10 People In History Who Decided to Explore The Unknown (Part 1 of 3)

Little Black Book


It’s now been weeks since, for the first time in history, France and so many countries across the world are locked behind closed doors.

It’s a sobering fact for us…one that we have been trying to make peace with. After all, we’ve always made it our mission to take you to the four corners of the globe, but it’s also true that travel is a state of mind, and for the next weeks, together with you, we plan to give ourselves over to 10 illustrious characters who, from the 13th century to the present day, and from the islands of the Mediterranean to the borders of Asia, have been passionate travelers, just like us…

Travels along the Silk Road

The adventures of Marco Polo

Who was he?

Born in Venice in 1254, Marco Polo was a young Venetian merchant who, at the age of 17, set out with his father and uncle to journey across Asia, along what later became known as the Silk Road. At the height of the Mongol Empire, Marco Polo was not the first European to successfully reach China and enter the court of powerful ruler Kublai Khan, but he was the first to write about his travels, describing the country’s use of paper money and the lamaseries of Tibet. He also wrote about the existence of Japan, hitherto unknown. His notes inspired and influenced many, including great explorers like Christopher Columbus.

A passion inherited from his father

Medieval Venice was a prosperous city where merchants traded with the Muslims who had a monopoly on the Silk Road, but some, like Marco Polo’s father Niccolo, and his uncle Maffeo, went further, traversing many Asian regions and cities, including China. There they met The Great Khan, who established his court in Beijing and trusted the Polo brothers with a mission: To deliver a letter to Pope Clement IV asking the Pope to send him 100 men to teach his people about Western science. They did not return to Venice until 15 years later, only to embark on a new journey within two years, this time accompanied by young Marco.

24 years of traveling

In 1271, Marco Polo left Venice for a journey to the east. He passed through Armenia, Persia, Central Asia and the Gobi Desert, all along the Silk Road to China until he reached the capital and court of Kublai Khan in 1275. For 16 years after that, at the request of the Emperor, he traveled to the largest cities and the most remote regions of China, Burma and India, teaching the ways of Kublia’s capital and reporting to the Emperor the customs of his people. As time went by, Marco Polo mastered Chinese and became an official of the Privy Council. The Polos stayed in Khan’s court for 17 years before they started fearing their fate if Kublai were to die, so they prayed to the Emperor to let them go. But when they returned to Venice, it was to find a city in conflict with Genoa. On September 8, 1298, while leading a sea battle between the two powers, Marco Polo was captured. It was to his cellmate, Italian writer Rustichello da Pisa, that Marco told his story.

The Book of Wonders, a travel story

Read across Europe at a time when Europeans knew nothing about the Far East, the book by Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa became a sensation…and an exceptional source of travel wisdom. At first, many viewed the book as fiction, a chivalric fable with its tales and descriptions of fantastical animals, but soon people realized the book told a true story because many geographical details could be verified. In the end, the role of Marco Polo’s story in influencing travel in the Middle Age and Renaissance can’t be undermined. It contributed to European mapmakers and explorers establishing new routes to the East, including Christopher Columbus who sailed west in an attempt to find a new route to India.

Finding a new route to India

The adventures of Christopher Columbus

Who was he?

Son of a wool merchant and born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451, Christopher Columbus was a geography enthusiast from a very young age. He was convinced it was possible to reach Asia by sailing west, across the Atlantic, instead of crossing the African continent. After several rejections of his ideas, Christopher Columbus found a sympathetic audience in Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile who agreed to sponsor his expedition. And so he set out to conquer his dream and discover a new route to the Indies. He adhered to the thesis that Earth is round, and he made several trips across the Atlantic to reach Asia. Of his four voyages across the ocean, Christopher Columbus never reached India, but he came across many countries on the American continent.

The origin of his voyages

Towards the end of the 15th century, it was nearly impossible to travel to Asia from Europe by land. The route was long and arduous, and after several voyages in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas,Christopher Columbus had an idea: To devise a route for a westward sea passage to the Orient. His idea was rejected by many, including King John II of Portugal and monarchs from Genoa and Venice, but he persevered, taking his idea for a three-ship voyage to the Spanish royal court of Queen Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. After a first refusal in 1490, the king and queen finally agreed to finance his expedition in 1492, convinced by the promise of fortune and the opportunity to export Catholicism to lands across the globe. In August 1492, Christopher Columbus left Spain from the port of Palos de la Frontera with three ships and sailed west across the Atlantic. That time, he landed on an island in the present-day Bahamas, believing it to be Japan.

Christopher Columbus and America

It was on October 12, 1492, after 36 days of sailing, that Christopher Columbus set foot on an island. There, him and his crew encountered a timid but friendly group of natives who were open to trade. He was convinced he reached the Indies, calling the people he met “Indians” and claiming the island for Spain. Christopher Columbus also noticed the bits of gold the natives wore for adornment, and the inhabitants let him believe that the neighbouring island of Cuba, just a few kilometres away, would be full of gold. Christopher Columbus rushed there and declared it Spanish property too. Columbus and his men also continued their journey through present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, before sailing back home. In 1493, at the request of the queen, he set off on a second expedition, that time with considerably more resources. On this voyage, he discovered the Lesser Antilles and Puerto Rico.

His third and last voyages

In May 1498, Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic for the third time. The journey took more time to organize because the Catholic kings were busy fighting off the ambitions of the French in Italy. Columbus also had a specific mission for his expedition: To discover the lands south of the West Indies. That time, he landed in Trinidad and the South American mainland before returning to Haiti, where he founded a colony on his first voyage, but when he got there, he found a settlement deteriorated to the point of near-mutiny. Concerned about the colony’s mismanagement, the King of Spain sent a royal official to arrest Columbus and bring him back to Spain where he was put on trial. The charges were later dropped, and in 1502, Columbus went on what would be his last voyage, and of which little is known. He returned to Spain in 1504, weakened and empty-handed, after encountering storms and hostile natives along the way. He died in Valladolid in 1506, still convinced that he had discovered the Indies. Although none of his four expeditions included a stop on the coast of present-day Colombia, the region was named after the explorer by liberator of South America Simon Bolivar.

The Portuguese discovery of a sea route to India

The adventures of Vasco da Gama

Who was he?

Six years after the expeditions of Christopher Columbus, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama decided to succeed where Columbus failed, and find a sea route to India by sailing around Africa. Vasco da Gama, born circa 1460, is considered the first European explorer to discover a sea route to India, completing a mission that started a few years earlier with Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias who, in 1488, sailed around the southern tip of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope in a voyage that showed the Atlantic and Indian Oceans flowed into each other. Vasco da Gama wanted to take his expedition further and reach India to break the monopoly that the Republic of Venice had over the lucrative trade centers of the country through alliances with the Byzantine Empire. India was, at the time, a land of many riches, with its spices, precious stones, textiles and rice.

The first expedition of Vasco da Gama

In 1497, King Manuel I of Portugal chose Vasco da Gama to lead a fleet to India in search of a maritime route from Western Europe to the East. At the time, the Portuguese had already been exploring the lands along the west coast of Africa for over a century. That July, Vasco da Gama sailed from Lisbon with four vessels and 200 crew members, taking advantage of the prevailing winds to travel south the coast of Africa. Around the Cape of Good Hope, he was met by unfavorable currents and a storm, so he veered far off into the southern Atlantic before finally being able to round Africa’s southern tip in late November. Thereafter, he headed north, along Africa’s eastern coast, making several stops along the way before reaching India. 

The discovery of a new sea route

More than a year after leaving Portugal, Vasco da Gama reached the southwest coast of India in May 1498, in what is now the coastal city of Kozhikode in the Indian state of Kerala. And just like that, a sea route from Europe to the East was opened, but the Portuguese explorer did not stop there, and tried to conclude a treaty for future trades, but the overture was not well received by the ruler of Calicut who was disappointed by the collection of relatively cheap goods Vasco da Gama offered as an arrival gift. This conflict, along with the hostility from the Muslim traders, led Vasco da Gama to return to Portugal after just three months in India. Upon his return to Portugal, he was given a hero’s welcome and made an admiral with authority over the country’s trade with India. In 1502, King Manuel once again sent Vasco da Gama to India to further secure Portugal’s dominance in the region. 

His second voyage to India

In 1502, Vasco Da Gama left Lisbon with 20 armed ships under his command, this time loaded with gold and silver brought back from America. This is how he hoped to convince the ruler of Kozhikode to accept the trade treaty he refused in 1498. He did not, however, have the same exact ambitions as the King of Portugal, who sent Vasco da Gama on a mission that was more religious and a demonstration of power than for trade purposes. As these two objectives were not achieved, the expedition was considered a failure by the king. Vasco da Gama fell from grace and had his rights over India withdrawn. This second expedition, nonetheless, marked the beginning of the Portuguese colonial empire and established important Portuguese trading posts along the east coast of Africa. After some 20 years at home, in 1524, Vasco da Gama once again set sail for India, this time with the title of Viceroy to help deal with the increasing corruption of the Portuguese officials there. Soon after arriving, he fell ill and died from an unnamed illness on December 24, 1524, in Cochin, India. 

The story of the first circumnavigation of the Earth

The adventures of Ferdinand Magellan

Who was he?

A Portuguese-born navigator and one of the greatest explorers of his time, Ferdinand Magellan made the first circumnavigation of the world, sailing from Spain and around South America in a historic journey inspired by the life of Christopher Columbus. He discovered what is today an important navigational route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and which would later be named after him. The “Strait of Magellan”, shorter and more sheltered than the previously used open-sea Drake Passage, remains one of his most useful findings. On March 17, 1521, Ferdinand Magellan was killed in a battle with the local chieftains on the Philippine Islands.

His first expeditions to the Orient

Born in 1480 in Porto to a family of Portuguese nobility, young Ferdinand Magellan was a page in the royal court of the queen of Portugal, where he learnt skills like navigation and astronomy, and found a love for the sea and exploration. Before the historic journey that made him famous, Magellan made several expeditions to the East Indies, including one for which he left Lisbon in 1505 and sailed to India under the command of Francisco de Almeida. They were sent by King Manuel I to break Muslim sea power in India and Africa. He also joined subsequent expeditions and battles between 1506 and 1512. In 1513, Magellan was sent to Morocco in Northern Africa to take the city of Azemmour, southwest of present-day Casablanca. While in Morocco, he was accused of illegal trade, and although he was later proven innocent, the incident ruined his reputation with the Portuguese king. Upon his return to Portugal, Magellan nurtured the wish to command a voyage to the Spice Islands, which he believed he could reach by sailing west. Aware that he would not get any support from King Manuel I, Magellan turned to King Charles I of Spain.

Setting sail for the “Spice Route”

The Spanish King was very interested in funding what would become Magellan’s great voyage around the world. After all, he’d been nurturing a dream of his own for several years: To reach Asia by sailing westwards, and share in the valuable spice trade from the Moluccas, but the Portuguese controlled the eastwards route round southern Africa. After two years of preparation, a fleet of five ships and some 400 men set sail from Seville in August 1519. Magellan sailed along the African coast and continued into the Atlantic, reaching Guanabara Bay in southeastern Brazil in mid-December. Magellan’s fleet continued down the coast of South America, looking for a passage that connected one ocean to the other but the journey became difficult, and he was forced to take shelter in the bay of Port St. Julian for several months before he continued south and finally found the passage he was looking for. The crossing of the strait, later named the Strait of Magellan, proved to be long and difficult, and took more than a month. The expedition finally reached the new ocean, hitherto unknown to Europeans, in November 1520 and Magellan named it “Pacific” for its apparent peacefulness. Once through the strait, Magellan continued northward, up the coast of Chile, determined to reach the Spice Islands. He reached the Philippine archipelago in March 1521, landing on the island of Cebu.

The death of Magellan

On the Philippine Islands, Magellan and his men interacted with the natives, seeking to convert them to Christianity and helping the native chief of Cebu to establish his dominance on the nearby island of Mactan. So he took a group of his men to attack Mactan, and on April 27, 1521, Ferdinand Magellan was killed in the battle. After the death of their captain, two ships were hastened to sea while a third was set on fire. Only one of the two ships succeeded in sailing across the Indian Ocean and around Africa to reach Spain on September 6, 1522. The ship thus became the first in history to circumnavigate the world, and although Magellan died in the Philippines, he is recognized as the first European to do so too. In addition to the feat accomplished by one of his ships, his expedition gave Europeans a much better understanding of the extent of Earth’s size. He also contributed to the development of trade between America and East Asia.

For the story of our next great explorer, follow this link.


About Nimah Koussa

The best part about being a travel writer is bringing cities and destinations to life: their stories, secret addresses, luxurious gems and unique holiday moments. And I have been one for a little more than 10 years. From the best bars and restaurants in different cities of the world to hotels where you can check-in to get away from it all, this Magazine is all about making every trip just a bit more meaningful.

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