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Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)

Columbus insisted throughout his life that he had found some fringe of Asia.  he had no interest in discovering new continents in 1492.  He wanted storied lands of old.  China, India, and Indonesia were the prize destinations sought by European explorers of the late 1400s, not wild new places.  Columbus took some comfort and derived a bit of wealth from the gold he found in the Caribbean, but through the troubled rest of his life, including two more voyages to the New World, he never gave up on the idea that Haiti must be Japan, Cuba was china itself, and South America could be a biblical earthly paradise.  Imagining India nearby, he kept seeking a passage to it.

Ferdinand Magellan (ca. 1480-1521)

Everybody learns in school that Ferdinand Magellan was the first sailor to go around the world, proving that the world is, indeed, round.  Few remember that he conceived the voyage and commanded the mission but never completed it.  Magellan died in May 1521 when he unwisely got involved in a fight between two tribes of natives in the Philippines.  Late the next year only one of his five ships, captained by Juan Sebastian de Elcano and manned by a tattered, starving skeleton crew, arrived back in Spain.  Still, it had been Magellan’s determination that got them through the treacherous strait (named for him) at the southern end of South America and across the Pacific, which he named, mistakenly, for its “calm” waters.

Juan Ponce de Leon (1460-1521)

After joining Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493, Ponce de Leon became Spanish governor of both Hispaniola (the island that today includes the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and then Puerto Rico.  Puerto Rican natives told him a legend of a spring on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas that would make anyone who drank its water young again.  Trying to find this island and its miraculous fountain of youth, Ponce de Leon landed instead on the east coast of Florida.  Not knowing he had found the North American continent, he named the new “island” for the time of year and for its lush plant life (Pascua Florida is Spanish for “Flowers Easter”).  On his next visit to Florida, Ponce’s quest for the fountain of youth was tragically cut short when he was hit by a Seminole arrow.

Sir John Franklin (1786-1847)

Franklin, late in his career as a British navy officer and explorer, set off in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, a northern water route from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  He died lost midway between the oceans.  By 1850 every member of his expedition was starving or frozen.  After ice trapped their two ships, sinking one, crew members set off on foot.  Remains of a few were found years later near a waterway that connected with the Pacific.  Franklin failed, but the many expeditions sent to find his missing party learned a great deal more about the geography of the far north.  So, indirectly, his voyage proved the Northwest Passage really existed.  Ronald Amundsen of Norway finally sailed it successfully in 1905.