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11 of History’s Most Famous Sea Voyages

Julie Fogerson
Explorer Ferdinand Magellan didn't quite get all the way around the globe.
Explorer Ferdinand Magellan didn't quite get all the way around the globe. / Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images
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Throughout history, sea travel in the name of exploration, trade, and research has provided a watery road to modern globalism. We have always wondered at the waves, finding ways to wade deeper and wander further: The world’s oldest known boat, the Pesse canoe, dates to around 8000 BCE; there is evidence Egyptians began sailing around 4000 BCE; and the Phoenicians are credited with ship-building expertise that allowed them to circumnavigate Africa in 600 BCE. Here are 11 incredible sea voyages and voyagers that helped advance our understanding of the world.

1. Leif Erikson’s Voyage to North America // c. 1000

Born in 970, Norse explorer Leif Erikson was the second son of Erik the Red, a native of Iceland who colonized Greenland around 980. According to Viking sagas written a few centuries after the events, Erikson heard about an unfamiliar land to the west of Greenland and went to investigate it, eventually landing with a small crew on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland. Though the settlement didn't last long, archaeological evidence and the sagas suggest that Erikson’s Vikings were the first Europeans to set foot in North America.

2. Zheng He’s Seven Diplomatic Voyages // 1405-1433

Beginning life as Ma Sanbao in 1371, Zheng He grew up in a prosperous Muslim family in China. When he was about 10, he was captured during Emperor Hong Wu’s attack on his city and made to serve as a court eunuch. He eventually rose up the ranks, becoming a valued diplomat and commander of the Ming Dynasty’s navy. He embarked on his first voyage in 1405, commanding the emperor’s enormous fleet of “treasure ships.” Some of the hundreds of vessels were 400 feet in length, and the whole armada was crewed by 28,000 sailors. During his seven expeditions to lands surrounding the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, Zheng He helped spread China’s culture and political influence. Chinese emigration increased, as did tributes to Chinese leaders. Upon Zheng He’s death in 1433, and the establishment of a new emperor, the expeditions’ ships and logs were destroyed. This ended the “golden era” of Chinese sea exploration, making room for Europeans.

3. Ferdinand Magellan’s Circumnavigation of the Globe // 1519-1522

Engraving showing a map of two sides of the world with Ferdinand Magellan
"The two sides of the globe." Ferdinand Magellan and Willem C. Schouten are both holding protractors above the maps. / Imagno/Getty Images

Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage is credited with being first to circumnavigate the globe. In 1519, approximately 260 men and five ships set sail from Spain, searching for a western route to the Spice Islands (in modern-day Indonesia). Magellan named the Pacific Ocean (Pacific means “peaceful”) and discovered the Strait of Magellan at the bottom of South America by accident (it's still used to this day for navigation between the Atlantic and Pacific). While Magellan deserves his due for masterminding the voyage, a poison arrow ended him in 1521 upon his arrival in the Philippines. According to some historians, Enrique, an enslaved Malay man in Magellan’s crew, completed the circumnavigation first, albeit over more than one voyage, before Magellan’s remaining 18 crewmembers made it back to Spain in 1522.

4. “Pirate Queen” Grace O’Malley’s Defense of Ireland // c. 1546-1586

Irish seafarer Gráinne Ní Mháille, a.k.a. Grace O’Malley, a.k.a. Ireland’s pirate queen, is considered one of the last Irish clan rulers to fight against English domination in Ireland. Born in 1530, Grace began her high-stakes, high seas career at age 11, when Ireland was ruled by about 40 Gaelic clans (the O’Malley clan motto was “powerful by land and by sea”). When her father died, it was Grace and not her elder brother who became clan leader, managing two galleys, 20 ships, and more than 200 men to plunder coastal strongholds and defend against English encroachment. When Grace negotiated the release of prisoners and seized land with Queen Elizabeth I, she demanded an audience as an equal. A respected matriarch in her time, she was omitted from history for centuries. Today, she is celebrated for her leadership at sea.

5. The Sea Venture’s Adventure // 1609-1610

The Sea Venture has been dubbed “the shipwreck that saved Jamestown” and inspired William Shakespeare while he wrote The Tempest. The ship, part of a convoy sent from England in 1609, was supposed to resupply the desperate Virginia colony. But when it sailed straight into a hurricane and rammed a reef around then-uninhabited Bermuda, the Sea Venture’s adventure appeared to be over. However, all 150 souls aboard survived by swimming to shore and set about building two new ships to take them the rest of the way. The castaways arrived in Jamestown about 10 months later. Their story of survival not only restored England’s desire to make its American colony a success; it also led to the second English colony established in the Americas—not in New England, but in Bermuda.

6. The Mayflower’s Arrival in North America // 1620

Painting of pilgrims boarding the Mayflower
"Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower for their voyage to America," after a painting by Bernard Gribble (1872 - 1962) / Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

The Mayflower, a second-hand merchant ship carrying 102 passengers, left Plymouth, England, for North America in 1620. Forty of the passengers were Protestant separatists (later known as Pilgrims) who sought to establish a colony in America where they could practice their religion freely. They had permission to settle anywhere on the coast between the Chesapeake Bay and New York Harbor. But two miserable months after launch, the Mayflower landed in New England, about one degree of latitude north of where it was meant to be. The colonists named the new settlement Plymouth, drafted a document to set guidelines for self-governance, and launched a historic experiment in democracy and religious freedom.

7. The Three Voyages of James Cook // 1768-1780

James Cook vowed to sail “as far as I think it possible for man to go” and ended up mapping more territory than any other mariner of his era. He joined the British Royal Navy in his twenties, and in 1767 produced a chart of Newfoundland that was so accurate it was still being used in the 20th century. Cook led his first exploratory expedition in 1768, destined for the South Pacific to observe the transit of Venus and to chart New Zealand, Tasmania, and parts of Australia. He came quite close to spotting Antarctica during a second circumnavigation to explore and map several South Pacific islands. In 1776, on his third and last epic voyage, Cook came within 50 miles of the western entrance to the Northwest Passage in the Bering Strait. He was the first European commander to visit Hawaii, where friction increased between his crew and the local people; Cook was killed by Native Hawaiians in 1779 and the expedition concluded without him the following year. Among his countless observations and discoveries, Cook found that fresh fruits seemed to prevent scurvy, without knowing just how the remedy worked.

8. The Wreck of the Whaler Essex // 1820

Another voyage serving up literary inspiration is the tale of the Essex. An 87-foot whaling ship, the Essex was built of incredibly strong white oak and fitted for a 2.5-year voyage. It left Nantucket in 1819, made its way around Cape Horn, and headed into the South Pacific. On November 20, 1820, an 85-foot sperm whale rammed the ship twice and caused it to sink, serving some small measure of justice on behalf of his species (numbering 300,000 today from an estimated 1.1 million prior to whaling). While the 20 crewmembers initially survived, they drifted in boats across the open ocean for three months and eventually resorted to cannibalism. Only eight made it home. Herman Melville based the climactic scene in Moby-Dick on the Essex tragedy.

9. Charles Darwin’s Voyage on the HMS Beagle // 1831-1836

Picture of the HMS Beagle lying on the beach for repairs
HMS 'Beagle' laid ashore, Rio Santa Cruz, Patagonia, South America, 1834 (1839). / The Print Collector/Getty Images

Charles Darwin said his education “really began aboard the Beagle.” A fresh university graduate at age 22, Darwin paused his planned career as a clergyman and joined the Beagle as its naturalist. Setting sail in 1831, the ship’s mission was to journey around the world, surveying the South American coast and conducting chronometric studies. Time spent in the Galápagos truly informed Darwin’s theories on evolution, providing an opportunity to observe species development in an isolated environment. Darwin also considered coral, recording geological observations about islands and coastlines. And the Beagle, commanded by Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy, achieved its goal of accurately charting the coast of South America, including the Strait of Magellan's dangerous shoals.

10. Ernest Shackleton’s Miraculous Endurance // 1914-1916

Anglo-Irish mariner Ernest Shackleton first sailed to Antarctica in 1901 on a mission to reach the South Pole, which ended with a bad case of scurvy. He would come within 97 nautical miles of the pole on his second expedition. But it was his third venture aboard the Endurance for which he is most famous. In 1914, he led a crew of 28 men intending to be the first to cross Antarctica by land, but the ship became trapped in pack ice for 10 months and sank on November 21, 1915. The crew set up camp on ice floes, drifted on treacherous seas, and washed up on an uninhabited polar island. Shackleton and five men then sailed 800 miles across the planet’s most rambunctious seas for rescue. All hands succeeded in their revised mission: survival. Shackleton’s story serves as a lesson in leadership against all odds and overcoming outrageous obstacles.

11. Thor Heyerdahl’s Maritime Experiment in the Kon-Tiki and More // 1947-1978

Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian ethnologist, mounted several transoceanic scientific expeditions. His expeditions on the Kon-Tiki, a balsa-wood raft launched in 1947, and Ra, a copy of an Egyptian reed boat crewed in 1969, proved the possibility of ancient contact between distant civilizations. Leaving from Peru, Kon-Tiki reached the South Pacific three and a half months later, lending evidence to the theory that pre-Columbian sailors could have navigated across the Pacific. Ra sailed from Morocco to within 600 miles of Central America and hinted at the possibility that Egyptian mariners could have influenced pre-contact cultures. And in 1977-1978, sailing a reed boat named the Tigris, Heyerdahl suggested that ancient Sumerians could well have reached southwest Asia. His thought-provoking theories are still being debated.

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