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5 Great British Explorers

Posted in Uncategorised on 13th June 2022

Author - Jo Foster

Some of the most legendary explorers in history hailed from the United Kingdom.

© fibPhoto / Shutterstock

The Great British explorers have travelled all over the globe discovering new lands and making sense of a once unknown and confusing world.

1. James Cook

As the most famous British explorer, James Cook, the cartographer, navigator and Royal Navy captain, undertook three dangerous sea voyages between 1768 and 1779. He travelled across the Pacific Ocean and made his way to Australia and New Zealand.

He was in naval service during the Seven Years’ War and his mapping skills interested the Admiralty and the Royal Society. This led to Cook becoming commander of HMS Endeavour in 1766 for the first of his three voyages of discovery.

Sailing thousands of miles across uncharted waters, he mapped the land from Hawaii to New Zealand, recording Pacific islands and coastlines on European maps thanks to his superior surveying and cartographic skills, seamanship courage and leadership skills.

Sadly, Cook’s life came to a violent end, at the age of 51, in 1779, during his third voyage across the Pacific. He died in conflict with a local tribal chief amid claims his crew had stolen wood from a burial ground. His legacy of geographic and scientific knowledge influenced future explorers in the 20th century.

2. Sir Francis Drake

Born in 1540 in Tavistock, Dartmoor, Sir Francis Drake was a famous sea captain, explorer, naval officer and politician. Famous today for circumnavigating the world in one single expedition, between 1577 and 1580, this included claiming New Albion for England.

Sailing along the western coast of the Americas, he inadvertently launched an era of conflict with the Spanish, as Western ships had not reached most of this coastline before. Queen Elizabeth I awarded a knighthood to Drake in 1581. He received it on his famous galleon, the Golden Hind, which he had captained for his round-the-world voyage.

While serving as a vice-admiral, he was victorious, leading the English fleet in a battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588. He attained hero status among the English public, but sadly, he died of dysentery in January 1596, at the age of just 56.

3. Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Morton Stanley, born in 1841 in Denbigh, Wales, was a legendary soldier, explorer, journalist, politician and author. His most famous expedition was to Central Africa in search of the missionary, David Livingstone, in 1871. On finding him in Ujiji, at Lake Tanganyika, Stanley said the famous words, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

Stanley is also known for his expeditions to find the sources of the Congo and Nile rivers as an agent of the Belgian king, Leopold II. He also commanded the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in 1886, leading troops through hazardous regions of central Africa to rescue Pasha, the besieged governor of Equatoria, during the Mahdist War.

Stanley received a knighthood in 1897 from Queen Victoria. He served in Parliament between 1895 and 1900 as the Liberal Unionist member for Lambeth North. Stanley is recognised for his contribution to increasing knowledge of Central Africa in the Western world. He is also remembered for his determined opposition of the slave trade in Africa. He died in May 1904 at the age of 63.

4. William Adams

Born in 1564, in Gillingham, Kent, William Adams was a famous navigator who became the first Englishman to sail to Japan. In 1600, he led a five-ship Dutch expedition on the highly dangerous expedition into the unknown. Arriving in Japan, after suffering some losses at sea, Adams and his second mate, Jan Joosten, settled there.

Some of the crew, including Melchior van Santvoort and Jacob Quaeckernaeck, sailed back to the Dutch Republic to establish a trade agreement. Adams and Joosten became two of the first Western Samurai – something that very rarely happens, even today.

Adams became an advisor to the Shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan’s military leader. He also guided the construction of Japan’s first Western-style ships and was instrumental in setting up trading with the Netherlands and England.

He died in Hirado, north of Nagasaki, Japan, in 1620, at the age of 55. He is recognised as arguably the most influential foreigner in Japan during this era. His grave is still marked at his burial place in Nagasaki.

5. Richard Francis Burton

Richard Francis Burton was born in 1821 in Torquay. The English explorer, soldier, scholar and writer was famous for his expeditions to Africa, Asia and the Americas. He had a wide knowledge of different languages and cultures and reportedly spoke 29 languages.

His most famous pilgrimage was to Mecca in 1853, when he had to travel in disguise, as Europeans were forbidden from going to the famous holy city. Had he been discovered; this would have been punishable by the death penalty. He was also known for translating the famous book of Middle Eastern folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights – better known as The Arabian Nights.

Travelling with companion John Hanning Speke to the Great Lakes of Africa, he became the first Europeans to visit the region. He was also vociferous in criticising colonialism and the policies of the British Empire, speaking out, even though his views were detrimental to furthering his own career.

He wrote many books and scholarly articles, sharing remarkable information and observations. He collected material for around 30 years. The Royal Geographical Society commissioned him to explore the east coast of Africa, including Lake Tanganyika, a region largely unknown to Europeans. He also served as British consul in Equatorial Guinea, Brazil, Syria and Italy. He was awarded a knighthood in 1886.

Modern day explorers

While the great era of discovery is generally accepted as being between the 16th and 19th centuries, modern day explorers are determined to take adventuring to new heights. They are setting themselves new challenges, from diving deeper in the world’s oceans to ascending the highest mountains in the quickest time possible.

Modern explorers are taking full advantage of the latest technology and equipment to embark on new extreme adventures. Mountaineering, rock climbing, cave diving, big mountain free-skiing and Antarctic expeditions are among the modern challenges explorers are taking on.

A name to look out for in the future is Andrzej Bargiel, the Polish mountain climber and professional free skier. He became the first person to descend the world’s second tallest mountain (the 28,251 ft K2, in Kashmir’s Karakoram range) on skis in 2018 – a feat that was previously believed to be impossible!

Can anyone be an explorer?

Most dangerous expeditions are best left to the professionals. However, anyone can be an explorer, as long as safety procedures are adhered to, and the trips are properly led by people with the relevant skills and experience.

The staples of any expedition include taking the right equipment and being prepared for all weathers. Even in summer, you’ll need a sturdy tent and sleeping bag. It’s also a good idea to take a camping stove. While travelling light is a good idea, so is a hot meal at the end of the day.

Finally, make sure you have the appropriate walking and hiking gear including comfortable, waterproof boots or shoes, a waterproof jacket and other garments appropriate to the time of year. While you may not make any discoveries that will go down in history, exploring is a fascinating and healthy pastime that’s good for the body and soul, particularly now summer is here. It can also be an extremely cost-effective means of taking a holiday!

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