8 Historic Explorers Who Changed the World

What motivates explorers? What sort of person is driven to risk their life to discover something new about the world?

The explorers below were motivated by many factors. Many were driven by nationalism, or faith, or personal pride.

Although their actions were not always honorable, all of them expanded the scope of human knowledge, and left a lasting impact.

1) James Cook

If it wasn’t for Captain Cook, Australia and New Zealand might not be part of the English speaking world.

The map of his many voyages of explorations is a tangled squiggle of lines traversing the world’s oceans.

However, despite the unprecedented scale and scope of Cook’s voyages, some of his biggest historical impacts were related to practical innovations and technological developments.

Cook circumnavigated the world without losing a sailor to scurvy and pioneered developments in measuring latitude and longitude.

He also included several scientists on his voyages, whose observations greatly increased the scope of knowledge in Great Britain and beyond.

2) David Livingstone

Livingstone was a missionary who ventured deep into Africa, setting the stage for other Europeans to follow.

Unlike many other explorers, Livingstone was a humble man, respectful to the native people he encountered.

His unassuming manner enabled him to safely travel in areas where bigger and brasher expeditions might incite conflict.

Livingstone is most famous for his encounter with his fellow explorer Henry Stanley, and the apocryphal greeting “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Tim Rogers

3) Vasco de Gama

The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama was one of the first Europeans to muscle in on traditional trade routes and aggressively promote European interests in the Indian Ocean.

He commanded the first fleet of trading ships to sail directly from Europe to India, leaving Portugal in the summer of 1497.

Despite his accomplishments, however, Vasco de Gama’s success is overshadowed by his horrific capacity for cruelty, especially towards Muslims.

In one infamous incident, he ordered the burning of a captured Arab ship with over 400 people trapped in its hold, including dozens of women and children.

El Bibliomata

4) Hernan Cortes

Influential explorers were not always nice people, a fact demonstrated by Vasco de Gama and underscored by his Spanish contemporary Hernan Cortes.

More than anyone else, Cortes is responsible for the fact that Spanish is now the lingua franca in most of Central America.

Like his fellow Spanish explorer Pizarro, who conquered the Incas, Cortes oversaw the conquest of the once-mighty Aztec empire.

After capturing the Aztec leader, Montezuma, Cortes speedily oversaw the enslavement of the native population.

El Bibliomata

5) Admiral Zheng

Admiral Zheng was a Chinese navigator who explored the sea routes of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean a century before European explorers like Vasco de Gama.

The Admiral’s success was due in part to his command of the Arabic language, which helped his efforts at diplomacy.

Zheng He was a Muslim, or Chinese Hui, who hailed from Yunnan Province in the southwest of China.

As the historian Gavin Menzies suggests in his fascinating book 1421, there is the possibility that Zheng’s fleet actually sailed all the way to America, and that records of that pre-Columbian voyage were lost or destroyed when Chinese rulers decided to pursue an isolationist foreign policy.

Hassan Saeed

6) Pythéas

No one knows exactly where Pythéas traveled, and his original writings have been lost, but there’s little doubt that he was one of the first ancient Greeks to explore Great Britain.

The descriptions of geography, culture, weather, and resources that Pythéas brought home to the Greek Empire were the foundation for later expeditions to the North Atlantic, culminating in the conquest of the British Isles by the Romans.


7) Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta was an Islamic scholar and explorer who traversed much of the Islamic world, along with forays to China, India, Southeast Asia and East Africa.

Battuta is often referred to as an Arab, but he was actually a Berber, native to the mountains of Morocco.

His travels began with a traditional religious pilgrimage to Mecca in the year 1325, but unlike most pilgrims, he decided to keep traveling after completing his religious obligations in Saudi Arabia.

Some of Battuta’s observations on travel still ring true for contemporary nomads, especially this bitter-sweet description of reverse culture shock:

“Traveling—it gives you a home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land.”

8) Ola Hanson

One striking characteristic of the Kachin people of northern Burma (now Myanmar) is their Christian faith, which differentiates them from ethnic Burmese, who are predominantly Buddhist.

The Kachins’ conversion to Christianity is largely due to the efforts of Ola Hanson and his wife, who spent 28 years in Kachin State.

In addition to their missionary work, the Hansons created a writing system for the Kachin language and authored a Kachin / English dictionary that is still in use today.

Who would you add to this list of explorers? What do you see as the role of explorers in the 21st century? Join the conversation by adding a comment below!

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Main image photo credit: Okinawa Soba

13 thoughts on “8 Historic Explorers Who Changed the World”

  1. An interesting list, very glad to see Ibn Battuta in the line up. Having read about his journeys the distances he travelled were remarkable, especially given it was the 14th century!

    As for the role of explorers in the day of Google maps, well it’s not about discovery but about firsts and records. The first to walk the length of the Amazon, the youngest to climb Everest and so forth. Either way there will always be great stories told.

    Cheers, Si

  2. In this list I think it might be missing Ferdinand Magellan as he has completed the first circumnavigation of the Earth.

  3. @ Andi – you’re right – it would have been good to include some female explorers. Gertrude Bell is a good one, as is Alexandra David-Neel.

  4. Nominate Neil Armstrong for his first step upon the moon. He is most surely a historic explorer of the modern era, and his accomplishment transcends the records of so many who went before him.

  5. fam, I think you forgot who Christopher Columbus is my dude lol, he is the person who found northamerica just like how james cook found austraila.

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