19 Famous Explorers Who Changed the World
Since the dawn of time, humans have been exploring the planet, space, and iconic locations. First, Europeans explored Africa and Asia where they discovered new cultures, customs, and more. Soon explorers headed west and stumbled upon South America and North America in the Age of Discovery. After World War I, the Age of Heroic Antarctic Exploration began. Once explorers searched every inch of the globe, it was time to head to space.
Indeed, history’s greatest explorers searched the world for different cultures, knowledge, and land. They encountered storms, mutinies, and hostile enemies. While many explorers made groundbreaking discoveries, they did so while enslaving and murdering the indigenous population.
But several explorers learned about different cultures while making scientific and geographical discoveries. They published their work giving greater insight into other cultures around the globe. They made some of history’s most significant findings and changed the world for the better.
19 Famous Explorers Who Changed the World
1. Marco Polo
In 1269, Marco Polo joined his father and uncle on an incredible adventure down the Silk Road through Asia. After arriving in China, Polo met the Emperor of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan. Polo impressed Khan so much that he sent him on diplomatic missions to what is now India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Polo spent roughly seventeen years living in China before accompanying Princess Kököchin to Persia in 1293.
Polo then returned home to Venice after an astonishing journey. In 1300, The Travels of Marco Polo hit bookstores and gave Europeans the first insight into the Mongol Empire and Asia. It introduced the world to new customs and inventions such as gunpowder, porcelain, and paper money.
2. Roald Amundsen
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen is famous for voyages to the polar regions during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. During his adventure to the Northwest Passage between 1903 and 1906, Amundsen adapted to the Inuit way of life. He began wearing animal furs instead of parkas and using dog sleds. With these new-found skills, Amundsen successfully led the first expedition to the South Pole on the famed ship, Fram, in December 1911.
In the late 1900s, Amundsen set his sights on the North Pole but ultimately failed. Finally, in 1926, Amundsen and his crew reached the North Pole in the airship Norge. Amundsen disappeared in 1928 while searching for the missing airship Italia in the Arctic.
3. Leif Erikson
Norse explorer Leif Erikson became the first European to set foot in North America centuries before any other explorer. Sometime between 990 and 1050 CE, Erikson landed in modern-day Canada, which he named Vinland. There are two accounts of his journey. In the Saga of Erik the Red, Erikson was on his way to Greenland when blown off course, landing on Baffin Island in present-day Nunavut.
In the Saga of the Greenlanders, he set out to discover the new land. In this account, he traveled up the coast of Canada to Baffin Island. There’s evidence Erikson and the Norse visited the area for timber, fish, and fur but didn’t establish a permanent settlement.
4. Vasco de Gama
Despite Vasco de Gama’s ruthless reputation, the Portuguese explorer discovered a passage that would alter the world forever. With the Portuguese Empire’s backing, de Gama led a voyage down the Cape of Good Hope and landed in India in May 1498. He was the first to find an alternate route to India, avoiding the dangerous options.
The Portuguese held a monopoly over the route, which made them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. They imported various spices, including pepper and cinnamon. However, de Gama and the empire committed heinous crimes, including murder and enslavement. He also led the way for colonialism in India.
5. Christopher Columbus
Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’ groundbreaking voyages led to the discovery of South America and North America. It all began in 1485 when Columbus believed he could reach East Asia and the Spice Islands by going west instead of east. Finally, Columbus convinced the Kingdom of Aragon to sponsor his voyage in 1492 with three ships. After an arduous journey, Columbus stumbled upon the Bahamas and South America.
Columbus returned on two more trips, further exploring the Lesser Antilles and South America. Columbus’ voyage led to the Age of Discovery. It opened up South and North America for further exploration and colonization. Additionally, he introduced new diseases to the Indigenous population. Columbus is a polarizing figure who made vital discoveries, but at the same time committed horrible crimes, including murder and enslavement, against the Indigenous population.
6. Neil Armstrong
Once humans discovered the mysteries of the world and mapped out the lands, it was time to explore another of life’s great mysteries, space. In the 1950s and 60s, the United States and the Soviet Union competed in an intense space race to reach the moon first.
In the late 60s, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the world’s most extraordinary voyage since the discovery of the New World. On July 20, 1969, Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. Broadcast live on TV across America, Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, and famous speech remain an iconic part of history.
7. John Cabot
With the sponsorship of King Henry VII of England, Italian navigator John Cabot set sail for the New World. He went on several trips, but the second was the most newsworthy. On Cabot’s second voyage he landed on the coast of Canada around present-day Newfoundland.
Cabot was the first European to land in North America since the Norse centuries before. For the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s landing, the Canadian and British governments designated Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland, as his landing site in 1497.
8. Ferdinand Magellan
Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan became the first to circumnavigate the globe. However, that wasn’t his intended goal. With the sponsorship of King Charles I of Spain, Magellan led a five-ship expedition west across the Atlantic Ocean to discover a new passage to the Maluku Islands. The crew set sail in 1519 on a harrowing voyage encountering rough waters, terrible storms, and mutinies.
Regardless, Magellan and the expedition discovered the Strait of Magellan near South America, which led to the Pacific Ocean. Tragically, Magellan died during the Battle of Mactan in 1521. Juan Sebastian Elcano took over the expedition leading the crew back to Spain, thus completing the first successful circumnavigation of the globe.
9. Ibn Battuta
In 1325, explorer Ibn Battuta set out on his first voyage. He would spend the next twenty-four years traveling throughout Africa, Asia, and the Iberian Peninsula. At that time, he traveled more than any explorer, including Marc Polo.
His incredible journey took him to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, India, and China, to name a few. Furthermore, his return trip took him to unique places along the same route. Later, he documented his journey in The Rihla.
10. Sir Francis Drake
At the request of Elizabeth I of England, explorer Sir Francis Drake set sail for the Pacific Coast in 1577. Drake and his crew were the first to explore the western part of North America. Starting with five ships, Drake ended up with one remaining ship, renamed the Golden Hind. They entered the Strait of Magellan and eventually ended up in present-day California in 1578.
Returning to England in 1580, Drake made history as the first English explorer to circumnavigate the globe. In England, Drake is a hero who made incredible discoveries. However, the Spanish consider him one of the most notorious pirates.
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11. Sir Edmund Hillary
Since the late 1800s, explorers and mountaineers have attempted to scale the largest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. For decades, there have been many attempts, but they all failed. New Zealand explorer Edmund Hillary was determined to climb Everest and reach the Summit.
In May of 1953, Tilly and sherpa Tenzing Norgay pushed through the challenging climb, dangerous altitudes, and intense weather to reach the Summit. Till and Norgay became the first to reach the top of Mount Everest.
12. Amerigo Vespucci
Explorer and navigator Amerigo Vespucci left a lasting impact that will go on for centuries. Vespucci went on two expeditions to the New World between 1497 and 1504 during the Age of Discovery. The second trip in 1501 resulted in the discovery of Brazil and the naming of Rio de Janeiro. Later, Vespucci wrote two massively popular accounts of his adventures.
While some historians question the accuracy, Vespucci became world-famous at the time. Many people gave him credit for discovering Brazil. Hence, cartographer Martin Waldseemuller renamed the New World South America and North America after Vespucci on the first map showing the New World.
13. Robert Falcon Scott
In 1901, Robert Falcon Scott led the Discovery expedition to the Antarctic. The former Navy officer turned explorer discovered the Antarctic Plateau, the home of the South Pole. In early 1912, Scott and his team arrived at the South Pole a few weeks after Roald Amundsen. Scott and his team found fossils belonging to Glossopteris trees, proving forests once grew in the Antarctic.
Despite his instructions for a meeting and extra dogs, Scott and his team died as they attempted to return. However, they still had the fossils on them, leading to more significant discoveries.
14. James Cook
Captain James Cook’s achievements led to a greater understanding of the world. At the same time, his treatment of the Indigenous population he encountered was violent and harsh. He mapped the entrance to the St. Lawrence River near Quebec. That led to his appointment as commander aboard the HMS Endeavor in 1768.
Sailing into uncharted territory, Cook mapped the land from New Zealand and Australia to Hawaii. He gave deeper insight into the Pacific Ocean and Hawaii’s coastline. Cook also mapped a course to Newfoundland. He was known for his skill, courage, and leadership in difficult times. However, Hawaiians killed Cook in 1779 when he attempted to kidnap the ruling chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu.
15. Jacques Cartier
During the Age of Discovery, French explorer Jacques Cartier made historic voyages to North America, notably Canada. Cartier took three important expeditions between 1534 and 1542. Eventually, he had his first encounters with the aboriginal tribes. He spent time with the St. Lawerence Iroquaians and kidnapped two tribe members to take back to France.
Returning on his second voyage, Cartier landed in the Iroquois Capital in Stadacona. He seized the chief this time to take back with him. Cartier further explored the New World discovering the vast lands of Canada. Cartier even gave Canada its name when he mistook the Iroquoian word for village “Kanata” as the name for the land itself.
16. Meriweather Lewis and William Clark
The Louisiana Purchase is a historic moment in American history. Then President Thomas Jefferson worked hard to get control of the land. It also led to one of the most extraordinary expeditions in America. In 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition set out to cross the newly purchased land. Led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the main goal of the journey was to map out the new territory.
Furthermore, they were to ensure no Europeans could claim the land. Plus, they wanted to develop a relationship with the Indigenous population. However, they also made important geographical and scientific discoveries.
17. Hernan Cortes
Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes is a polarizing figure in history. He led vital expeditions discovering new cultures and lands. On the other hand, he committed violent crimes and atrocities against the indigenous population.
In 1519, Cortes ignored an order from the Governor of Cuba and set sail for present-day Mexico. Using a local woman, La Malinche, as an interpreter, Cortes successfully caused the downfall of the Aztec Empire, claiming the new land in the name of the King of Castile.
18. Ernest Shackleton
Explorer Ernest Shackleton was an important figure in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. He truly was one of the most heroic explorers to set sail. He was part of several vital voyages throughout his life. However, the most famous, the Imperial Trans-Atlantic Expedition, was also his most challenging.
After the ship Endurance became trapped in the ice, Shackleton and his crew camped on sea ice until it began to break apart. He successfully led his team to safety through the dangerous journey.
19. Henry Hudson
Henry Hudson is an iconic historical figure who made some of the world’s most significant discoveries. Representing the Dutch East India Company, Hudson landed in North America in 1609. Hudson attempted to find a Northwest passage to China. Furthermore, he was the first to explore modern-day New York and later discovered what would become the Hudson River.
On his final voyage, Hudson became the first to see the Hudson Strait and the marvelous Hudson Bay. He wanted to continue west, but his crew mutinied and sent Hudson, his son, and others drifting in the open sea. Despite his mysterious disappearance, Hudson is an important historical figure.
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