Darwin’s journey on the HMS Beagle (1831-6 CE), it is possible that the scientific voyage of Alexander von Humboldt was of greater scientific value. Darwin’s voyage is made special because of how Darwin interpreted his observations as an empirical foundation for his theory of evolution (it is worth remembering that the basic idea of evolution predated Darwin). But von Humboldt assembled vast amounts of data—he collected plants and geological samples, observed and recorded (in drawings) plants and animals and places, took magnetic readings, explored and mapped territories never before mapped by Europeans.

Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

Von Humboldt believed that there was a grand unifying theory that could be discovered through observation—his Cosmos. In 1799, possessing independent wealth, he wanted to explore in pursuit of this theory. He signed up for an expedition planning to circumnavigate the world, but it was canceled. Then he tried to go to Egypt, but resistance to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and North Africa meant that French authorities would not allow travel to there. In search of a route to Egypt, von Humboldt found himself in Spain, where he saw an opportunity to travel to the Spanish colonies in the New World. King Charles IV, whose father had commissioned a number of scientific expeditions to South America, commissioned von Humboldt to cross the Atlantic. So it was that in 1799, von Humboldt, along with botanist and physician Aimé Bonpland, set out on an expedition that is still revered among scientists.

Charles IV of Spain (Francisco de Goya).

Charles IV of Spain (Francisco de Goya).

It is said that Humboldt’s five years (1799-1804) in South and Central America doubled the number of botanical species known to European science. His impact on the world can be seen in the many places that bear his name—including the Humboldt Current off the west coast of South America, the Humboldt River and Bay in California, and mountains or mountain ranges in North and South America, New Zealand, and Antarctica.

Alexander von Humboldt's Latin American expedition

Alexander von Humboldt's Latin American expedition

The Casiquiare River

Rivers often split, at deltas (Manhattan is an island in the Hudson estuary system, which includes the Harlem River), and around river islands — such as Montreal in the St. Lawrence. But sometimes a river will split and the courses will follow widely divergent paths: in Wyoming, USA, Two Ocean Creek splits into one branch that flows to the Pacific and one that flows to the Atlantic (via the Gulf of Mexico).

The largest of these river splits lies deep in the South American jungle, in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, where, about 9 miles (14 km) downstream of La Esmeralda, site of an old mission, and now a local county seat, the Orinoco River splits, sending off a major distributary—the Casiquiare—which flows south 211 miles (340 km) to join the Rio Negro. The main flow of the Orinoco makes its way west before turning north and then east to its eventual outflow on the northeast coast of South America. The Casiquiare joins the Rio Negro which flows south, forming the border between Colombia and Venezuela for a bit, before flowing into Brazil and ultimately joining the Amazon which flows into the Atlantic about 1000 miles (1600 km) southeast of the Orinoco.

Map of the Amazon River drainage basin with the Casiquaire River highlighted.

Map of the Amazon River drainage basin with the Casiquaire River highlighted.

The first European record of the Casiquiare was in 1639 from Cristóbal Diatristán de Acuña, a Spanish Missionary and explorer. 

In 1800, as part of their explorations in Venezuela, Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, traveled back up this river from the Rio Negro to the Orinoco. There is something romantic about the idea of a vast river joining the Amazon and Orinoco systems—the largest and fourth largest rivers in the world measured by outflow. But von Humboldt’s description of the journey does not sound very romantic: he wrote of the great heat, humidity so high they could not light a fire, bad water and food shortages such that they ate ants. Worst of all, perhaps, were the bugs, about which he wrote that “on account of the immense number of insects that obscure the air at all seasons of the year, [Esmeralda] was regarded by the monks as a place of banishment.”

Some places, perhaps, are better visited with a book and a map than in person.

Map of the Casiquiare canal based on Humboldt's 1799 observations.

Map of the Casiquiare canal based on Humboldt's 1799 observations.


The Great Trigonometrical Survey

Before orbital satellites, mapping large areas was a difficult task. At sea, after the problem of calculating longitude had been solved in the 18th century, it was possible to accurately map positions. On land, where the horizon is uneven, astronomical observations are more difficult, but territories can be accurately measured using trigonometry and other mathematics in combination with a carefully measured baseline and a combination of observations of distant land marks to define a triangle of known size. This method was the fundamental method used by The Great Trigonometrical Survey, which was the official name of a project initiated in 1802 by the British East India Company to map and measure their domains in India.

It was a massive undertaking. Its first leader, William Lambton, had, among the instruments, a 100-foot chain to measure baselines, and supporting gear to ensure that it was kept horizontal, at the proper tension, and, as much as possible out of the sun to avoid changes in the length of the metal due to temperature changes; a "zenith sector," which was a tool for astronomical observations so large it required over a dozen men to carry it; and “The Great Theodolite,” a thousand-pound tool to measure horizontal and vertical angles.


They started on the west coast, measuring two baselines at Bangalore (Bengaluru) and Madras (Chennai), and headed east. It was a long, slow process, and when Lambton died in 1823, the project was taken over by George Everest (of Mt. Everest fame in the English-speaking world). Everest, too, died before the project was brought to an end in 1875, when the survey was integrated into the British topographical and revenue surveys.

Great Trigonometrical Survey measurement of the Calcutta baseline in 1832 by George Everest; an engraving based on a sketch by James Prinsep. It shows a Ramsden chain being set on coffers supported by pickets.

Great Trigonometrical Survey measurement of the Calcutta baseline in 1832 by George Everest; an engraving based on a sketch by James Prinsep. It shows a Ramsden chain being set on coffers supported by pickets.

The Fantastic Other (Ibn Battuta)

Like Marco Polo, another long sojourner in the Mongolian Empire was Muhammad Ibn Battuta, who, in 1325 CE, set out from his home in Tangiers on the Hajj, and ended up spending about 25 years on the road traveling through Asia and Africa, mostly within the realms of Islam, which included much of the former Mongol empire.

From 1330-2 CE, Ibn Battuta sailed south from the Arabian peninsula past the Horn of Africa and visited the East African ports of Mogadishu, Mombasa, and Kilwa. In the following century, this area would be dominated by the Portuguese, who produced incredible sea charts like the one below. These charts reflect the knowledge the Portuguese had of the lucrative nautical routes between the Cape of Good Hope, Arabia, and Goa on the west coast of India, the contemporary key link to trading in the Spice Islands.

Ibn Battuta wrote of vast caravans, rich with gold accoutrements and gems, throwing golds coins before them as they made progress through cities, and these not of the great Kubilai Kahn, but of the rulers of the pieces of the formerly unified empire. Like Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, too, might have exaggerated; his description of the opulence of the great rulers of Asia at least matches that of Polo. But then who in all of history would we expect to be richer than the rulers of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known?

Western views of “the East” are often accused of being tinged with fantasy, but what could be more fantastic than the creations of a vast empire? Is Imperial Rome any less fantastic in our imaginations than “The Orient”? Are the palaces and temples of Asia less fantastic than the palaces and temples of Europe or the Americas? Perhaps the only difference is that the familiar is less exciting than the new, and the imagination offers glories that reality can rarely match.

Ibn Battuta’s story—like most travelogues—brings us visions of a world we do not know, focusing on the most striking elements, sparking our imaginations of a fantastic world.